Cannabis laws in California
The state of California has always been at the forefront of cannabis legalisation in the United States (US). In 1996, California became the first state in the US to legalise the use of marijuana for medical purposes. The bill was passed into law under California’s Proposition 215 following a majority vote of 55.8%.
Twenty years later, the Adult Use Marijuana Act (AUMA) was passed under proposition 64 in November 2016. This act legalised the recreational use of cannabis for adults aged 21 and older. California marked its first day of recreational adult-use cannabis on the 1st of January 2018. On this day, recreational dispensaries and cannabis shops began to operate for public use.
Under the Adult Use Marijuana Act, adults 21 and older are allowed to possess up to 28.5 grams (g) of marijuana flower and up to 8 grams of marijuana concentrate. Adults are also allowed to grow up to six cannabis plants within their private residence.
An estimated 13% of Californians are known to consume cannabis and its preparations. This makes for a state with a great cannabis market that’s set to surpass that of Canada (an entire country) by 2025.
California’s demand for cannabis was almost as high as Canada’s in 2018, and is expected to surpass Canada’s by 2025. Source
The rise in cannabis smuggling in California since its legalisation
The prices of cannabis in California are relatively low. This can be attributed to the ease of access to the substance. By the end of 2018, over 547 temporary retail licenses were issued in the state of California. Alongside these retail licenses, 1,009 distributors and 4,770 cultivators were granted temporary licenses. The market for cannabis is therefore heavily saturated and not as profitable as external markets.
States where cannabis is outlawed, on the other hand, witness higher prices with the substance. This is due to the risk associated with dealing with cannabis in these areas. Smugglers in California are taking advantage of higher out-of-state prices, and so smuggling cannabis from California to those states is now at an all-time high.
According to arrest reports obtained by the Los Angeles Times, trafficking arrests in the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) have surged by 166% since legalisation. The legalisation of the substance, combined with the light punishments smugglers face if caught, have encouraged more and more to take to the skies in an effort to take the substance outside the state’s borders.
In 2018, officials at LAX discovered cannabis in checked luggage and carry-on bags 503 times. In the previous year, 400 reports were made and in 2016, 282 cases were documented. According to reports, newspapers recorded 101 arrest records for drug trafficking at the LAX in 2018. This record beats the previous year’s 38 arrests record. Police in Sacramento and Oakland are also reporting increases in cannabis smuggling. Many smugglers were headed to cities such as Chicago, Atlanta, and Dallas.
A high amount of illegally exported cannabis leaves the state by car or truck. The California Highway Patrol (CHP) obtained more than 8 tons of cannabis in 63 stops reported in 2018. The previous year, over 2 tons of cannabis was seized in 76 reported stops. The CHP describe the number of incidences as fewer, but describe the amounts being smuggled as much higher.
What can New Zealand learn from this?
The state of affairs in California proves the great lengths at which cannabis suppliers and users would go through to procure the substance. As reported by the LAX police, cannabis is widely intercepted on its way to states and cities where cannabis for recreational use is criminalised.
In New Zealand, cannabis is illegal for recreational purposes. Although there are no set statistics regarding the amount of cannabis smuggled through the New Zealand borders – if any – it’s a known fact that the plant is cultivated nationwide. As reported to Newshub, the 2018 National Cannabis and Crime Operation recovered over 50,000 cannabis plants. Despite the stringent laws placed on the plant, marijuana is still widely used and cultivated in New Zealand. It is the most widely used illicit drug in the nation.
New Zealand ranked third in the world for cannabis use. Source
California’s problem seems to be a federal problem, not a state one. This is due to the fact that, although cannabis is legal in the state of California, it remains illegal under federal law. Thus, there remain states where cannabis is illegal. This causes higher prices in those illegal states than California where the drug is legal, causing smugglers to export the crop for more profit.
Therefore, New Zealand’s approach to legalisation should be a nationwide, federal approach. The country seems to have the right idea in this regard, as it awaits the 2020 referendum for a nationwide take on whether or not the drug should be legalised for recreational use. Further, California teaches that outlawed cannabis means higher prices and thus higher rates of smuggling. Legalising the crop nationwide would eliminate such high profit margins for smugglers, which will likely deter the act.
Despite the wide availability of cannabis in California, the rate of smuggling has risen by an astonishing 166%. This rise can be attributed to a number of factors such as the cheap price of cannabis state-wide and the opposite in states where the crop is outlawed. This creates a lucrative opportunity for smugglers willing to move the drug from California to other states. For New Zealand, this should be a lesson -- legal cannabis means less smuggling if the drug is legalised nationwide, as opposed to a state by state scheme.