NEWS
Looking for Black Market Bud in Southern California? Yelp Can Point the Way
As California works to nix the swell of illicit pot shops, Yelp has become a hub for listings of unregulated dispensaries.
Published on February 11, 2020

Two years into adult-use cannabis legalization, California cannabis regulators are still stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the state’s prolific black market. And as SoCal cops continue to raid illicit dispensaries and wood chip their way through unlicensed grow sites, a new tool has emerged to help underground operators get the word out about their wares: Yelp.

Yes, the DIY food critic website has now evolved into a directory for Southern California’s vast network of black market dispensaries. According to a new investigation from NBC News, unlicensed pot shops across the Southland have profiles on the community review site, with location pins, posted hours, and countless reviews recommending unregulated flower, vape cartridges, edibles, and more.

"This is a clear public health threat that needs to be addressed," Raphael Cuomo, an assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego, where he is researching the vape crisis, told NBC. Cuomo said that companies like Yelp are rarely held accountable for their part in the cannabis black market because posts on the site come from community members, and not the website itself.

"We haven't seen strong evidence that [Yelp is] going to suffer a great deal of backlash, whether from the public or legislators," Cuomo added.

Previously, the Irvine-based website Weedmaps has served as the industry’s most visible dispensary directory, for both fully licensed and off-book pot shops. But at the turn of 2020, Weedmaps said that it would take steps to remove unlicensed listings and require state license verification from dispensaries. 

"It simply isn't true that unlicensed operators have an easy path to list on Weedmaps," Weedmaps CEO Chris Beals told NBC about the site’s updated policies. "Between the vetting processes in place for our suite of products, internal reviews, and responses to reports from users, licensed shop owners, regulators, and law enforcement, Weedmaps has a robust process in place to ensure the cannabis operators on the site are licensed."

In a direct response to the NBC investigation, Yelp officials said that they would begin implementing a license verification process of their own, but would not remove listings for unlicensed dispensaries. Instead, Yelp will place large red warnings on listings for dispensaries that have not provided the site with proof of their licenses. 

"Removing local businesses from Yelp could hurt consumers as they would no longer have that resource for information, whether positive or negative, about the business," a Yelp spokesperson told NBC. "Consumers have a right to speak their minds about all businesses, irrespective of licensing status."

As of September 2019, California regulators estimated that the state had more than three times as many unregulated pot shops as fully licensed dispensaries. But no matter how many raids state and local cops make, the Golden State is still struggling to make a dent in the underground market. And with mainstream websites like Yelp leading the way for unscrupulous buyers, there might not be an end in sight. 

"We are trying very hard to make it as difficult as possible for them to operate," Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer said. "But they continue to try to find ways around the system."

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Zach Harris is a writer based in Philadelphia whose work has appeared on Noisey, First We Feast, and Jenkem Magazine. You can find him on Twitter @10000youtubes complaining about NBA referees.
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