How Legalization Changed Humboldt County Marijuana
For more than forty years, the epicenter of cannabis farming in the United States was a region of northwestern California called the Emerald Triangle, at the intersection of Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity Counties. Of these, Humboldt County is the most famous. It was here, in hills surrounding a small town called Garberville, that hippies landed in the nineteen-sixties, after fleeing the squalor of Berkeley and Haight-Ashbury. They arrived in the aftermath of a timber bust, and clear-cut land was selling for as little as a few hundred dollars an acre. In their pursuit of self-sufficiency, the young idealists homesteaded, gardened naked, and planted seeds from the Mexican cannabis they had grown to love. They learned the practice known as sinsemilla, in which female cannabis plants are isolated from the pollen of their male counterparts, which causes the females to produce high levels of THC. The cultivators smuggled in strains of Cannabis indica from South Asia and bred hybrids with sativas from Mexico. They learned to use light deprivation to encourage premature flowering, and they practiced selective breeding to isolate for the most desirable potency, scent, and appearance.
In the years that followed, the back-to-the-land movement, which began as a protest of American materialism, was increasingly subsidized, in Humboldt, by profits from cannabis. In the nineteen-eighties, as the war on drugs escalated, the growers responded by developing techniques to cultivate cannabis indoors or beneath trees. Their children, many of whom grew up poor, were less inclined to pursue “voluntary simplicity” for idealistic reasons. The cannabis industry represented the best living they could make in the place where they grew up, and a fairly lucrative one, especially after California legalized marijuana for medical use, in 1996. For those from the older generation who had believed that “dropping out” required serious economic sacrifice, the crop was the original sin of Humboldt’s Eden. Jentri Anders, the author of “Beyond Counterculture,” an anthropological study of the back-to-the-landers of southern Humboldt County, wrote, in 2012, “I believe I realized much earlier than most that, if there was indeed a shared vision, it was in grave danger of being swamped, distorted and subsumed by the advent of the growing industry.” She continued, “I feared early on that the entire geographical area, mainstream and hippie alike, would come to be defined by the outside world through the lens of the marijuana industry, and that is exactly what happened.”
In 2016, operating under California’s medical-marijuana laws, Humboldt County officials began to try to license their half-hidden industry for the first time. Farmers who had been hiding from law enforcement for years were asked to present themselves to authorities and to comply with new commercial-growing ordinances. Statewide legalization of recreational marijuana for adult use followed two years later. Before legalization, people grew cannabis however they could and developed methods to avoid getting caught by law enforcement. Regulation demands a different set of skills. Instead of burning records, farmers must now practice accounting. Instead of loading their crop into duffel bags and sending it out of state, they have to learn branding and marketing. Legalization brings with it the costs of taxes, permitting, compliance, and new competitors. It has also occasioned a rapid drop in price. Now Humboldt County is experiencing not only an economic crisis but also an existential one. What happens to a group of people whose anti-government ethos was sustained by an illegal plant that is now the most regulated crop in California? Forced into the open, and facing the very real possibility of economic extinction, the farmers of Humboldt are now trying to convince regulators and buyers that these outlaws who had profited off prohibition were not greedy criminals but people who stood for something: stewardship of the land, the biodiversity of a crop, resistance to corporate consolidation, and a spiritual connection to a psychoactive plant.
Garberville, the supply hub of southern Humboldt County, is perched on the south fork of the Eel River. The town’s main street, Redwood Drive, can be walked in five minutes. Garberville has the rough edges of a gold-rush town, but with peace flags and hemp lattes. It’s a place where men in Carhartt jackets and hunting camo drink ginger Yogi tea and park muddied Dodge Rams outside the Woodrose Café, where they eat organic buckwheat pancakes. The town has a natural-food store where you can buy locally sourced Humboldt Fog cheese, and a home-goods store where you can buy a wool mattress or a composting toilet. When I visited in February, the marquee of a shuttered movie theatre in town bore the slogan of a newly formed visitors’ bureau: “Elevate the Magic.” But Garberville did not seem entirely ready to make itself over as a place for a romantic getaway—forty years of paranoia and chosen seclusion are not easily dispelled. The town relies on a cash-heavy, still partly clandestine economy, and it has a significant population of homeless people with drug dependencies. Locals advised me in advance to avoid certain motels. I checked into the local Best Western, where the receptionist told me that the rule she had learned when she moved to Garberville was never to go down a dirt road.
