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.

Of course, this is weed in California we’re talking about, so it should come as no surprise that CAMP was effectively playing a game of whack-a-mole against a veritable army of growers and that the program never came close to completely taking down the marijuana industry. In fact, by reducing marijuana supply every year, the raids only drove up the price of pot, which gave growers even more of an incentive—provided they accepted the ever-present risk of boots or rifle barrels jammed into their backs by CAMP authorities.

Shift from Private to Public Lands

Camp Seizures 2000-09
Amount of marijuana seized by the CAMP program from 2000–2009. Data provided by the author.

Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, CAMP mostly raided cannabis farms on private property, and the total number of plants seized in any year did not exceed the 166,219 plants confiscated in 1985 (with a taxpayer bill of $2.8 million). Law enforcement’s routine invasion of private land under the auspices of CAMP became so prevalent that in 1983 ten residents of Trinity and Humboldt Counties petitioned a federal district court to have raids halted “on the ground that their constitutional right to privacy was violated” by flyovers, roadblocks, and agents’ wanton display of firearms. Perhaps the most prominent example of the militarized raids was 1990’s Operation Greensweep, in which National Guard troops and US Army soldiers swooped down on public land in the King Range National Conservation area some two hundred miles north of San Francisco.

By the turn of the twenty-first century, wary of militarized raids but still encouraged by CAMP- and prohibition-inflated prices, growers responded by cultivating more plants in harder-to-detect places, such as indoors or in remote areas of public lands. By the 2000s, “diesel dope”—cannabis grown indoors and off the grid using diesel-powered generators—comprised a major part of the marijuana industry in northern California, though often with disastrous environmental results. Meanwhile, the demographics of outlaw growers shifted from local residents to out-of-state and international growers from places as disparate as Mexico and Bulgaria. Many of these new growers were attracted by the “gray market”—the partial legal cover provided by California’s 1996 medical marijuana measure. [1]

CAMP numbers from this period also reflect the industry’s surging growth and the shift toward public-land cultivation. In 2000, alone, CAMP agents pulled up 345,207 plants, more than twice the highest number taken during the eighties, and, over the course of the following decade, that number ballooned to more than four million plants in 2010. In some years, CAMP agents policed fewer counties than they had during the 1980s, indicating a massive increase in  the size of outlaw marijuana farms. In 2010, fully 76 percent of plant seizures came from public lands. Arrests, meanwhile, declined in proportion to the number of plants seized. Authorities had cuffed at least two hunded people per year between 1984 and 1987, but they arrested a total of only 180 people between 2000 and 2005.

So, to recap, since its beginning in 1983, CAMP has been pulling up, on average each year, more plants with fewer arrests—and its tactics have encouraged greater illegal cultivation on public land. The huge, unregulated farms, which mostly squat on public property, pose greater threats to ecosystems and to public safety than the smaller “mom-and-pop” operations of the 1980s. Over time, it seems that CAMP’s targets have evolved to match the intensity of the program’s enforcement tactics, and they have created a kind of cyclical justification for CAMP’s existence: raids push up prices; higher prices encourage bigger and more destructive growing operations; dangerous factory farms justify CAMP’s continued presence in the field.

CAMP Report 1986
Cover of the CAMP Final Report for 1986.

Questionable Effectiveness

We should be careful, however, not mistake CAMP’s statistical success for effectiveness. Despite the program’s annual eradication of millions of plants, illegal marijuana cultivation on public lands has only gotten bigger, more pollutive, and more lucrative since the 1980s. Even worse, many of those arrested for trespass grows are immigrants and other vulnerable people whom larger drug-trafficking organizations have either persuaded or threatened into cultivation. The arrestees are effectively cannon fodder, offered up to authorities by organized crime groups as a low cost of doing big black-market business. Often, authorities derive nothing useful from those arrested, because they either do not have information about their bosses or are simply too afraid to expose them. [2]

Tied to Prohibition

Given the destructive nature of today’s illegal pot farms, one could easily conclude that CAMP represents a necessary counterpunch to the socially and environmentally abusive effects of black-market growing. But, in reality, CAMP is simply an expensive Band-Aid slapped across a gaping wound opened and left to fester by cannabis prohibition.

The existence of a thriving marijuana black market comes down to cost—and that cost depends upon regulatory practices, or the lack thereof. Although California has officially legalized cannabis statewide, 80 percent of the state’s municipalities have prohibited legal marijuana markets, leaving consumers in those places at the mercy of the black market. Additionally, prohibition in other states and at the federal level causes much of California’s huge pot crop to be consumed outside the state.

Legalization has already been shown to drive down pot prices. Since legal cannabis is still not widespread enough to discourage illegal production, however, enforcement programs like CAMP continue to battle dangerous unregulated growing operations. It stands to reason that federal legalization—as opposed to the current status quo of piecemeal state and local legalization—would put quite a few more nails in the black market’s coffin. But, as long as prohibition still reigns in the Golden State, CAMP is unlikely to end anytime soon.


[1] Anthony Silvaggio, “Cannabis Agriculture in California: The Environmental Consequences of Prohibition,” in Char Miller, ed., Where There’s Smoke: The Environmental Science, Public Policy, and Politics of Marijuana (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2018), pp. 19–20.

[2] Amos Irwin, “Double Bind: The Intractability of Undocumented Immigrant Trespass Marijuana Grow Operations in US National Forests,” in Char Miller, ed., Where There’s Smoke: The Environmental Science, Public Policy, and Politics of Marijuana (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2018), pp. 109–26.

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