The illicit pot shop where Kelvin worked wasn’t an outlier: In fact, the majority of shops in LA are unlicensed. In the entire city, only 184 pot shops, less than 1 in 5, are licensed. Many Angelenos have no idea that the place they buy their cannabis—or in Kelvin’s case, report to work—might be operating outside the law. This gray-market section of the industry established itself over more than a decade, between about 2005 and 2018, when local politicians were reluctant to regulate an industry that was breaking federal law. Because it was technically OK by state law to provide pot to medical patients and receive a “donation” in return, and because many dispensary owners considered themselves activist entrepreneurs and took in a lot of money doing what they saw as civil disobedience, it was difficult for police to permanently shut down the new marketplace of brick-and-mortar shops. By the time the city managed to impose rules in 2018, creating a clear distinction for the public between legal and illegal businesses had become nearly impossible.
But illegal shops do sometimes get raided, catching workers like Kelvin in the middle. While exact data is unavailable, defense attorneys say that at least hundreds of mostly Black and brown people have been arrested in the past two years for working at illicit storefronts, many of whom, like Kelvin, were not aware they were breaking the law.
Though Los Angeles is an extreme example, as a large city that let the problem fester for years, this sort of situation could take hold far more widely across the country. Joe Biden said during his primary and general election campaign that he wants to decriminalize, but not legalize, marijuana nationwide—in part to reduce the harm done to the populations hit so hard by drug law enforcement over the past half-century. (When asked in November, a Biden spokesperson didn’t elaborate on the president’s agenda in any detail beyond what was in his campaign platform; the White House has been silent on the issue since the change in administration and did not respond to a request for comment from POLITICO.) Decriminalization generally means making it so that people can legally possess weed, but businesses can’t sell it. If Democrats do pursue that path, the entire country might soon look like Washington, D.C., or Vermont, where a thriving gray-market economy has started to develop.