In between the wealth and glitter of Palm Springs and Las Vegas is the Mojave Desert. More than a thousand marijuana plantations have begun filling this arid expanse. Black-market growers flocked to the desert shortly after California voted to legalize marijuana in 2016.
The Mojave Desert offers a near-perfect environment for large-scale farming: endless sunshine, cheap open space, and virtually no police.
“San Bernardino County is the largest and sunniest county in the United States,” said Ryan Verner of Desert Grown Hydroponics in Yucca Valley. “Weed grows really good here year-round.” The region is also crisscrossed with major transportation corridors — Interstates 10, 215, 15, and 40 — which facilitate distribution.
Residents say they don’t feel safe, claiming black-market growers carry weapons, trade gunfire with rivals, and threaten those who wander too close to their farms.
“When our family moved to Twentynine Palms nine years ago, it was peaceful and calm,” said Amy Tessier. “The invasion of pot farms changed all that. It just doesn’t feel safe.”
Proposition 64 promised to end the black-market cultivation and sale of marijuana in California communities. It also promised to create jobs and generate hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue.
“There’s more black-market marijuana than ever before, much more than prior to Prop. 64,” said William Bodner, special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Los Angeles field division.
The nonprofit Southern California Coalition is the Southland’s largest marijuana trade association. For executive director Adam Spiker, it’s a sign that “Prop. 64 is failing.”
But the idea of a federal law enforcement crackdown on California’s multibillion-dollar marijuana industry worries both legal and illegal growers.
Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Santa Clarita, and other California Republican members of Congress have demanded that U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland “address the growing crisis.” In a letter to Garland, they wrote: “This problem is not going to go away, and it will only get worse without intervention.”
“It scares the hell out of everyone in the business,” said Spiker. “That’s because federal law doesn’t delineate between legal and illegal marijuana — it’s all illegal.”