Local law enforcement has been continuously working to stop illegal pot shops, but the businesses are popping up faster than police can shut them down.
“There’s a high demand. There’s a lot of medical patients in Kern County,” said Steve Duce, the former manager of Budville, a local pot shop.
A line you’ll frequently hear: It’s California. Weed is legal.
That’s the case in most places across the state, but Kern is one of the few counties you can’t buy or sell marijuana, neither recreational nor medicinal.
That means all pot shops in the county are illegal.
“Some of the crimes are infractions, some are misdemeanors, some are felonies,” explained KCSO investigations commander, Erik Levig.
On January 31st, four shops were raided and ten people arrested: Budville, Bombay, BMC, and Superior Meds, some of which have been shut down before.
“There have been instances where we do repeatedly go back on certain shops and others. Sometimes they shut down. Sometimes they might be renamed,” Commander Levig said.
On February 4th, another three shops were raided: Knotts Collective, Backyard Organics, and Cannabliss.
All three were back open just days later.
“The demand is still there, hence that’s why these shops are open,” Duce said.
At Backyard Organics, about $200,000 in cash and product were seized.
However, according to Duce, shops can make that amount back in just a month.
“If you have a store that’s doing $7,000 a day, it’s $200,000 a month, adds up over a million dollars a year,” Duce said. “The risk to reward is in favor of risk.”
Back in 2014, California voters passed Proposition 47, which reduced the fines for nonviolent drug charges, like selling marijuana.
As a result, these fines are not a great enough deterrent for shops to stay closed.
“If you’re going to sell $5,000 a day worth of stuff, and it’s a $500 fine,” Duce said, “it’s just a business decision.”
Even if shop owners are arrested for felony conspiracy, typical bail amounts are what they could make back in a week, according to Duce.
“Being that they’re being run illegally, they usually have a large amount of cash on hand. They’re more prone to robberies, thefts. Sometimes we’re even dispatched to several serious assaults occurring at these businesses,” Commander Levig said.
Law enforcement is also worried about the crime that surrounds these shops.
“They talk about wanting to reduce crime, yet they conduct raids on businesses every six months, every year. And so what, they’re worried about it for one day?” Duce said.
So why aren’t these shops raided more often, especially if the money seized can help fund local law enforcement?
“Some of it goes back into drug and/or gang prevention funds. Other portions of the fund are used for enforcement services or equipment,” Levig said. “But the amount of money being invested in terms of personnel far exceeds usually what we bring in through asset forfeiture.”
Duce added, “The main reason why people get away with this is this: the sheriff’s department can’t afford to do anything.”
Duce believes Kern County is only losing money from continuing to raid shops that will just reopen.
“There’s eight to nine assorted police cars out front, and all of those people cost money. There’s better things they could be doing than raiding businesses that the county could regulate or help enforce, and capitalize off the revenues from it, and stop trying to fight something that’s already here,” Duce said.
He proposes the county regulates and taxes the sale of marijuana.
Duce estimates there are up to 40 illegal shops in Kern County, almost all of which currently pay no taxes.
However, voters have the chance to change that this March with Measures D and E.
“You’re able to tax the flower when it’s grown by the ounce, you’re able to tax it when it does to manufacturing, then the retail tax,” Duce said. “There are so many taxes that are charged throughout the process. They’ve made it very beneficial to counties and cities that have chosen to have this and chosen to regulate it.”
Duce sees these measures as beacons of hope for Kern County.
“I see an industry that can offer tens of thousands of jobs, hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, for a county that needs it,” Duce said.
Until anything passes, Commander Levig says, “As long as (marijuana) continues to be prohibited in Kern County, I can see us having to enforce this law for the foreseeable future.”