Column: Defund the police? California is trying to hire more cannabis cops

WILMINGTON, CALIF. -- TUESDAY, MAY 14, 2019: After LAPD officers conducted a security sweep of an illegal marijuana dispensary, reporters were offered a view of the illegal business before the Department of Water & Power to shut off water and electricity to the dispensary in Wilmington Tuesday, May 14, 2019. City officials are cracking down, passing an ordinance last month that allows the Department of Water and Power to shut off utilities at unlicensed dispensaries. Photos taken in Wilmington, Calif., on May 14, 2019. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Canisters of cannabis sit on a shelf at an illegal cannabis dispensary after LAPD officers conducted a security sweep in Wilmington. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Now about that promise to address structural racism.

It hasn't even been two weeks since Gov. Gavin Newsom, shaken by a night of violent upheaval over the death of George Floyd, stood in front of a camera at a black church in Sacramento and told all of us Californians that government had a duty to fix what was broken.

“The black community is not responsible for what is happening in this country right now," he said. “We are. Our institutions are accountable."

And yet, at a time when “defund the police” has become the mantra for those demanding justice for black lives, state lawmakers are getting ready to pass, and Newsom is presumably getting ready to sign, a budget bill that would shift dozens of sworn law enforcement officers to the Bureau of Cannabis Control — and make way for hiring more.

In all, a consolidated force of about 90 people will be tasked with uprooting California's illegal cannabis market.

Of that number, more than half already work as sworn officers and managers for the Department of Consumer Affairs’ Division of Investigation Cannabis Enforcement Unit. The rest account for open positions, including about 30 jobs for special investigators that will be reclassified for sworn law enforcement officers.

Newsom's administration insists the intent of the bill isn't to turn non-sworn investigators into sworn officers. Rather, the language of it was necessary because the Bureau of Cannabis Control didn't have any officers on staff and needed the additional authority to take them on.

But still.

No one needs to remind anyone — especially Newsom, who championed cannabis legalization as a form of equity — how we got here in the first place. California, like the rest of the U.S., spent years fighting a racist drug war driven by years of over-policing black neighborhoods, leaving us with an even more inequitable criminal justice system.

That said, I actually wouldn't have a problem with this bit of bureaucratic budget magic if these were normal times, instead of one when the social safety net for the state's most vulnerable residents is being ripped to shreds.

I don't doubt the need for additional officers, all working together under one agency to take down the worst scofflaws. However, we're also spending on law enforcement while programs designed to help black and brown entrepreneurs, many of them from neighborhoods devastated by the war on drugs and now reeling from the coronavirus, have been allowed to flounder in almost every major city in this state.

It's just one more sign that California's whole legal weed industry is a mess.

Ever since the first recreational cannabis shops opened in 2018, they have been dogged by an ecosystem of illegal retailers and growers. Last year alone, according to an estimate by BDS Analytics and Arcview Market Research, operators working in the shadows made $8.7 billion, while the sellers who were following the rules made $3.1 billion.

On the ground, that has meant a disparate group of cops at all levels of government are ferreting lawbreaking dispensaries and sophisticated honey oil labs. The 25 or so sworn officers now working for the Department of Consumer Affairs — soon to be under the Bureau of Cannabis Control — have had to handle hundreds of cases across California, most of them in Los Angeles County.

Angelenos, I'm sure, are not surprised.

“It’s way out of control,” said George Tiongson, president of the California Assn. of Criminal Investigators, an affiliate of the union representing the cannabis enforcement officers. “Every time we shut a location down, they either reopen the next day or a day later, and then we have to go shut them down again. It usually takes three or four times.”

Meanwhile, many would-be black and brown cannabis entrepreneurs are still getting jerked around, many of them losing their savings in process.

Many cities have promoted their equity programs. But it wasn't until earlier this year that several cities and counties received funding for grants from the state’s Cannabis Equity Grants Program. But getting those dollars out the door has been a challenge — to say the least. And a number of cities are still trying to run these equity programs on shoestring administrative budgets, creating all sorts of problems.

In Los Angeles, for example, a group sued the city in April, arguing that a process to secure a limited number of licenses was “flawed.” Hundreds of applicants had flooded an online system in September, only to find out later that some applicants got in ahead of the official launch time. An audit later cleared city officials of wrongdoing, saying they took “reasonable and appropriate” steps to prevent any unfair advantage. But it was just one more confusing delay in what has been a series of them.

In Sacramento, the city's equity program sputtered and finally stalled for months amid bickering between City Council members, entrepreneurs and activists. More recently, there have been dust-ups over expanding licensing, given the longstanding cap on dispensaries. There also has been pressure to provide business training to all who want and need it.

In San Francisco, a recent report from the city's Office of the Controller uncovered a sizeable backlog of equity applicants. The report warned that if every applicant was approved for a license, it would over-saturate the city's cannabis retail market, particularly given the large number of existing businesses that are already operating because they had the money to get going months ago.

It’s not enough to provide more law enforcement officers to crack down on bad actors. We also have to do more to figure out a way to empower those who want to be good actors, and to do it sooner rather than later — especially if California officials want to win over activists who want to defund the police.

I want the legal market to succeed as much as anyone else in California. But it should be equitable, not dominated by wealthy, mostly white investors. Black and brown cannabis entrepreneurs shouldn't still be waiting.

As Newsom said in that Sacramento church: "We have a unique responsibility to the black community in this country, and we've been paying lip service about that for generations."