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Investigative report uncovers corruption, social injustice in the California cannabis industry

November 15, 2023

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Paige St. John, Marisa Gerber, Robert Lopez and Ruben Vives accepting their Gold award on Nov. 1 2023. Photo by Kiersten Moss

When California approved Proposition 64 in 2016, legalizing the cannabis business, the government promised it would put an end to the widespread problems in the marijuana industry such as social injustice, environmental degradation, and even murder. 

However, the Los Angeles Times found that not only did the passage of the act fail to address the challenges, but it also triggered a surge in the illegal cannabis business. 

Paige St. John, Adam Elmahrek, Robert J. Lopez, Ruben Vives, Marisa Gerber, and photographer Brian Vander Brug of the LA Times uncovered illegal farms, maltreatment of laborers, corruption, environmental degradation, and murders.

They had been monitoring the cannabis market after the act was passed. However, the complaints they received from people triggered their curiosity to investigate and unravel the secrets of the industry. 

“We followed those leads,” said St. John. Elmahrek added: “We looked into the reports and got a team of reporters together and looked at all the issues that seemed to be plaguing the industry.”

As an illegal market, the writers knew it was going to be a difficult investigation. But they were determined to unravel the secrets, especially for St. John, who spent three years trailing a serial killer in the 70s.

The investigation found corruption in issuing licenses to cannabis farms, revealed a Trinity County supervisor had undisclosed financial transactions with a cannabis farm, and found another official who was intervening on behalf of a cannabis company that was paying him consulting fees.

Challenges faced by the reporters

The reporters needed to get reliable sources who could help open this can of worms. Many witnesses and potential sources did not want to speak to them on the record for fear of retaliation. 

They had to build trust with the people and were fortunate to speak to some of the sources, who are mostly migrants, despite the risk of being killed or deported. 

“We relied on sources to help us with knowledge of the corruption and also to a wide range of public records,” said Lopez. 

They also had the challenge of getting records from government agencies that didn’t want to provide licensing records, property records, court records, and water records.

“We had to fight with Trinity County in particular because I think they wanted to redact or not even provide any sort of licensing information. It was really just pulling teeth trying to get these agencies in some cases to cooperate with us,” said Elmahrek.

The LA Times got their lawyer involved, who wrote a series of letters to the County and threatened to sue if the records were not released to them. Trinity County obliged and started to release the records to the newspaper. 

As an investigation that has not been extensively reported, the reporters found it difficult to get data to tell the stories better. 

“I had to do my own satellite mapping to figure out where the cannabis was,” said St. John. 

Photographer Brian Van Brug was attacked and threatened with a gun by one farm’s security when he was taking pictures.

“The experience was very painful and frustrating at the start, especially when I felt like I was bashing my head into a brick wall,” said St. John. 

Impact of the published investigation

Every investigation is aimed at addressing social issues and problems. The LA Times investigation exposing corruption and social injustice in cannabis has been instrumental in driving policy changes in the cannabis business. 

One of the migrant workers profiled in the piece who had been owed salary for months won her case against her grower and an agreement was reached for the grower to pay installments each month. 

The investigation revealed the death of 34 cannabis workers working on the farms. One of the victims was a worker poisoned by fellow employers because he was asking for his wages. The daughter of the man was promised an open investigation into the matter.

Additionally, Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer sponsored an audit of corruption issues plaguing the cannabis industry. The investigation is ongoing. 

The reporters are happy with the policy changes that have begun to take place as a result of the investigation. 

“It has been rewarding because I have at least brought visibility to some of these problems and the plight of these workers who had no voice and were invisible,” said St. John. 

“What we did with the cannabis investigation in California is unprecedented and will serve as a model,” says Lopez. “I am very positive that many of the same or similar types of problems will arise in other states as they begin to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes.”


  • Kelechukwu Iruoma

    Kelechukwu Iruoma is a multi-award-winning journalist with seven years of experience covering business, environment, politics, global health, and development, including exposing corruption, and social injustice. Some of his stories, which focused on...

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