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The Future of Marijuana in California

A three-part series on the environmental, economic, and legal implications of recent regulations — and of possible legalization.

By Zach St. George


California’s Proposition 64, which would legalize recreational use of cannabis in California, is slightly favored to pass, according to recent polls. (Photo: Zach St. George)

Ross won’t give me his last name, but he is otherwise transparent in his intentions: “I’M READY TO WORK” read the fliers plastered all over his repurposed Snap-On van, words set against a background of cartoon scissors. On the drivers’ side of the van, he’s used tape to write in big letters, “Hire me to trim — win a prize.” It’s a Fleetwood Mac box set, he says, although at the moment he’s doubtful that anybody is going to win it — he’s been here four days and hasn’t gotten even a nibble.

Ross, sitting in the driver’s seat, has dark eyes, a checkered shirt, and a voluminous black-and-gray beard that flows uninterrupted into a ponytail. A black-velvet painting of Elvis sits by the passenger-side door. He’s parked along the main drag in Garberville, California, a town of roughly 1,000 people in southern Humboldt County that is currently much busier than its on-paper size would suggest. Down the sidewalk from his van, a group of long-haired kids sit in the shade listening to music. More, wearing backpacks, wander by toward the grocery store. On the street, there is a steady stream of dusty pick-up trucks. The swirl of activity seems to stoke Ross’ pessimism: These growers in their trucks, these would-be trimmers, all these stores that depend on the money — once marijuana is legalized for recreational use in California, it will all go away, he says. “This is the end of the gold rush.”

He may be right. At the very least, legalization would bring massive change to the county. Humboldt is the top western corner of what is known, along with Mendocino and Trinity counties, as the “Emerald Triangle.” For decades, the region has been the top cannabis-producing region in the state, which, in turn, produces as much as 80 percent of the cannabis in the country, according to a 2010 report by an anti-drug task force in California’s Central Valley. (Pot is a plant blessed in synonyms; here in Humboldt, “cannabis” is most polite.) It’s long been an open secret here; only the most unobservant tourist would fail to notice the hydroponic shops on every corner, the ubiquitous advertisements for soil and nutrients, and especially the ever-present smell: sweet and musky, somewhere between perfume and old taxidermy. Half the county smells like weed.

Forcing the county’s cannabis industry out of the black market could mean an end to the runaway environmental degradation currently taking place — but the destruction could also get much worse before it gets better.

Much of the industry’s influence in Humboldt, though, is less obvious. While no one knows exactly what share of the county’s economy is tied to the black market cannabis industry, most estimates are that it’s between a quarter and a third of the total. The money, one way or another, finds its way into local businesses, hospitals, media, political campaigns, and even law enforcement, which every year seizes hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash during raids on cannabis grows. These busts often highlight another side of cannabis production in the county — the scenes of environmental degradation and violence. Law enforcement’s ability to crack down, though, is waning, and locals say the cannabis business is booming like never before.

And now legalization threatens to turn it all on its head. If California votes yes on Proposition 64, the state would join Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska in legalizing marijuana for recreational use (Massachusetts, Arizona, Maine, and Nevada will also vote on recreational legalization); 25 other states have legalized medicinal use, with four more voting on it this election. In 2010, Humboldt voted with the state against Proposition 19, which would have legalized recreational use; many growers feared that legalization would undercut their prices and a way of life they’ve enjoyed for the last 40 years. As Chyrstal Ortiz, operations manager at a local growers’ collective, points out, the other states that legalized stood to gain a new industry. While that might be true for other parts of California, legalization would leave Humboldt trying to hold onto what it already has. “Nowhere has an industry to lose like we do,” she says.

According to recent polls, legalization is slightly favored to pass. But even if the proposition fails, the state and county are implementing new measures that could drastically change the cannabis industry here. Last fall, the state agency that regulates agricultural runoff issued new requirements specifically for cannabis farmers, and, this summer, Humboldt County started requiring them to register their businesses. While only a small minority of growers thus far has stepped forward to comply with the regulations, the new requirements have sent ripples through the growing community — an opportunity for the first time to talk openly about what they actually do for a living. It will also mean new taxes, more paperwork, and could mean lower prices.

The stories in this series will examine the changes currently taking place in Humboldt’s cannabis industry, as well as the changes that might occur if cannabis is legalized for recreational use on November 8th. They are stories of possibilities: Forcing the county’s cannabis industry out of the black market could mean an end to the runaway environmental degradation currently taking place — but the destruction could also get much worse before it gets better. It could mean greater legal protections for the hundreds of people like Ross who migrate to the county every fall hoping to find jobs trimming cannabis buds — but it could also mean far fewer jobs. For the county as a whole, it could mean the beginning of a new, sustainable, above-ground economy, like the wine and tourism economies of Napa and Sonoma. But it could also follow the boom-and-bust pattern of the county’s earlier economies: gold and timber. Humboldt’s small farmers have long held an outsize place in the cannabis industry in America; they could continue to exert that pull, influencing the future of weed both in the state and the nation — or it could all go away.