Rene Chun is a contributing editor at Wired. This article was originally published in The Atlantic.
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Marijuana legalization was supposed to decrease crime—but the reality is more complicated.
Legalizing pot was supposed to reduce crime, or so advocates argued. The theory was simple: As cannabis buyers beat a path to the nearest dispensary, the black market would dry up, and with it the industry’s criminal element. Indeed, a study recently published in The Economic Journal found that after medical marijuana was legalized in California, violent crime fell 15 percent.
Talk to authorities in California’s Emerald Triangle, though, and a different story emerges. This 10,000-square-mile area (which includes Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity Counties) by some estimates grows 60 percent of the country’s marijuana. Ben Filippini, a deputy sheriff in Humboldt, told me that ever since California’s 1996 medical-marijuana initiative, violent crime in his jurisdiction has increased: “People are getting shot over this plant. All legalization did here was create a safe haven for criminals.” When I asked Trinity County’s undersheriff, Christopher Compton, what’s happened since a 2016 initiative legalized pot in the state, he said: “We haven’t seen any drop in crime whatsoever. In fact, we’ve seen a pretty steady increase.” Compton’s counterpart in Mendocino, Matthew Kendall, agreed: “We’re seeing more robberies and more gun violence.”
What’s going on? One factor is that legalization has led to a boom in the weed business, thereby increasing the supply of two things that tempt would-be thieves: the crop, and the cash it generates. The latter is particularly abundant, because while some credit unions and regional banks have begun accepting marijuana money, the big ones don’t. Cannabis is still illegal under federal law, and executives fear being charged with money laundering.
A second factor: California may have legalized pot, but not all growers want to be legal. Out of some 32,000 farmers in the region, only about 3,500 had applied for a license by the end of 2017. Some insist that complying with regulations is too costly. Others are evading taxes. Running an illegal “grow,” however, leaves them especially vulnerable to “dope rips” (theft of processed marijuana), precisely because thieves know such farmers will be unwilling to file a police report. Criminal syndicates, which are involved in many of these thefts, resell much of the plunder out of state.
Which brings us to a third factor: The post-legalization boom has led pot prices in California to plummet, and increased the incentive to sell the product out of state. A pound of marijuana that in 2015 went for $1,200 in-state sells today for just $300. In New York City, though, California weed fetches up to $3,000 a pound. Until marijuana is legalized nationally, such price discrepancies will surely remain, and criminal gangs will find their way to the Emerald Triangle.
For now, as thefts grow more brazen, many farmers are employing new security measures. Some use a company called Hardcar Distribution to carry their cash—and their harvest—in armored vehicles operated by teams of armed military veterans. Others are converting dollars into bitcoin or precious metals. “I watch Breaking Bad and Ozark for tips,” one pot grower told me. “It’s like educational TV.”