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“Legal Weed, Broken Promises”

Excellence in Business/Financial Reporting

Los Angeles Times, 2023


Investigative journalists from the Los Angeles Times endeavored to explore how the business of growing and marketing recreational cannabis has evolved since its legalization in California in 2016.  The Times’ investigation concluded that the legalization of recreational cannabis didn’t solve the major problems of the illegal marijuana trade as its proponents had once promised. 

What they found was a multi-billion-dollar industry in complete disarray, tainted by government corruption, deceit, continued illegal growing operations and an exploited labor force. Workers are often cheated out of their wages and live in horrendously squalid conditions. Perhaps most shocking was the investigation’s finding that at least 35 laborers have died – 20 of carbon monoxide poisoning – while working on cannabis farms in California and Southern Oregon. The investigation found the workers’ desperate plight has been largely ignored and the deaths unreported to the state labor regulatory agency.  

The Times reporters overcame formidable challenges to capture the sheer scope of the story. They traveled thousands of miles into remote areas of the state – from the Mexican border to Oregon – to interview growers, laborers, entrepreneurs, government officials, law enforcement officers, field agents, regulators, individuals with marijuana-related convictions and countless others involved in the industry.  

Many of the people they sought to interview were distrustful of journalists, didn’t welcome their attention, or feared retaliation and violence if they talked. Outlaw camps they visited were often guarded by men with guns. During one trip, Times photojournalist Brian van der Brug was surrounded by a group of angry men, one of whom used a tire iron to smash his rental car.  

The Times’ wide-ranging investigation also involved reporters combing through thousands of pages of court records, campaign finance documents, financial disclosures, emails, text messages and more.  

Times investigative reporter Paige St. John used public and private satellite imagery to visually demonstrate the extent of illegal cannabis cultivation over nearly 3,000 square miles of the state. Her work showed conclusively that illicit outdoor production has increased in California after the state reduced criminal penalties for unlicensed operations under the legislation legalizing recreational cannabis.  

The Times’ reporting has led to several outcomes. The governor’s cannabis czar created a multi-agency taskforce to address illegal cannabis. The California Department of Cannabis Control has expanded its regulatory mission, directing officers to investigate evidence of labor exploitation or human trafficking. The state’s workplace safety agency launched an investigation into farmworker deaths identified by the Times. Lawmakers said they would call for hearings on farmworker abuses, introduce protections for cannabis workers and address the failure of cannabis regulators to investigate labor exploitation.