The black market operation sells, among other products, bootleg THC vape pens linked to the rash of severe lung illnesses plaguing the country. And yet, there it is, listed on Yelp as if it were just another Italian restaurant or craft store. "I really love the vibes at this place but it is usually a wait to go in," one reviewer wrote. University 20 Cap is one of an untold number of unlicensed dispensaries operating in plain sight across Los Angeles and appearing on Yelp. The popular business review site is littered with dozens upon dozens of listings for marijuana shops that are illegally selling products, according to an NBC News investigation.
"This is a clear public health threat that needs to be addressed," said Raphael Cuomo, an assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego, who is researching the public health effects of vaping. Cuomo said big online companies like Yelp have little incentive to better police their content. "We haven't seen strong evidence that they are going to suffer a great deal of backlash whether from the public or legislators," Cuomo said. Yelp says it bars from its platform any cannabis businesses in states where cannabis isn't medically or recreationally legal. But when reached by NBC News, a Yelp spokesperson said the company had no idea it was hosting listings for unlicensed cannabis dealers in California, where marijuana is legal but businesses must obtain city licenses to sell it. In response to questions, Yelp said it won't remove the illegal businesses. "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 spokesperson said. "Consumers have a right to speak their minds about all businesses, irrespective of licensing status." But Yelp said it's planning to make a policy shift spurred by the NBC News investigation.
"It simply isn't true that unlicensed operators have an easy path to list on Weedmaps," Beals said. "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." The challenge of cracking down on rogue pot shops goes beyond websites and mobile apps. State regulators and local law enforcement have been locked in a battle with unlicensed sellers since California legalized recreational marijuana in 2018. An industry-sponsored analysis released last fall found that illicit dealers outnumbered legal dispensaries by 3 to 1.
Los Angeles police have launched several raids in recent months and shuttered multiple rogue shops — at least temporarily. NBC News was invited to accompany officers in November as they inspected various shops suspected of selling marijuana products illegally.