California law enforcement agencies dedicated to eradicating the illegal marijuana market had a busy first three months of the year. So much so that they seized and destroyed approximately $53 million worth of illegal pot in the first quarter of the year. If you don’t think that matters, think again.

Marijuana legalization is often justified under the pretense that it will reduce drug-related crime. It does not. This is not to say that marijuana should still be illegal. Most Americans think otherwise. But it is to say that we should stop promoting the myth that legalization discourages crime. If that were the case, all sorts of crimes would be largely nonexistent.

The Nation’s Largest Legal Market

California’s Department of Cannabis Control (DCC) recently published their seizure numbers from the first quarter of 2024. A task force of various law enforcement agencies managed to seize tens of millions of dollars in illegal weed amounting to more than 331,000 pounds of product and just over 54,000 plants. They also seized cash in excess of $34,000.

This is all good news if you are in favor of California’s enforcement efforts. But it is still bad news in the sense that all of this illegal pot was seized and destroyed in just three months. It’s one quarter of one year. How much illegal weed escaped state enforcement? How much of it actually made it to the streets?

Governor Gavin Newsom couldn’t resist the opportunity to react to the DCC announcement, gleefully reporting that California has the nation’s largest legal cannabis market. He is right on that count. What he did not mention is that the Golden State also has the largest illicit market.

Market Forces at Play

No one knows for sure how big the illicit market was prior to marijuana being legalized in California. No one is exactly sure how big it is today. But based on conservative estimates, one could argue that legalization has actually encouraged more criminal activity. How so? By increasing demand.

There have always been marijuana users in California. Legalizing medical cannabis gave cover for people who wanted to use the drug under medical pretenses. Once recreational marijuana was approved, the need for medical cannabis went out the window. One of the end results was skyrocketing demand.

It’s basic human nature. Legalize marijuana and people who previously avoided it because they didn’t want to break the law no longer have an incentive to continue doing so. They embrace marijuana with open arms. Demand skyrockets and illicit operators see their businesses boom.

Cannabis in Other States

The one thing that is not clear is how the black market is doing in other states. Take Utah. According to the operators of the Beehive Farmacy locations in Brigham City and Salt Lake City, Utah allows medical cannabis only. State regulations tightly control the market and demand is comparatively limited.

Is there incentive for the black market to aggressively go after Utah? Perhaps, but not nearly as much incentive as there is in California, Oregon, Washington, and other recreational states. I would be willing to bet that Utah’s black market is considerably smaller.

The point of all of this is to say that marijuana legalization has not deterred crime. The only way the black market could be completely eliminated is for the government to stop exercising any and all control over marijuana. Remove the regulatory shackles so that everyone is on the same playing field and there is no longer an incentive to operate illicitly. Since that is not going to happen, the black market is never going away.

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