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Law and Crime

California Cannabis Legalization Stirs Government Crime Spree

The public has the power to change it.

Key points

  • Legalization of cannabis in California has spawned a statewide racketeering crime spree among government officials.
  • Psychologists working with economists have identified ways that citizens can deter corruption.
  • Power reveals innate tendencies of politicians, but psychologists contend that citizens can identify corruptible candidates before voting.
Source: Debbie Peterson/heyjasperai
These California cities and counties all face insider cannabis corruption charges.
Source: Debbie Peterson/heyjasperai

Government corruption at any level is destructive to both individual mental health and social well-being. And yet it persists. The best way to deter it, psychologists find, is through the actions of ordinary citizens.

In California, the Los Angeles Times reports, lawmakers are calling for a sweeping investigation into corruption in the state’s cannabis industry. This comes after revelations of rampant abuses and worker deaths in the multibillion-dollar cannabis market, referred to by Times reporters as "the wild west." The journalists uncovered 32 farm worker deaths that were not reported to the state's Department of Industrial Relations, according to a spokesperson from the Department.

Cannabis was legalized in California in 2016, with the first licenses becoming available in 2019. The Times' discovery is one of dozens of press and media reports of insider racketeering committed by city and county officials, consultants, and staff. The number of violations since legalization dwarfs the occasionally reported developer fraud and conflict of interest violations.

Racketeering—dishonest and fraudulent business dealings—and corruption, the abuse of entrusted power for private gain, harm citizens directly and indirectly. When local public officials raid the public treasury, funding for public services is reduced, straining essential government services such as police and fire and compromising infrastructure maintenance, such as street repairs and water and sewer systems. In order to maintain services, the funds have to be replaced by raising taxes, thus reducing individuals’ disposable income. Either way, the public loses. When officials do business with criminals, the criminals are attracted to locating nearby, increasing crime.

Psychologists and economists have teamed up to determine which activities are effective in preventing corruption. In a 2018 study, “The Cognitive Psychology of Corruption,” political economist Kendra Dupuy and political psychologist Siri Neset of the Michelson Institute found that the best deterrents are citizens who insist on open and honest government processes, refuse to accept rationalization of small or large breaches of the public trust, make it known that corrupt behavior will be punished, and immediately report and confront corruption of any kind.

3 ways everyday people can deter government corruption

Perceiving corruption where it is present and drawing on that perception to assess public officials are vital acts of citizenship. The following suggestions are the most effective and practical deterrents arising from recent psychology research.

1. Trust your eyes and compare notes with others. The journal Psychological Science reports that 70 percent of the time, people correctly detect corrupt politicians simply by looking at photographs. The judgments are much more accurate when they are combined across a group of people. Participants could attribute from photos the traits that differentiate politicians who are corruptible from those who are not—corruptibility, dishonesty, selfishness, and aggressiveness vs. generosity and trustworthiness.

2. Wise up to weasel words, aka rationalization. Rationalizations are mental strategies that enable perpetrators (and others around them) to view their corrupt acts as justified. These include justifications such as “Everybody’s doing it” and "It's business as usual” to camouflage and excuse lying, cheating, and stealing. Projection is another mental strategy used, in which others are accused of what you do, which then becomes a form of “Everybody’s doing it” and takes the focus away from the bad action and the bad actor. Rationalization makes corruption seem like acceptable everyday behavior. Guard against rationalization and watch for accusations, especially in the context of bad behavior from favored politicians.

3. Show up. Political accountability occurs when citizens encounter evidence of policy successes and failures and accurately assign credit and blame for what they see. Citizen responsibility doesn’t stop at the ballot box. When citizens demand or carry out independent audits and make sure that the results are reported, the behavior of bureaucrats improves. In addition to eyeballing the officials themselves, eyeball information about the inner workings of government, including accounts, agendas, minutes, and staff reports. Then publicly question anything that doesn’t look right.

Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy reports that if power holders believe they will not be held accountable for their actions, they are more likely to act corruptly. The institute sees the solution as speaking out about the costs of corruption. It worked in October 2022, when California Assembly member Cristina Garcia called on California’s state attorney to launch a corruption task force centered on cannabis licensing.

Why actions by citizens are so important

Psychologists are reconsidering the notion that “power corrupts absolutely” and theorizing that, rather than being a corrupting influence, power amplifies leaders’ innate tendencies. It is not that power corrupts or even that power is magnetic to the corruptible; power reveals the real person. It's important for voters to determine a candidate’s innate tendencies before they vote and, after voting, to monitor the person's performance in managing the tax dollars they are elected to steward.


St. John, Paige, Elmahrek, Adam. (January 29, 2023). Lawmakers want investigation, hearings into ‘Wild West’ of California cannabis and farm work.” Los Angeles Times.

Garcia, Christine. (October 13, 2022). Letter from California Assemblywoman detailing cannabis industry corruption asking State Attorney General to investigate.

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