California authorities have seized $30 million worth of illicit marijuana in the past 18 months as they wrestle with the state’s flourishing black market.

The Bureau of Cannabis Control said it raided six unlicensed dispensaries in 2018 and a further 19 in the first six months of 2019. It seized more than 1,800 kg of illicit cannabis in the process.

“We recognize the importance of enforcement for a strong regulated cannabis industry and continue to partner with local jurisdictions to address issues related to unlicensed cannabis businesses,” said Lori Ajax, chief of the state bureau.

However, industry insiders claim there are still thousands of illicit growers dotted about California and many unlicensed shops continue to trade.

An audit published this month showed that 80% of vacancies at the Bureau of Cannabis Control are unfilled and this is damaging the agency’s ability to effectively police the state’s marijuana industry. The Department of Finance report concluded that staff shortages mean the bureau is unable to provide effective and comprehensive oversight of cannabis activities.

The report revealed that in January only 75 of 219 jobs had been filled, and spokesman Alex Traverso said that has now increased to 87, leaving 132 positions unfilled.

The audit covered the period to January 2019, and found that the bureau had made just $2 million in licensing fees during that time. That has now risen to $15.3 million, but it is well short of the $201 million that was forecast by June 2019.

Fewer than half of the 68 necessary enforcement positions have been filled, significantly hampering the bureau’s ability to process complaints, perform inspections and investigations, and review and inspect testing labs.

Yet California has launched a statewide public information campaign urging cannabis users to stick to legal dispensaries and shun their unlicensed counterparts. The multilingual “Get #weedwise” initiative covers digital and outdoor advertising, and warns consumers they could end up with marijuana contaminated by mould, chemicals, and fecal matter if they visit unlicensed businesses.

The Bureau of Cannabis Control does not have sworn peace officers, so it needs to team up with the police and other agencies to launch raids. The figures for the amount of seizures it has made do not provide the full picture of the clampdown on illegal operations, because many raids have taken place without the bureau’s involvement.

But licensed retailers want to see a lot more resources channelled into a crackdown on illicit pot shops, and the bureau is under pressure to ramp up its efforts in that respect.

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