War on Drugs

Marijuana Legalization in California Has Gone Miserably, So Officials Are Expanding Drug Enforcement

The Golden State promises a progressive, environmentally conscious, labor-friendly war on weed.


California Attorney General Rob Bonta has announced nearly a million marijuana plants were eradicated in a multi-agency 13-week enforcement effort to stop illegal grow operations across the state. Furthermore, this annual three-month program, first launched in 1983, is going to be transformed into an ongoing task force.

California's marijuana legalization has gone so poorly that the state is actually expanding the drug war.

The enforcement program Bonta refers to is the state's Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP). It was founded as part of the war on drugs to try to tackle the many illegal marijuana grow operations across a massive state with huge swathes of undeveloped land.

The data itself is a fascinating look at how little drug legalization means when a state's regulatory systems are so oppressive that it undermines the legal market. In 1984, CAMP's first full year of operation, the program was responsible for the eradication of 158,000 marijuana plants. In 2022, after almost 40 years of a drug war and eight years of legalization in the state, that number has grown to 974,000 plants, spread across 449 operations in 26 counties, according to the October 11 announcement from Bonta's office.

Despite the bragging tone of Bonta's release, full of quotes from various agency heads about how awesome it is to work together to "bring a whole government approach to combating the damage caused by illegal marijuana cultivation on public lands," the state is by no means winning this struggle. The numbers show that California has both failed to make a dent in illegal marijuana growth during the drug war that launched CAMP, and it has also failed to make a dent in illegal marijuana growth after the drug was made legal.

As Bonta announced CAMP's annual numbers, he also announced that this 39-year-old drug war relic will "transition" into something EPIC. I'm not kidding. It's called the Eradication and Prevention of Illicit Cannabis (EPIC) task force.

Under legalization, California is actually expanding the scope of this enforcement system far beyond what it was under prohibition.

Bonta has been attempting to rebrand the drug war to make it seem modern and very, very progressive. There are no references to "cartels" in his release, no mentions of any arrests at all (unlike this report from 1988 that emphasizes the number of arrests along with the seizures of guns and vehicles), and, fortunately, no fearmongering about the effects of marijuana use or protecting children from the scourge of drug predators.

Instead, the transition to EPIC seems to be an attempt to characterize the drug war as a progressive law enforcement measure to protect California's undeveloped wildlands and enforce the state's employment regulations. "With the transition to EPIC, we're taking the next step and building out our efforts to address the environmental and economic harms and labor exploitation associated with this underground market," Bonta writes.

This is how Bonta has talked about marijuana enforcement since taking office last year. While there's no sensationalism or exaggerated lists of effects of drug use, there's a list of all the toxic chemicals associated with these illegal grow operations and mention of fears of the state's water supply being diverted. There's anger at how the black market grow operations undermine the state's extremely union-friendly laws with cheaper labor.

To be clear, many of these illegal grow operations are indeed dangerous and have resulted in predatory and violent behavior. The way that California has legalized marijuana—with exorbitantly high taxes and corruption-fueling local control mechanisms—has fueled the same dangerous black market the state saw under prohibition.

That also means that these new enforcement measures probably aren't going to accomplish Bonta's goal of eliminating illegal grow operations any more than the last four decades of drug war enforcement did. It's not a new solution to the problem—it's just rebranding the drug war as a progressive operation.