California has a thriving medical marijuana arena. In 2016, the state legalized recreational use of the plant beginning in 2018. But less than one month before its expansion, police busted a marijuana "fortress."
A reported 18,000 pounds of cannabis was discovered in three San Bernardino County properties on Dec. 14, according to The Associated Press.
"In my 26 years, it was the biggest grow that I've ever seen," said San Bernardino Police Lt. Mike Madden about the largest property. "There were all different rooms for different processes and hydration, filtration and ventilation. It was pretty extensive."
According to KCBS, it all belonged to 43-year-old mom and Pacific Palisades resident Stephanie Smith. She has been questioned but is not yet charged with a crime.
Smith appears to have made millions off of her drug stash. Aside from illegal profiting off of a large-scale operation without a permit, she violated the law by growing substantially more plants than private owners are allowed to own; according to the Sacramento County Public Law Library, California medical marijuana growers can only possess six mature plants at home, though jurisdictions can raise or lower the limit.
The California mom may have knowingly committed a crime, but not all cannabis growers do so intentionally. Conflicts between local, state and federal law are ultimately what leads to confusion over the legality of the plant, even in places where it has been decriminalized.
An October 2016 report from the Drug Policy Alliance found that cannabis arrest rates had fallen between 46 and 85 percent in Colorado and Washington, where marijuana has been legal since 2012, and in Alaska and Oregon, where it was legalized two years later. The number of court filings over marijuana-related charges had decreased even further.
But on Dec. 14, owners of 26 dispensaries in Denver arrived to find suspension notices taped to their doors. KDVR reports that police have not specified why the shutdowns took place, but said that the charges were criminal.
One store employee told reporters that he was not aware of any crime they had committed.
Police raids of marijuana dispensaries have become so commonplace that one former county sheriff's detective began to teach classes on what store employees should do when a raid takes place, LA Weekly reports.
Nick Morrow leads the "L.A. County Raid Safety Training Class" along with Angeles Emeralds, a group of California cannabis stakeholders. The team says they don't intend to teach dispensary owners how to violate the law, but how to work with it.
"We're looking to show people how to obey the laws better," says Jonatan Cvetko, co-founder of Angeles Emeralds. "In the end we want to show the county we want to be good operators."
Morrow's biggest tips include setting up a dual security video system, "knowing" or being able to read local police, using the right to remain silent and complying with all fees and tax laws.
Like policies on use, taxes vary within states and jurisdictions, but all are subject to federal law. Marijuana is still considered an illegal substance on a national scale and federal law tends to override local law. Its unclear whether the Denver raids are connected to state or federal regulations, though either could lead to the same result.
The New York Times reported in July that legal marijuana distributors are protected against persecution from the Department of Justice by a provision in the federal budget which prevents using funds to block laws allowing medical cannabis.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is known for viewing cannabis legalization unfavorably. He once likened the recreational use of the drug to "self-destructive behavior and escapism." In March, a bipartisan group of senators urged the attorney general to stick with remaining policies, and so far it seems like he has.
Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon doesn't believe that medical marijuana dispensary owners should be too worried about federal laws cracking down on activity in legal states.
"We have watched where the politicians have consistently failed to be able to fashion rational policy and show a little backbone," said Blumenauer, who co-chairs the Congressional Cannabis Caucus. "This issue has been driven by the people."
Sources: AP via ABC, KCBS, The Sacramento County Public Law Library, Drug Policy Alliance, KDVR, LA Weekly, The New York Times / Featured Image: O'Dea/Wikimedia Commons / Embedded Images: MaxPixel, Martin Alonso/Flickr