Michael Peña, left, and Dax Shepard in the movie CHiPs
Michael Peña, left, and Dax Shepard in the movie CHiPs

CHP Could Be Put in Charge of Quashing the Cannabis Black Market

Just because Californians legalized recreational marijuana doesn't mean there won't be folks who continue to break the law. Growing, selling and producing cannabis products, which will be taxed, will require state licenses. End users won't need medical cards to hold marijuana, so there could still be increased incentive to deal weed tax-free.

A Golden State lawmaker wants to make sure the recreational market is well policed when licensed sales begin in January. Assemblyman Tom Lackey of Palmdale is proposing that the California Highway Patrol take responsibility "for investigating black-market cannabis activity," according to a statement from his office.

"California is about to embark on the biggest experiment in cannabis policy in our nation’s history. Whether the federal government will take action against our state remains a major question," Lackey said in a statement. "If we want to avoid intervention from the federal government, we need to do everything we can to crack down on illegal activity and prevent cannabis from being exported out of state. Without a central point for coordinating action statewide, accomplishing this will be a huge challenge."

His proposal, Assembly Bill 1733, was introduced too late to make the legislative session that ended last week, but it will be considered early next year, according to Lackey's office.

Because it's so new, details of the bill have not been worked out, and there's no fact sheet available, the lawmaker's spokesman said. The CHP might seem to be an odd choice to run statewide cannabis enforcement, but there could be some synergy here, experts say.

Proposition 64, which legalized recreational pot, dedicates $3 million a year to the CHP "to establish and adopt protocols to determine whether a driver is operating a vehicle while impaired, including impairment by the use of marijuana or marijuana products," according to the language of the voter-approved measure.

And the agency, which serves as California's de facto statewide police force, has experience in highway drug interdiction across the Golden State. "Assemblyman Lackey wants to be sure that the state is prepared to have strong enforcement against illegal activity, and utilizing CHP is one of the best ways we can do that," Tim Townsend, capital director for the legislator, said via email. "Right now, enforcement has been a missing part of the conversation."

L.A.'s United Cannabis Business Alliance, which represents a number of so-called "limited legal immunity" dispensaries in town, has no problem with having the CHP in charge of cracking down against its competition — the black market.

“The UCBA welcomes enforcement actions against illegally operating cannabis businesses," Jerred Kiloh, the group's president, said via email. "We support efforts by the state to ensure that taxpaying businesses are allowed to operate while scofflaws are shut down. We also believe that enforcement across all jurisdictions is a key component of ensuring that the social equity programs can compete against an illegal market."

Nick Morrow, a former Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department detective and drug expert who's a member of the pro-legalization group Law Enforcement Action Partnership, says the CHP is more than qualified for the job. But he says that local jurisdictions might not like the state agency bigfooting on their turf.

In Los Angeles, sheriff's deputies and the Los Angeles Police Department are well-versed in the black market, and each has nearly 10,000 sworn officers, compared with the CHP's 7,500 or so statewide. "Are the LAPD and L.A. sheriff going to take a back seat to the CHP?" Morrow asks.

He also says that it would take a sizable investment in the CHP to make it a full-time narcotics force. It could require adding hundreds of expensive cops to the force. And extra training for current badges could be necessary.

"I don't know if this whole idea of putting the CHP in charge of illicit marijuana is a fundraiser designed as a mandate," Morrow says. "They might have to double the size of their agency. It might not be fiscally viable."

According to Lackey's office, "CHP has experience working in partnership with local law enforcement on task forces and is equipped with investigators in 102 field offices across the state."

A CHP spokesman said the agency doesn't comment on pending legislation.

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