LAYTONVILLE, Calif. — From the sky they look like citrus groves, neat rows of lush emerald-colored plants set amid the hills of Northern California.
But as a police reconnaissance helicopter banked for a closer look on a recent afternoon, the pungent smell of marijuana plants filled the cabin, wafting up from 800 feet below.
“That’s all weed,” squawked a deputy with the Mendocino County Sheriff’s office over the helicopter intercom. “They’re not in the program.”
More than nine months after California voted to legalize recreational marijuana, only a small share of the tens of thousands of cannabis farmers in Northern California have joined the system, according to law enforcement officers and cannabis growers.
Despite the promise of a legal marketplace, many growers are staying in the shadows, casting doubt on the promise of a billion-dollar tax windfall for the state and a smooth switch to a regulated market.
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At the same time, environmental damage and crime associated with illegal cannabis businesses remain entrenched in the state despite legalization, law enforcement officials say.
“I know that the numbers don’t look great; there are a lot of folks that aren’t coming in,” said Hezekiah Allen, the executive director of the California Growers Association, a marijuana advocacy group. “People are losing faith in this process.”
California, which by one estimate produces seven times more marijuana than it consumes, will probably continue to be a major exporter — illegally — to other states. In part, that is because of the huge incentive to stay in the black market: marijuana on the East Coast sells for several times more than in California.
“There are very few areas you can go in the county and not find marijuana — it’s everywhere,” said Bruce Smith, a lieutenant with the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office who leads the county’s efforts to shut down illegal marijuana farms. “The vast majority aren’t permitted.”
Mendocino County has received 700 applications for permits to grow marijuana, according to the Mendocino Department of Agriculture. That is a fraction of the thousands of growers in the area.
“You have folks who have been operating for two decades with maybe some local oversight and some with no oversight at all,” said Lori Ajax, the chief of the state’s Bureau of Cannabis Control. “You want to first give people a chance to get into that regulated market. And then it’s going to take some strong enforcement.”
November’s legalization measure, Proposition 64, decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana, allowed individuals to grow six plants at home and set rules for the sale and cultivation of regulated plants, seeking to end what had been two decades of a freewheeling and largely unregulated medical cannabis system. The punishment for growing or possessing large amounts of unregulated marijuana was downgraded to a misdemeanor from a felony.
Illegal marijuana plants are removed by the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department. The plants are then shredded. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times
Based on data from various state and county agencies, Mr. Allen, of the growers association, estimates that about 11 percent of growers — about 3,500 of 32,000 farmers in the Emerald Triangle, which covers Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties — have applied for permits. Most have been deterred by the voluminous paperwork to obtain a permit, the fees and the taxes, he said.
Critics said the framers of the law might have also miscalculated because many growers say there is little upside from getting a permit. If they stay out of the system, they face lighter punishments and avoid paying taxes, fees and the cost of meeting environmental standards.
“You could have 1,000 pounds in your hotel room right now and you might be charged with just a misdemeanor,” Thomas D. Allman, the sheriff of Mendocino County, said. In a small number of cases, traffickers can be charged with conspiracy, which is a felony.
David Eyster, the Mendocino district attorney, said the surge in the marijuana business had brought with it violent crime, which did not appear to be going away anytime soon.
Among the cases he is handling are a robbery and slashing death of a grower; the murder of a man at a marijuana farm by a co-worker wielding a baseball bat; an armed heist in a remote area by men who posed as law enforcement officers; and a robbery by two men and a juvenile who were invited to a barbecue and then drew guns on their hosts and fled with nine pounds of marijuana.
“The folks in the big cities, they don’t realize that out in the rural areas where the marijuana is being grown, there are people being robbed, kidnapped and in some cases murdered,” Mr. Eyster said.
California took a different path from Colorado, the first state to legalize marijuana, where possession of large amounts of unregulated cannabis remains a felony and where the black market is significantly smaller, according to Sean McAllister, a lawyer who specializes in cannabis cases in both states.
“As someone who has lived through the transition in Colorado, when I go to California I am definitely shocked to see that people in the industry seem very ill-prepared for the transition,” Mr. McAllister said.