CAMP Shows that Cannabis Prohibition is Still King in California

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Nick Johnson, a historian and editor based in Fort Collins, Colorado. His book Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West (2017) is a history of cannabis agriculture that explores the environmental and social dynamics of the nation’s most controversial crop. He also blogs (and occasionally podcasts!) about all things cannabis on his website, Hempirical Evidence.

CAMP 1988
Law Enforcement Officers working with CAMP hold the California state flag and pose with pickup trucks filled with confiscated cannabis plants in 1988. Source: 1988 CAMP Final Report.

California fully legalized cannabis in 2016, but many people might not realize that the state and federal agencies are still fighting a guerrilla war against it. The Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP), started in 1983 by Golden State Republican governor George Deukmejian,  brings together local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies in annual drives targeting cannabis farms across the state. The program—which still operates today—has amounted to one of the largest law enforcement task forces in American history. In 2020, despite raging wildfires and a pandemic, CAMP managed to destroy more than 1.1 million illegal cannabis plants in twenty-nine different counties.

Now, with marijuana legal in California (and in many other places), the logical question becomes: “why is CAMP still a thing, and is it necessary?” To answer these questions, we need to understand the history of CAMP, how its operations have changed over the years, and why illegal marijuana cultivation persists today.

Ambitious Goals

At its start, some thirteen years before California legalized medical cannabis, CAMP’s goal was nothing less than the total annihilation of marijuana in the Golden State. During its first decade of action, officers loaded into planes and helicopters, donned full combat gear, and braved growers’ booby traps and shotguns to pull up millions of plants and make dozens, or in some years hundreds, of arrests. The program grew steadily over the years as more California counties joined; by 1991, CAMP operations accounted for 56 percent of marijuana eradicated in the state.

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