Regulating Marijuana: Water Agencies vs. Law Enforcement

Photo: USFS Region 5

Photo: USFS Region 5

Marijuana legalization is spreading quickly across the United States.  One of the toughest challenges for state governments will be to create a regulatory infrastructure for the marijuana industry that strikes the right balance.  Enact policies that are heavy-handed and the industry will continue to show itself capable of surviving on the black market.  Fail to regulate at all and the legal marijuana market will struggle with uncertainty and negative externalities.  Colorado's nascent marijuana regulations have been relatively well-reviewed, in part because it had the luxury of starting from nothing.  But in California the marijuana industry has been entrenched for decades, while cultivation and consumption for medicinal use has been legal since 1996.  Nonetheless, the state has not prioritized regulation of the industry, nor made any meaningful attempts to innovate or adapt to changing conditions.  I've written in the past about the environmental impacts of excluding the industry from the regulatory framework (see here and here), as well as the difficulties states may have when choosing which of their many administrative agencies will take responsibility for regulation (see here).

Both of those issues are now converging in Northern California, where the state's regional water board is at odds with state and local law enforcement.  Adrian Fernandez Baumann reports on the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board's efforts to partner with marijuana farmers to regulate water resources:

The water board reps' basic pitch: Starting this summer, and going fully into effect next spring, the board would regulate cannabis cultivation on the basis of environmental impacts. Growers would be asked to invest time and money in the proper stewardship of the land and in repairing damage that had already been done. In exchange, the board offered, basically, an understanding: the government would give growers time to fix old problems and would provide a them with a framework to diagnose and repair issues. And all of it would be totally, officially, unconcerned with the legality of marijuana.

In principle the system should work, and some growers are enthusiastic.  But this program, and any others promulgated by state or local agencies, will face the same challenge: establishing sufficient (if not exclusive) control over marijuana regulation such that the actions of other agencies don't interfere.  This was a problem for a similar program that was eventually broken up by the federal government.  And considering that marijuana raids as recently as late June targeted private property owners, it may be a problem for the water board's program as well.

For law enforcement, there are strong incentives to ignore the water board's call for cooperation and to just keep raiding. Asset forfeiture laws allow police to seize large amounts of money and assets in pot busts. In 2014, Mendocino County seized $5.2 million in assets, including $3.9 million in cash.The Mendocino District Attorney's Office takes things even further with its "restitution" program, which co-opts a law intended to pay for meth lab clean-ups to extract more money from growers. Basically, the DA approaches busted growers with a deal: Give us some cash for each pound confiscated and you get no jail time. The amount is negotiable. Officially, it's $50 per plant and $500 per pound, but it often ends up in the tens of thousands of dollars. The funds then get divided up between the DA and the arresting agency, creating a revenue stream with little democratic oversight.  

There are advantages to decentralized regulation, among them the innovation and experimentation that local agencies create.  But there are drawbacks as well, and generally speaking, decentralization and fragmentation are not the same thing.  The former shifts power to local governments with local expertise, while the latter spreads overlapping mandates around between agencies and requires extensive coordination and cooperation.  The marijuana industry will implicate many state and local agencies, but to be effective and integrated, the state will need to set some ground rules for how those agencies interact.  If it does not, expect more programs working at cross-purposes.