Illegal Cannabis and Water Theft Bedevil California

The scourge of illegal marijuana operations across California is taking on new urgency as the state grapples with another drought. Thieves working for illegal operators are stealing the public’s water at an alarming rate. The problem has only gotten worse as the resource becomes more scarce, CalMatters reports.

In Siskiyou County, authorities say illegal cannabis grows drink up about two million gallons of water a day — enough to supply three-quarters of the county’s residents.

In Lancaster, one grower bought a house for the sole purpose of running a hose across the desert to his grow. Even after the line was shut off, the thieves found another one and continued watering.

The situation in the Mojave Desert has been spiraling out of control. Authorities recently seized $1.19 billion worth of pot from an illegal site in the Antelope Valley. A case of water theft by illicit growers last spring threatened the supply of 300 homes.

Residents are fed up.

“I have zero water, all we have is wells,” one man told CalMatters. “They cut my water and these marijuana grows are operating on stolen water. They are getting water from all over and watering hundreds of acres. This is anarchy.”

The LA Times agrees. In a scathing opinion earlier this month, the editorial board blamed flaws in Proposition 64 — a measure it supported — for allowing California to become “the Wild West of illegal marijuana.”

Proposition 64 downgraded illegal cultivation from a felony to a misdemeanor punishable with a $500 fine and up to six months in jail. That was intended to address a real disparity — enforcement of marijuana laws had disproportionately affected Black and Latino men, leaving them with criminal records that make it harder to get a job or to advance in their careers. But the practical effect is that the penalties are not stiff enough now to deter illegal pot businesses.

The incentives in California’s marijuana marketplace are totally out of whack. The state has made it tremendously challenging and expensive to become a legitimate cannabis business, while it’s extraordinarily profitable and relatively low-risk to stay in the black market. And the result? Just look at the Southern California desert, where residents are living with Proposition 64’s missteps.

To underscore the power these illegal growers have, consider this: when CalMatters asked two SoCal water agency managers for their thoughts on the matter, they declined out of fear for their employees’ safety.

Los Angeles and Siskiyou counties are now asking the state for help. While a streamlined licensing process and lower taxes could go a long way, it’s clear that stronger enforcement against illegality must be part of the solution.