The Record Reports: Raids on unlicensed local marijuana dispensaries attempt to cripple thriving illegal market
"A string of Kern County marijuana dispensaries has been targeted by law enforcement agencies over the last week in an effort to break up the illegal market.
On Feb. 4 and 5, the Bureau of Cannabis Control raided three dispensaries in metro
Bakersfield, confiscating hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cannabis products. Last week, the Kern County Sheriff’s Office arrested 10 people after executing search warrants on four metro Bakersfield facilities. And in mid-January, the Sheriff’s Office arrested four people after searching six dispensaries in Rosamond.
The string of enforcement actions comes at a time when California’s illegal marijuana market has continued to thrive, and law enforcement agencies have had difficulty keeping unlicensed shops closed. Even with the recent raids, many dispensaries remain open, blatantly flouting a ban on sales.
“The county is just trying to save some face right now, trying to show that they are trying to do something,” said Steve Duce, owner of Budville, an unlicensed medical marijuana dispensary on Niles Street that was raided by the Sheriff’s Office last week. “It’s just a distraction from what the real issue is, which is that the people are going to want their shops back open. And for things to go back to how they were before.”
He said up to five dispensaries on Niles Street remained open despite the recent law enforcement efforts.
“I don’t think they benefited anybody by doing anything,” he said. “If anything, they benefited the kids that sold on the street because people are getting afraid.”
The financial and criminal risks are not a sufficient deterrent to keep dispensary owners from operating, he added, saying he took a calculated risk by deciding to remain open past the ban.
California’s unique marijuana market has led to problems for law enforcement agencies since recreational marijuana became legal in 2018.
Proposition 64, which legalized recreational sales and use, also allowed municipalities to outlaw sales of the product outright. This meant some dispensaries that had been open since medical marijuana became legal in 1996 were suddenly made illegal.
“We did have the medical system in place, there are existing operators that aren’t just going to shut down and go away unless the locals forced their hand,” said BCC spokesman Alex Traverso.
He said the bureau had received more than 1,000 complaints of unlicensed dispensaries in California, and held law enforcement sweeps throughout the state to take out the most dangerous operations.
Any unlicensed dispensary selling cannabis vape products becomes a priority, he said, adding that most products in unlicensed shops do not pass state standards when tested.
Yet, Bakersfield resident and medical marijuana user Cynthia Johnston said the law enforcement raids had disrupted the shopping habits of many longtime customers.
“I am impacted,” she said. “I can hardly afford to drive to LA to buy bottom shelf bud, which is all I could afford in the first place. So a lot of patients are impacted because they could barely afford their medicine already.”
Johnston, who is 75, said she first started using marijuana 42 years ago to help her with alcoholism, and now consumes it for arthritis.
“As worried as I am for myself, I’m more worried for other people,” she said. “I imagine the ones that are regulars at stores that are still operating will continue to go there, but the numbers will decrease.”
Voters will have the option of passing two ballot measures in March, which could overturn the ban on medical marijuana in Kern County.
The Sheriff’s Office said it is committed to continued enforcement of illegal dispensaries, even in the absence of an overarching plan to shut them down completely.
“There’s not necessarily a plan to do an increased number of enforcements. That might end up happening,” said KCSO spokeswoman Angela Monroe. “If they continue to stay open, they will continue to get arrested and property seized because they are breaking the law.”"