Harvest time has a special connotation in the cannabis world. In California, “trimmigrants” make their annual migration to the Emerald Triangle, and a slightly skunky smell attaches to the cash spent at local stores. Outdoor-garden patients and caregivers in medical cannabis states like Maine keep one eye on the weather forecast and the other on their maturing flowers, looking for the optimum day to begin the labor-intensive work of cutting, trimming, drying and curing the medicine that will carry them through the winter months.
And this year in Colorado, it’s also harvest time for Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (RMHIDTA) agents, who have spent the last six weeks or so raiding a number of illegal marijuana grows in that state.
Now, autumn raids on growers are nothing new—in eight decades of cannabis prohibition, fall has traditionally seen a wave of law enforcement raids to eradicate maturing outdoor grows. What makes this year’s RMHIDTA “harvest” worthy of note is that it happened in the midst of a powerful social experiment in which Coloradans are pioneering regulated, legal adult use of this plant. And the raids, and their targets, underscore not only the success of legalization/regulation, but also the abject failure of pot prohibition.
The federal government made it clear when Colorado and Washington legalized cannabis in 2013: they do not want to see marijuana flowing from states where it is legal to those where it isn’t. And legal, licensed, regulated Colorado farmers were not the targets of these HIDTA raids, as US Attorney John Walsh made clear.
This year, law enforcement’s targets seem to have been those who mistakenly believed they could hide in the greenwash of regulated cannabis and make their money by exporting the finished crop to states where the plant remains illegal (and therefore much more lucrative).
Still, a small but vocal segment of the commentosphere will no doubt bewail these raids as evidence that legalization is a failure. Look, they’ll say, Colorado legalized, and they still have all these problems—illicit grows, out-of-state diversion—legalization doesn’t work!
Something is definitely broken here. But it isn’t Colorado’s legalization system, nor Washington’s, nor Oregon’s, nor Alaska’s. Regulated legal markets can’t be blamed for the continuing existence of an illicit market.
The signal failure of cannabis prohibition is that it does absolutely nothing to decrease demand for this plant, with its remarkable safety profile. Prohibition simply increases the prices that “illegal” marijuana can fetch in states without medical or adult-use access, tempting those with a taste for renegade entrepreneurship to attempt hiding their operations in “legal” states.
The solution, of course, would be to create a sensible legal framework for cannabis production and sales at the national level. But it’s doubtful we will see that happen in the near future, and so individual states will continue, one by one, to implement different varieties of adult-use legalization (a function the states played at the end of alcohol prohibition, too). And both medical and adult-use consumers in “dry” states will continue to provide a tempting market for illicit providers.
One day, the U.S. cannabis map will be a quilt of varying shades of green. But until that happens, the demand in states that prohibit the cannabis plant will continue to fuel an illicit market, even in states where the plant is legal. We reap what we sow.