The illegal pot market in California is at least three times as big as the legal pot industry and the notion of regulating cannabis proves to be more difficult than expected. 

The increase of unlicensed marijuana activity continues to exist. A recent audit found that there are 2,800 unlicensed dispensaries throughout California and 873 licensed sellers. Cat Packer, Executive Director of Los Angeles’ Department of Cannabis, shares her thoughts on the issue.

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“One of the biggest challenges we’ve seen with implementation is the fact that many local jurisdictions aren’t participating in commercialization,” Packer said.

There are 187 licensed dispensaries in Los Angeles. In order to fix the regulation, Packer says the first thing to do is to change how we talk about the cannabis industry. She tries to be intentional with her wording.

“In the city of Los Angeles, we prefer to use the term unlicensed market versus black market because when we use the term black market, were saying that black is criminal,” said Packer.

The standards of safe marijuana comes at a high price for licensed owners. Many of the licensed shops are increasing their costs to make a safer product, making consumers lean more toward unlicensed shops. However, Packer says that people are putting their health and lives at risk.

“Many folks will say, well I’ve been buying pot from the guy on the street for years and I’ve never gotten sick, but you actually don’t know that,” Packer said. People are getting sick now from purchasing products that haven’t been tested.

Licensed dispensaries are meeting with health officials and medical professionals to protect the public’s health and safety. Although the licensed shops have a higher price, purchasing illegal products come at a much higher cost.

Another development in the marijuana industry is the social equity program. This is a program to help those who have been impacted by drug laws in the past, obtain licenses first and take advantage of laws that now make recreational pot legal.

The program is one of the first in the nation to pass. Packer says it isn’t just about getting a license – it’s about having conversations with different communities.

“How do we make sure that all cannabis policies are equitable? Because we know that cannabis policy is impactful and those impacts haven’t always been born equally among communities,” she said.

The idea that if you engage in unlicensed cannabis activity, you engage in a crime is a huge issue still. However, the licensed owners feel as though they are losing out by the social equity program.

“I’ve always believed that it’s more important to get it right, than for us to rush into this conversation,” said Packer.

Packer says the social equity program is a learning process. The City of L.A. has caps on how many licenses to distribute. There is one retail license per 10,000 residents and 200 of those licenses go to existing medical marijuana dispensaries. The program is building, but it takes time.

Packer says in the next 18 months, licensing opportunity for retail will be gone. When you enter into the marijuana industry, not only do you have to deal with regulations from the industry itself, but also state regulations and fire department regulations. Packer says a lot of people forget that they are entering a compliance industry too.

Weedmaps is like the Yelp for pot. Last summer, they said they would no longer list illegal shops, however, they have 381 shops in L.A. listed, when there are only 189 shops licensed. They are still listing and promoting illegal activity.

“The reality is that it’s high time for us to figure out this cannabis issue and when we have folks, even in a legal market, that continue to promote unlicensed activity,” Packer said. “It really is a detriment to the community that is trying to move forward.”

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