Legalizing marijuana, California voters were told last year, would create a “safe, legal and comprehensive system” allowing adults to consume the drug while keeping it out of the hands of children. Marijuana would be sold in highly regulated stores, the Proposition 64 campaign promised, and California would gain new tax revenue by bringing the cannabis marketplace “out into the open.”
Voters overwhelmingly bought the message, with 57 percent approving Proposition 64. But as state regulators prepare to begin offering licenses to marijuana businesses on Jan. 1, it turns out that a huge portion of the state’s weed is likely to remain on the black market.
That’s because California grows a lot more pot than its residents consume, and Proposition 64 makes marijuana legal only within the state’s borders. It also didn’t give an automatic seal of approval to every cannabis grower. Those who want to sell legally must be licensed by the state and comply with detailed rules that require testing plants, labeling packages and tracking marijuana as it moves from farm to bong.
Exactly how much cannabis circulates in California is unknown because most marijuana grows -- and purchases -- have been illegal for so long. But economists hired by the state government estimate that California farms produce about 13.5 million pounds of cannabis each year, while state residents annually consume about 2.5 million pounds. That leaves 11 million pounds of pot that likely flow out of California illegally, according to the economic report commissioned by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which regulates cannabis farmers. Other analyses have similarly found that roughly 80 percent of California-grown marijuana leaves the state.
Even the 2.5 million pounds of marijuana consumed within California won’t all be purchased through state-sanctioned shops when they open; the economists predict about half of it will probably be sold illegally.