A farmer named Jason Gellman picked me up at the hotel on a night of pouring rain. He drove a gray Ford pickup truck—a four-door, high-clearance rig, which looked imposing on the outside, but, once I clambered up and settled in, it was like floating in a soundproofed cloud. Gellman is thirty-nine years old, clean-shaven, and tan from working outdoors. He wore a gray hooded sweatshirt, with green stars down the sleeves, and a flat-brimmed baseball hat, which bore the logo of his business, Ridgeline Farms. My ears popped as we drove, heading to Ridgeline on a road with no shoulder that ascended from town. We passed a rock barrier that had been spray-painted white and had the words “STAY CLASSY SOUTH HUM” written on it, in green. We splashed through puddles, and the windshield wipers were on high. The torrent outside was Shakespearean, but Gellman was pleased with the weather, which was like the winters he remembered from his childhood—weather, as he put it, in which people either got pregnant or got divorced.
Gellman’s parents were hippies who moved to Humboldt County when he was two years old, in the early eighties. They eventually managed to buy their own property, in an enclave near Garberville called Harris. Gellman’s mom did beadwork, and his father did leatherwork and carpentry. They grew their own vegetables. And, like many of their neighbors, the family grew cannabis. At that time, ten pounds of marijuana—the amount produced by eight or ten plants in a harvest cycle—could be sold for as much as forty thousand dollars, enough to support a family that grew most of its own food.
“We grew up really poor,” Gellman said, as we arrived at an electronic gate at the entrance to his property. Gellman is a fisherman, and the gate was decorated with stainless-steel salmon. He rolled down his window and typed in a code, and we drove up the driveway to a large, beige house. Gellman laughed and said, “Here I am talking about how poor we were as we pull up to this.” It looked more like a house you would find in a gated community than one on a mountaintop hundreds of miles from a major city. A border collie and a wolfish mutt wandered out of the garage and stood in the rain to greet the pickup. We passed through an entryway into a spacious open-plan kitchen that looked onto a high-ceilinged great room with a fireplace.
In Humboldt County, cannabis is known simply as “the plant.” Gellman grew up with the plant, pruning its leaves for his parents as a child. He can’t remember exactly when the federal government first raided the family farm, only that he was six or seven years old, which would have been around 1987. He told me, “I was sitting on the porch and a giant military helicopter was like a hundred feet over our house, banking on our house, and my dad comes flying up in the four-wheeler, yelling, ‘Get in the rig!’ ” When they returned later, the cannabis had been cut down; their house was ransacked. Busts, which sometimes landed growers in jail, started happening more often after 1983, when the Reagan Administration began the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, a paramilitary operation also known as CAMP. Shortly after the first bust on the family property, Gellman’s parents split up. His dad continued to grow his crop in the same place every year. On years when the farm got busted, his dad would get depressed for weeks. Christmas would be cancelled.
Most years, however, were good. Many of the children Gellman played with at school came from families who grew cannabis, although the subject was not openly discussed. “We couldn’t tell anyone, and that was just how our life was,” Gellman said. “You didn’t think it was bad, because when your dad does it and your mom does it, every single person, every single friend, grows weed—every one of their family members grows weed—it’s not looked upon as bad. It still isn’t bad, but you knew the outside world thought of it as bad.” Many of the children of cannabis farmers had a conflicted relationship to law enforcement. Another second-generation farmer, Wendy Kornberg, told me that one of her earliest memories was of a cop in a helicopter hovering over her house and giving her and her mom the middle finger. “That was the mentality,” she said. “ ‘You damn hippies need to go somewhere else and do something else.’ ”
Why California won't necessarily grow (all) America's marijuana
SALINAS, Calif. — This state has long been dubbed America’s salad bowl, because of the ability of California’s industrial-scale farms to produce food in mass quantities. Beginning this year, it will also begin widespread legal production of a very different crop.
The grower of more than one-third of the nation’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts is expected to begin providing an outsize share of its marijuana, after the drug became legal for recreational use on Jan. 1. But it’s still not clear who will produce all that pot: small growers, who have been cultivating it for years; big agribusiness, with the resources for mass production; or the black market, which will probably ignore the state’s expensive new growing rules.
That uncertainty is because marijuana remains illegal under federal law and will be highly taxed and expensive to produce under California law. That could slow the state from taking a leading production role nationally, at least for legal cannabis, in the near term.
California entrepreneur now turns to legal weed
California is already an outsize contributor of black-market marijuana for the rest of the country, with more than four-fifths of the 13.5 million pounds grown in the state last year ending up in other markets, according to the state Department of Food and Agriculture. Much of that marijuana has come from the Emerald Triangle, in the verdant northern reaches of the state. Estimates suggest the state has produced as much as 80 percent of the nation’s illicit marijuana.
