I remember the excitement a lot of people felt when recreational legalization of cannabis made it to the ballot in California. It felt like a dream come true to so many casual users. The idea of being able to walk into some Willy Wonka style canna-store full of foil packets and glass jars, bright colors and powerful smells – and walk out with bags of your favorite strains without fear was something so many people had imagined but never dreamed would happen. Until it did.
Dispensaries appeared in the outskirts. In once abandoned warehouses and normally undesirable buildings far off in the middle of nowhere. Sure, they were charging you exorbitant taxes, and you had to wait in lines that snaked around the block, but you were buying LEGAL weed! Did any of the rest of it matter, if your weed was finally legal?!
Except. Was it? Was it actually legal? Or did voters get okey-doked into voting for something they didn’t understand – and how has that vote impacted the way things work now?
Domestic Cannabis Eradication
As it currently stands, there are 19 states in the US who have currently legalized marijuana for recreational purposes, along with two US territories, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, and the District of Columbia. Add to that the other 19 states that have cannabis legalized for medical purposes, and 38 of the 50 states in the US have in some form or fashion, deemed cannabis legal to use.
Yet the idea of legal weed, once again, is almost a misleading idea. Despite the amount of states that currently have some form of legal cannabis, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) reported that the Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program (DCE/SP) was busier than ever. Especially, according to reports, in California. In 2020, the DCE/SP was responsible for the eradication of over 4.5 million cannabis plants. In 2021, the number grew by an additional million, bringing the 2021 eradication rate to 5.5 million plants.
It’s not just plants that the DCE/SP goes after, however. In 2020 there were 4,992 arrests and over 41 million dollars in assets seized – and following the trend, in 2021 the arrest rate grew to 6,600 arrests and over 100 million dollars in assets seized.
When you read back the numbers, it can feel a bit… confusing. Even counterintuitive, to the idea of legal cannabis. The reality of it, however, is more that cannabis has now been commercialized and regulated. It’s legal only because the government can profit off it, hence those lovely taxes I talked about earlier. More importantly, while cannabis is legal, medically or recreational, in so many states – federally it is still considered illegal. Hence the ramping up of the DEA’s highly aggressive eradication program.
The Difference Between Legal and Decriminalized
The idea of legalizing cannabis is very different from the idea of decriminalized cannabis. Legal cannabis, if you boil it down to its more bare bones, only removes the legal sanctions against the use. Much like with tobacco, or alcohol, legalization boils down as a way for the individual states to make MILLIONS of dollars off of a plant that they originally were willing to throw people in prison for. Legal cannabis does not, however, mean that you as a citizen are able to grow, distribute, or utilize cannabis without a form of identification and registration with the state. While the penalties for cannabis consumption/possession may have lessened (for some) – the laws became more severe for other cannabis related laws, depending on the state. Which is where the difference lies. To see cannabis decriminalized would mean that the legal sanctions against the substance would be removed, despite the substance still being illegal.
While it may seem like taking a step backwards, decriminalization takes one major component out of the current cannabis market – the government’s ability to regulate it. As the US government and subsequent state governments are not supposed to take part in illegal activities, they would be unable to insert themselves into cannabis.
One thing is for sure though, the DEA’s DCE/SP shows no signs of slowing in their year by year eradication, arrests, and seizure of assets – of a plant that is ‘legal’ in a majority of the states.
As an addendum – the state with the highest arrest/seizure/eradication rate? California.
Marijuana is the only major drug of abuse grown within the U.S. borders. The DEA is aggressively striving to halt the spread of cannabis cultivation in the United States. To accomplish this, the DEA initiated the Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program (DCE/SP), which is the only nationwide law enforcement program that exclusively targets Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTO) involved in cannabis cultivation.
The DCE/SP began funding eradication programs in Hawaii and California in 1979. The program rapidly expanded to include programs in 25 states by 1982. By 1985, the number of states participating in the DCE/SP had increased tremendously. In 2020, the DEA continued its nation-wide cannabis eradication efforts, providing resources to support the 126 state and local law enforcement agencies that actively participate in the program. This assistance allows the enhancement of already aggressive eradication enforcement activities throughout the nation. In 2020, the DCE/SP was responsible for the eradication of 3,711,040 cultivated outdoor cannabis plants and 830,922 indoor plants for a total of 4,541,962 marijuana plants. In addition, the DCE/SP accounted for 4,992 arrests and the seizure in excess of 41.0 million dollars of cultivator assets. The program also removed 3,193 weapons from cannabis cultivators.
The success of the DCE/SP is directly attributed to the decision of the participating agencies to share intelligence, technology and manpower. In many areas of the U.S., cultivators have been forced to abandon large outdoor cannabis plots in favor of smaller, better concealed illicit gardens. Cultivators are also growing indoor and outdoor cannabis under the cover of various legal cannabis grows based on state regulation.
Additionally, cultivators have turned to sophisticated technology to cultivate cannabis plants indoors. The use of hydroponics (growing plants in a nutrient laden solution rather than conventional soil) and other technological advances have enabled cultivators to increase the potency of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis plants. Despite cultivator efforts, the DEA and the cooperating DCE/SP agencies continue to identify and eliminate cannabis grow sites throughout the United States. A growing trend is the extraction of THC using various methods such as the Butane method which has seen an increase of grow sites exploding due to this volatile method of extracting THC.
Chicana journalist, editor, educator, and organizer in Sacramento whose sole focus is to shed light on stories on our most impacted and marginalized communities, but even more importantly, for those stories to humanize those normally left out. She is an Ida B Wells Investigative Journalism Fellow 2022 Finalist, a member of the Parenting Journalists Society, and has bylines in The Courier, The Sacramento Bee, The Americano, Submerge Magazine among others.