Can California’s Underground Cannabis Farmers Go Legit?

Photo by Luc Mena.

 
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by Jeremy Daw

on March 3, 2015

The truck came to a stop on the turnout of a dirt driveway wending by hairpins up a steep, forested hill. We had come only three hours north from San Francisco, but from the moment I opened the door I knew I had left urbanity far behind. My boots crunched softly on the ground, lit by bright patches of sun and seasoned by hard scrabble and fallen fir needles. With a long upward stretch, I breathed the air — rich, clean, bursting with scents of pine. Invigorated, I followed the truck’s driver up the driveway, passing through the thick stand of firs toward a meeting of existential importance.

I took twenty steps and entered a different world.

The smallest of the bushes towered over me — probably ten feet tall at the least. They were spaced out in four rows — every five yards, another trunk as thick as a small tree burst from a cloth bag of soil barely big enough to contain it. Each was already in full flower, and as I turned the last bend I was walloped with a symphony of incredible scents — the pine of the forest giving way to citrus, lavender and mango. Unconsciously, my mind went through the calculations: each tree bent under the weight of what would probably become ten pounds of top-shelf, sun-grown marijuana. Twenty years ago, each bush would have been worth $50,000. Today that figure is closer to $10,000 — and still dropping. I could see about two dozen of the monsters, and wondered how many more there were that I couldn’t see around another bend.

On a rickety wooden porch just ahead sat the farmer — a grizzled man of fifty — and his dog. The dog stood up at our approach but the farmer, recognizing my companion, waved us through without a word. We passed by into a cool meeting hall where a dozen local activists had already gathered; between the scattered conversation over California’s drought and how it affected soil conditions, a solemn hush had already begun to descend, in recognition of the responsibility of the moment.

This was not just any cannabis-producing community, after all. It’s Mendocino County, gateway to the Emerald Triangle. The world, we knew, was watching.

It is generally acknowledged that the quantity of cannabis produced by the Northern California counties of Mendocino, Trinity and Humboldt — which form a verdant inverted triangle abutting southern Oregon — is nothing short of gargantuan. No accurate records exist, but the area is believed to be the biggest cannabis-producing region anywhere on earth, comprising a significant chunk of a national industry estimated at around $35 billion annually. The cannabis producers run the full gamut of personalities — from kindly fourth-generation grandmas growing adjunct arthritis therapies to multinational drug traffickers with weapons caches that could outfit a small army. Some moved up here in the 1960s or even earlier, seeking remote countryside far from spying police eyes where they could help turn on their friends in San Francisco. Some come only for one season, leasing a sunny parcel of hill for a summer before literally flying by night to blow their proceeds on a winter in Thailand or some other exotic locale. Some come with thoughts only of enriching themselves and, upon finding fertile soil, metastasize. These souls, ill-content with their patch of sun, clear-cut more forest; trammeled by their water capacity, they steal from their neighbors; affronted by law enforcement, they settle their own disputes — often with guns.

Such has been the situation in Mendocino for forty years, but now change is coming faster than anyone here can remember. The legal and economic forces which created the Emerald Triangle in the first place are quickly going away, probably never to return again; the small farmers who gathered on this sunny fall afternoon had left behind their frantic harvest prep schedule to try to find a way to survive.

My companion who had driven me there, Justin Calvino, exemplified the paradoxes newly faced by the small Mendocino farmer. Landing in Mendo six years ago as a dreadlocked, pot-smoking biodynamic farming specialist from Georgia, Calvino quickly ascertained a number of environmental problems which disturbed him deeply. The artificially inflated price of drug war cannabis, for example, has created strong economic incentives for farmers to tax watersheds far beyond their typical carrying capacity. Creeks which used to run all year now dry up to cracked sun-baked beds by August. Pacific salmon, already beset on nearly every conceivable side, can no longer run up many of their traditional streams.

And the trees. Whereas the logging companies, which preceded the growers, had an economic incentive to at least re-plant trees in the wake of their saws, the cost-benefit analysis of a cannabis grower operating under the constraints of the War on Drugs strongly favors gettin’ while the gettin’s good. After weeks of sitting exposed under the watchful eyes of government helicopters (courtesy of the much-maligned state-federal Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, or CAMP) while harvesting, curing and trimming hundreds or even thousands of pounds of a Schedule I drug, no clandestine grower has any incentive to replant the firs or redwoods which stood there before. The best of them commit to their land, enriching it over time and never drawing more water than their streams can afford. Others simply clear-cut another hill next year.

Calvino, with his training in sustainable farming techniques, immediately ascertained a wide divergence between the conscientious techniques of a cohort of small, dedicated family farmers and the rapacious ravages of the multinational cartels and opportunistic city kids who gave so much of Mendocino’s cannabis industry a bad name. He stopped smoking weed, cut his dreadlocks and founded the Regenerative Design Center in the town of Mendocino (perched on a rocky abutment from the county’s foggy coast), where he works tirelessly to empower local activists interested in promoting a more environmentally sustainable local economy.