Steve DeAngelo, the executive director of Harborside in Oakland, one of the state’s biggest cannabis dispensaries, and also a partner in a marijuana cultivation venture, hopes that the state can take nearly as dominant a position as legal use spreads across the country.
“I see it as California’s natural legacy, its destiny,” he said, “to supply 50 percent of the legal U.S. cannabis market.”
Players who hope to strike it big in the state’s newly legalized environment — under a ballot measure approved by voters in November 2016 — are setting up farms throughout California, from former flower hothouses in the Salinas Valley, to Silicon Valley warehouses, to farms in the high desert community of California City.
The principals include people like DeAngelo, the pot evangelist who sold his first joint at age 15; the son of reggae icon Bob Marley; former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson; and Jeff Brothers, a one-time Republican Party leader who plans to have military veterans tend his greenhouses.
Brothers, who ran cut-flower farms in Salinas for decades, said California’s climate, labor pool and deep experience in agriculture make it a natural to become a national leader in legal marijuana production.
“When we no longer have a moratorium on delivering cannabis across state lines, California will end up in the position where it ends up in virtually every other agricultural commodity, which is in a very strong position or at the top,” said Brothers. “I like to say these operations will become like a Mondavi or Gallo of the industry.”
The ban on interstate shipments of marijuana remains in place, because the federal government still deems the substance an illegal “Schedule One” drug. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has long resisted petitions to change that status, which groups marijuana alongside drugs like LSD, peyote and heroin. All are deemed to have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”
The divide between the states and federal government became more pronounced last week, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that he would give federal prosecutors the power to prosecute marijuana crimes. It was not immediately clear whether U.S. attorneys would act on that power, but it was a marked contrast from an Obama administration policy that shielded legalized marijuana from federal intervention.
That hard line against pot also flies in the face of public opinion and the law in 29 states, which allow marijuana to be used for medical purposes. Eight states, including California, now also allow pot to be used for recreational purposes.
Some states that have legalized recreational cannabis use, like Colorado, have seen legal cultivation skyrocket, said Tom Adams of BDS Analytics, an industry analyst based in Boulder, Colorado. Grow houses have mushroomed around the Rocky Mountain state and driven out most black-market competitors, with only about 20 percent of sales now going to illicit operators, Adams said.
This may be partly because legal pot is price-competitive with the illegal product, since Colorado has kept taxes relatively low, with a 15-percent excise tax and sales taxes that average 6 percent, depending on locality.
The state of Washington, in contrast, levies a 37 percent excise tax on legal marijuana sales, in addition to sales taxes that average nearly 9 percent. That is keeping as many as half of Washington’s cannabis buyers on the black market, where taxes are not levied, according to BDS Analytics.
Advocates of legal marijuana fear that high taxes in California — with state and local levies reaching 30 percent and higher — could also leave a sizable portion of the nation’s biggest market to illicit dealers.
The strict regulatory framework in California is estimated to add $560 a pound to the cost of wholesale pot. That may be sustainable if indoor-cultivated pot prices remain above $2,000 a pound wholesale. But growers worry that a glut from new cultivation will push the price sharply downward.
“Right now is the biggest time ever for cowboy production,” said Bernard Steimann, CEO of People’s dispensary in Orange County, and also a partner in grow houses in the Salinas Valley, who fears competition from unlicensed competitors.
Growers say they face several other hurdles that make the push into mass marijuana cultivation something less than a gold rush.
One challenge is high costs. Contractors for everything from fencing to septic tank servicing also see an opportunity in marijuana and are charging more. “For anything you want, there are two different prices — one for the cannabis grower and one for the noncannabis grower,” said Sergio Silva, a 35-year veteran of farming in Salinas, who has partnered with Steimann to grow marijuana.
Another challenge is building infrastructure. To grow at the maximum rate — turning five harvests in a year — farmers need extra light. But several Salinas-area growers said their utility company, Pacific Gas & Electric, has said they will have to wait a year, maybe two, for the capacity they need to fully light their grow houses. (The utility said the work takes up to six months.)
The state was contemplating another brake on mega-growers: a one-acre limit on farms for the first five years after legalization. Such limits are designed to prevent agribusiness from overwhelming the long-time growers — many in the north end of the state — who had established the industry during its many decades on the margins. But when interim regulations were issued in November, the one-acre limit was not included.
Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association, who represents long-time pot farmers, said the failure to limit the size of farms “rolled out the red carpet to big multinational conglomerates” to take over the pot industry.
DeAngelo, of Oakland’s Harborside dispensary, said that there will always be room for smaller operators but that some California farms need to go big to compete with other states and to make prices low enough for everyone to enjoy the benefits of pot.
“That is what we do really well in California,” he said. “Produce good, high-quality crops in mass and at a low cost.”