“They will try to write you out. We cannot let that happen,” said California Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom to a packed playhouse full of Emerald Triangle farmers, county supervisors, environmentalists, land owners and other community members who enthusiastically welcomed his openness and his interest in preserving their way of life.
He was speaking of the bigger statewide interests present in Sacramento that will want to control the California cannabis industry in ways that don’t include preserving the small farm and encouraging farmers to comply with water and environmental regulations.
“There isn’t a plan, which is why we’re here, and we need a plan, or else we wouldn’t be here,” Newsom said in answer to a local’s question about how transporting cannabis across county lines would be handled in upcoming legislation. (Huffman called it “trafficking” but a few audience members suggested calling it “transport,” a less loaded term.)
Newsom stressed the importance of having a plan for adult-use legalization. His concerns regarding legalization were primarily about the impact it will have on minors and how cannabis may impact brain development in growing minds. But it wasn’t just the kids. Newsom was also concerned about the quality of life for regions that currently rely on the gray/black market of cannabis in a post-Prohibition era.
“It’s time to tax and regulate marijuana for adults, but that comes with a lot of caveats,” Newsom said after U.S. Congressman Jared Huffman introduced him. Huffman arranged for Newsom and members of the Blue Ribbon Commission to visit Humboldt and hear for themselves the concerns and opportunities these farming communities face.
“We need to make sure we have the facts and work against some of those bigger forces,” Newsom said.
Before the public forum, there was an invite-only Stakeholders Forum where a couple dozen people attended — quite the small crowd compared to the 250 plus people who packed in the playhouse and weathered the swampy, hot atmosphere. Huffman lead the discussion and the panel included:
- Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom
- Assemblyman Jim Wood
- Ecologist at Integral Ecology Research Center Mourad Gabriel
- North Coast Water Quality Control Board Chair John Corbett
- Environmental scientist Scott Bauer with the Department of Fish and Wildlife
- Mendocino County CEO Carmel Angelo
- Humboldt Sheriff Mike Downey
- Humboldt District Attorney Maggie Fleming
- California Cannabis Voice Humboldt co-founder and Ganjier co-founder Luke Bruner
- Emerald Growers Association chair and executive Hezekiah Allen
The panelists outlined to the local stakeholders the challenges they saw, the current status of affairs and how the future may look. Huffman described how Congress has been changing rapidly from an insider’s perspective, though he said it’s difficult to tell from the outside. That is what has allowed them to chip away at “antiquated policies” and come much closer to passing sweeping reform every time they try it. One of the biggest steps has been focusing reforms so it’s not the plant count that matters but instead they focus on the extent of the environmental impact. “I feel like I’ve got a lot on my plate,” he said with a chuckle.
Mendocino CEO Carmel Angelo described the progress of this region. Six counties signed a unified policy statement on cannabis legalization: Humboldt, Mendocino, Trinity, Del Norte, Sonoma and Lake counties [Read the Six-County Marijuana Policy Statement as passed by the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors on May 5, 2015 — the 2-page statement starts at page 5]. This level of cooperation was the result of multiple meetings an in-depth discussions about the real issues each county faces. They delivered the policy statement to regional elected officials and the California State Association of Counties. Only one of the 30 delegates didn’t vote to adopt the final version of the policy statement.
Humboldt Supervisor Mark Lovelace spoke to the panel at the stakeholder forum. He lamented the unregulated nature of the medical industry but said there is a moment in time when Humboldt can take its cannabis reputation and “turn it from a punchline into an economic powerhouse.” Trinity Supervisor Judy Morris said her primary concern was how Trinity County could benefit — about 70% of the county is federal land and they don’t have the resources to go after all the trespass grows. If cannabis taxation funds aren’t distributed fairly, her county was looking at being hit hard.
Newsom later said that it had become apparent that a regionalized sales tax approach — an extra tax that the consumer has to pay and would primarily fund the county/city where it was sold — would leave the production regions with no money for enforcement or environmental remediation.
Water is Bauer’s No. 1 concern — “We went out yesterday and we’re seeing the creeks running dry.” They’ll begin monitoring real time flow to identify trends and identify causes of water loss, such as illegal diversion. But they only have so many people who can monitor that while also sending out the watershed enforcement team to work on compliance. Part of the team helps bust trespass grows and the other part works with people impacting their watersheds. Bauer said they have more people coming in for water permits than they can handle, and local consulting firms have lines of 20-40 people who want help coming into compliance. Focusing on key watersheds is important and his organization is working with CCVH on the Humboldt ordinance.
Gabriel outlined problems that echoed Bauer’s — they had difficulty funding staff to eradicate illegal grows, and even when they did they often can’t immediately remediate the site. With thousands of sites in need of remediation in their backlog, additional funding will be needed if the problems are going to be addressed in a realistic way and the land restored.
Corbett emphasized that the water control board doesn’t care whether you’re growing cannabis commercially or personally, they just want to make sure you’re using your water correctly. Cannabis farmers aren’t the only ones who don’t handle their water properly — there are at least 2,000 illegal stockwater ponds in California, according to Corbett.
On the topic of law enforcement, Sheriff Downey wanted clear direction from the state level on what is and is not legal. The currently language in California leaves too much open ended and he’s tired of sending people through the court system with charges that won’t hold up. And it doesn’t help that the rules change from county to county. “I work with 57 sheriff’s and I get a different read from almost every one of them.”
“I want to preserve and protect the community I live in,” Downey said. The uncertainty “has got to end. It’s becoming more confusing and more difficult to deal with.”
Is the sheriff in favor of legalization for adult use? “I’m not necessarily a pro-legalization guy, but I’m a pro-this county guy,” Downey said.
Huffman pointed out that a lot of pushback on the state level to reforms has come from the Sheriff’s Organization. Downey agreed with Huffman that it was true in the past, but the Sheriff’s Organization is now more neutral on the matter.
DA Fleming’s report highlighted the main problem from her perspective: No trespass grows are legal, and the people who do them are typically “greedy growers” who come from out of the area to make a quick buck and damage the land because they don’t have to live with the repercussions of the damage when they take the money and run. Using civil codes to enforce cannabis regulations as opposed to criminal codes means that instead of jail time, farmers will get the same fines others receive for damaging the environment. Of course, when other criminal activity is present, the civil codes are a topping.
Bruner of CCVH said he agreed with the other panelists concerns, and “We want to be the allies you’re looking for.” The issue of trespass grows on federal lands and private lands creates a wide array of complications, he said. But for all the farmers who try their best to follow regulations and be good stewards to the land, trespass grows mean something else: illegal, unfair competition.
“From the outside, cannabis looks very special,” Bruner said. “From the inside, we think we’re like everybody else.”Illegal sites grow at an artificially low cost since they aren’t paying for land or water and they grow in quantity. This floods the market with cheap, mediocre product that lowering the price and respect that responsible farmers can get for their hard work. “That doesn’t occur with alfalfa or wine grapes,” Bruner said.
The elected officials and others who came up to Humboldt learned a lot of new information about the industry perspective from the country’s largest cannabis production region. Some of it came down to how we talk about the topic in its most basic terms. “Marijuana” is offensive and “cannabis” is the preferred term, Steve Geider of Northcoast Horticulture Supply told the panel to a general consensus from the crowd. That was news to many on the panel and not all of them agreed, but most started saying “cannabis” the rest of the meeting. When Bruner asked “By a show of hands, who wants to pay their taxes?” — almost every hand in the room went up.
Newsom and the rest who visited Humboldt definitely have more insight on what this region’s needs are. What they do with the knowledge and how we continue this line of conversation are what is important moving forward.