I watched him handshake his way through the room. These were his people, alright. In sharp contrast to the image of young, rebellious cannabis growers pushed by music and big media companies, the group of dedicated farmers who assembled on this fall day appeared to sport a median age in the neighborhood of fifty, and probably would have easily carried sixty were it not for a vibrant gaggle of youngsters. Calvino, an energetic 32-year-old, was among those at the kids’ table. These youngsters saw their elders’ awed respect for the land as a way of life worth emulating. Each was deeply invested in his or her land; one man (by appearances, a youthful sixty) broke down crying as he described his challenges with his new neighbors — young kids from the city who would probably be gone next year, but for now are quite content to steal his water. For him, it wasn’t just about the plants; the incident had violated his vision of a sustainable way of life.

But within minutes the conversation had shifted from such local troubles to a much bigger problem — the vast, interconnected cannabis economy of which Mendocino has long been a central part, but which has become roiled by changes so systemic that they threaten to leave the North Coast’s cottage industry behind the sea change of legalization — the last casualty, perhaps, of a drug war which has littered countless lives in its wake.

News from the county’s board of supervisors was not encouraging. The local government had been willing to help preserve the cannabis industry, the lifeblood of the region’s economy, as recently as 2010, when they passed the historic Section 9.31 “zip-tie” program. The program was the first serious attempt by a producer county to regulate, not exterminate, its cannabis cultivators. In exchange for a fee of $25 per plant (up to 99 per plot), small farmers could obtain zip-ties stamped with county registration numbers which alerted all local cops that the grow was legit. In exchange, the farmers agreed to comply with basic regulations regarding security, sustainable land use, and good neighbor relations. By some metrics, the program was a great success: in only 2 years, it generated an additional $600,000 to a cash-strapped county government, allowing sheriff Tom Allman to eradicate almost 650,000 plants from “trespass grows” in public forests. For a time, the growers and their government had found an effective collaboration against their mutual enemy: the irresponsible and destructive cartels and other large illicit growers which gave the whole region a bad name.

That détente came to a crashing halt in January of 2012, when the Supervisors voted to rescind 9.31 under threat from the federal Justice Department. Threatening to target the supervisors personally if they did not comply, the office of U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag subpoenaed the county’s registry of all 9.31-compliant growers, shattering the trust which had been so carefully built. Still stung by the threat, the new Mendocino board was not at all interested in trying to regulate small cannabis farmers again — it was a job, they said, for the state to figure out.

That did not sit well with the farmers, many of whom didn’t trust their county board any more than the Solons of Sacramento. The group quickly formed a consensus that their only real hope lay in writing their own set of regulations and devoted the next four hours to hashing out the details of their own county initiative for the 2015 ballot. Cannabis is a crop, they insisted, and should be regulated by the Department of Agriculture. A system of appellations should be created and protected, so consumers can learn and rely upon the subtle differences between cannabis grown in the terroir of sunny pocket ravines, the broad Willits Valley, and the wind-swept coast. Licensing systems should protect the small farmer by making permits for small farms more affordable than the paperwork for larger farms. “Mega-grows” should simply be banned.

A passionate respect for the land permeated the conversation. What is the carrying capacity of each watershed? How many plants can be grown along each creek before the creek’s ecosystem is negatively affected? Speaking up as a permaculturalist, Calvino asked how agreements could be worked out to make sure that farmers invested not only in their bank accounts, but also in the ecological richness of their land.

After a long and occasionally tedious conversation, the group finally adjourned in the dwindling dusk to clap backs and pass joints the size of thick middle fingers under the swaying boughs of madrones and firs. While not every detail of the Mendocino CCPC initiative had been worked out, they had found new clarity of purpose, new resolve. The initiative would aim for the November 2015 local ballot, and upon its passage the small cannabis farmer of Mendocino will finally have a regulatory framework again.

But in the intervening months, I have begun to wonder if all of these moves are coming too late. In yet one more indication that the old economy of the Emerald Triangle is rapidly vanishing, Sheriff Allman has reported that 2014 was the first year that his department was unable to find a single trespass grow in the national forest. If that is the case, then economics has accomplished what the eradication of 650,000 plants under 9.31 could not; with the price of unbundled outdoor-grown cannabis dropping to $1,000 or even less, the cartels have apparently decided that the rewards of growing cannabis rent-free on public land no longer outweigh the law enforcement risks.

At the same time, the corporate mega-grows these small farmers are trying to keep out of their county have already found a jurisdictional loophole. Even while the farmers hashed out the details of their initiative and local politicians kicked the can down the road, Colorado-based United Cannabis was busy putting the finishing touches on a contract to build warehouse-sized cultivation facilities on land owned by Mendocino’s original residents, the Pomo Indian tribe. Sheltered by new federal enforcement guidance and situated outside of County jurisdiction, the first federally legal cannabis farm in Mendocino is looking likely to be large, energy-intensive, and corporate.

The small, sustainable farmer is already behind.