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Unlicensed and Open for Business 

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The California Attorney General's Office announced earlier this week that, under its leadership, the multi-agency Campaign Against Marijuana Planting has eradicated almost 1 million cannabis plants from 345 unlicensed grow sites throughout the state this year. Additionally, it reports it has seized 168 "weapons" and arrested 148 people as a part of the campaign.

"Illegal cannabis grows are devastating our communities," said Attorney General Xavier Becerra in a press release. "Criminals who disregard life, poison our waters, damage our public lands and weaponize the illegal cannabis black market will be brought to justice."

That's all well and good. While we'd prefer to see civil fines and forfeitures used as tools to bring unlawful actors into compliance, we understand that's not a viable solution to trespass grows, which continue to dewater streams, poison wildlife and flood cannabis markets with cheap, unsafe products.

But notable in the release is what it doesn't include, which is any mention of state efforts to crack down on illicit retailers throughout California who have opened unlicensed shops to peddle off-brand products. While we don't know of any unlicensed retail shops operating locally in Humboldt County (please shoot us an email if you are aware of any), they are prolific elsewhere. In Los Angeles, for example, there are estimated to be hundreds if not thousands — so many that a city task force shuttered 194 in August alone. (Los Angeles County, meanwhile, only has 189 licensed retailers.)

The state Legislature passed Assembly Bill 97 earlier this year, which immediately authorized regulators to dole out $30,000-per-day fines to landlords renting to unlicensed dispensaries. But the state has yet to issue a single fine, California Bureau of Cannabis Control spokesperson Alex Traverso told Leafly.

That's hugely disconcerting.

First off, it puts licensed growers and producers at a huge disadvantage. Not only are they wrestling with added compliance costs and taxes while competing against a robust illicit market, but once their products get to market they now need compete against knock-off storefronts that are indistinguishable and, in many cases, moving half-priced products. That's a problem that has major reverberations all the way up the supply chain to Humboldt County, where growers and producers are dependent on selling their products in the state's major population centers.

But the more troubling aspect might be the risk these shops pose to consumers themselves, most of whom could reasonably be excused for assuming a storefront operating with seeming impunity in the light of day in a major city is above board. Leafly recently stopped at a handful of unlicensed shops in Los Angeles, purchased 10 cannabis vape pen cartridges and had them tested at Anresco Laboratories, a licensed and respected lab in San Francisco. The results were beyond alarming.

The lab tested five of the samples for vitamin E oil, which is widely used as a cutting agent by illicit manufacturers and has been linked by some health officials to the rash of severe vaping-related lung injuries that have sickened nearly 1,500 people across the country, killing some three dozen. Four of the samples came back with substantial levels and the Exotic Carts – Mars OG, the most egregious offender, was found to be 34 percent vitamin E.

The other five samples were tested for pesticides and all registered levels that were off the charts. For example, Dank Vapes – Sour Apple came in at 5,475 times the state limit for chlorfenapyr, according to Leafly, while Cereal Carts – Blueberry Pancake came in at 1,780 times the legal limit for myclobutanil, a popular fungicide that's reportedly harmless when ingested but turns to hydrogen cyanide, a poisonous chemical asphyxiant, when put to heat.

If that sounds dangerous, it is. And while we understand it's hard to keep illicit substances off the streets and online retailers, it seems fair to ask why the hell the state can't do more to keep them out of brick-and-mortar shops. After all, can you imagine the state response if hundreds of illicit moonshine shops were to put up signs and open doors in Los Angeles tomorrow?

What this means for consumers is that they should be extra cautious. Don't assume because you found a dispensary on Weedmaps or one is open and operating in broad daylight that it is licensed. Go to the Bureau of Cannabis Control website to check a dispensary's license and, when in doubt, find a licensed outlet.

The health of the legal industry — and your lungs — might depend on it.

Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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Thadeus Greenson

Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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