On Jan. 16, the California Unified Cannabis Enforcement Taskforce (UCETF) released its first annual report of money, illegal cannabis plants/products, and firearms obtained in its seizure operations last year.
In total for 2023, which was the UCETF’s first full year of operation, the task force stated that it has seized more than $312 million in illegal cannabis. Additionally, it reported that it also seized 189,854.02 pounds of cannabis, eradicated 317,834 cannabis plants, served 188 search warrants, seized 119 firearms, and seized $223,809 of money on-site.
According to the Department of Cannabis Control (DCC) Director Nicole Elliot, the UCETF has made some serious progress in eliminating illegal operations. “California is effectively decreasing the illegal cannabis market by leveraging the strengths and knowledge of over 20 state agencies and departments alongside our local and federal partners. The UCETF’s progress in 2023 reflects California’s ongoing commitment to disrupting and dismantling illegal cannabis activity,” said Elliott. “I look forward to working with all our partners in 2024 to build on this progress.”
California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) Director Charlton H. Bonham provided a statement detailing the importance of eliminating illegal cannabis cultivation and processing operations. “Since its inception in late 2022, California’s Unified Cannabis Enforcement Taskforce has hit the ground running with year-round operations that spanned from the Oregon state line all the way down to San Diego,” Bonham said. “We’ve sent a strong message that illegal operations that harm our natural resources, threaten the safety of workers, and put consumer health at risk have no place in California. While there is more work to be done, we made progress last year and I look forward to going further alongside our county, state, and federal partners.”
The UCETF was created when Gov. Gavin Newsom called for the creation of a task force in June 2022, through a combined effort of the DCC, CDFW, and Homeland Security Division of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. By October 2022, the UCETF immediately took action, and early totals showed that it destroyed 11,260 illegal cannabis plants and 5,237 pounds of flower, with a combined total of $15 million. “California is taking immediate and aggressive action to stop illegal cannabis and strengthen the burgeoning legal market throughout the state,” said Newsom. “By shutting down illegal grow sites and applying serious consequences to offenders, we are working to curtail the criminal organizations that are undercutting the regulated cannabis market in California.”
The task force’s Q4 numbers include $22,294,571 worth of cannabis products seized (with 13,393.65 pounds of product), 20,320 pounds of cannabis seized, served 24 search warrants, seized 26 firearms, and seized $35,195 in cash during on-site warrant investigations.
In a breakdown by county, the UCETF seized the most cannabis in Alameda County ($77,828,338.50), followed by Siskiyou County ($70,747,875), Mendocino County ($48,073,113), Los Angeles County ($28,317,139.69), and Kern County ($21,578,438).
Also in October 2022, California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced that the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP), had seized and destroyed more than one million cannabis plants that year across 22 counties. “The illicit marketplace outweighs the legal marketplace,” Bonta said. “It’s upside down and our goal is complete eradication of the illegal market.”
He also announced that a campaign called the Eradication and Prevention of Illicit Cannabis (EPIC) would help target illegal cannabis labor and environmental violations as well. “The California Department of Justice’s CAMP task force works tirelessly each year to eradicate illegal grows and reclaim our public lands, but shutting down these grows is no longer enough,” Bonta explained. “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.”
In 2023, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 turned 50 years old. As the effort continues to try to preserve the nation’s many native creatures, agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS) have begun to put the spotlight on how illegal cannabis operations are harming the lives and environments of endangered animals. The California Spotted Owl is one such creature. “Management or cleanup activities that remove toxicants and other chemicals from trespass cannabis cultivation sites in California spotted owl habitat,” FWS explained last year. “Cleanup of these sites may involve activities that may cause localized, short-term disturbance to California spotted owls, as well as require limited removal of some habitat structures valuable to California spotted owls (e.g., hazard trees that may be a suitable nest site).”
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife also announces annual data collected from discovering and eradicating illegal cannabis operations in an effort to preserve waterways and natural animal habitats. This includes the preservation of a wide variety of species, such as southern torrent salamanders, coastal tailed frogs, steelhead and coho salmon, which rely on access to clear, cold water that is often polluted or diverted to illegal cannabis cultivation sites.