The Emerald Triangle Up In Smoke?

By Linda Stansberry 04/12/15

Does legalization spell the end for Humboldt County's cannabis culture?


The legalization of marjuana in states such as Colorado and Washington was hailed by many as the dawn of a new era, but its looming inevitability in California is being approached by some as a death knell. In Humboldt County, the historic epicenter of the Emerald Triangle, this underground industry is an unparalleled economic driver. Some groups are taking steps to make sure growers and others depending on pot dollars aren't left out in the cold.

People move here for the lifestyle. Cannabis is only the economic background of that heritage. It's just kind of the tool that makes it all work.

Just how big a part of Humboldt County's culture and economy is the cannabis industry? Hard numbers are difficult to find, as most involved with cultivation aren't keen to disclose their business or their profits. (A few above-board growers do file federal taxes, as a quiet protest against the crop's continued illegalization.) Jennifer Budwig, vice president of Redwood Capital Bank, used her graduate thesis as an opportunity to do an economic analysis of the industry. By extrapolating outward from the number of plants seized by law enforcement (between 1-10% of all plants grown in the region) to calculate how much is actually being grown (close to 2 million plants) and multiplying this by the price per pound (with differentiation for indoor and outdoor crop prices) she came up with a staggering figure: $2.6 billion. All this in a rural, remote county with a population of just over 134,000 people and a total (legal) economy of only $4 billion.

Budwig's estimate has its caveats. Her thesis was completed in 2012, and the price per pound has since dropped. Economist and co-director of Humboldt State University's Humboldt Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Studies, Erick Eschker, cautioned in a phone interview that without reliable data, economic figures couldn't be confirmed. 

“It's difficult to say what the economic impact of legalization will be without hard numbers,” he said, “We really need to put more emphasis on research.”

One area of economic impact that the Institute has been able to quantify is employment. A study compiled by Eschker and his colleagues in 2014 revealed that in a poll of Humboldt State University students, one out of every six worked in the industry: growing, selling, trimming pot or providing services such as “housesitting” grows. 

If one in six sounds high, keep in mind these figures come from the swinging cultural capital of this rural region, a college town named Arcata. Most of Humboldt County is remote, mountainous and wild. The small towns tucked into the hills once sustained themselves on timber jobs, but that industry has been in a steady decline since the 1970s. Back-to-the-land enthusiasts, who arrived in the region around the same time the money began to go out of timber, sparked a cultural and economic revolution when they began planting cannabis. The industry has gone through many permutations in the past four decades: from hush-hush bushweed to infamous sinsemilla, from CAMP helicopters swinging nets loaded with outdoor ganja over the jade-colored rivers to the passing of state medical marijuana laws, which have given some growers a fig leaf of legality.

Its impact on the culture is endemic. The same small towns now bustle with big trucks hauling water tanks and loads of fertilizer. If Eschker were to poll the young people who live in these far-flung regions (and they were to give him an honest answer) he would find the industry employment rate at close to 100%. Some are the sons and daughters of ranchers and loggers, some have traveled from far across the country, lured by the whisper of the lucrative “Humboldt Green Rush.” In rural southern Humboldt, the streets of some small towns are lined with transient workers in the fall, brazenly advertising their skill with trim scissors, hoping to get in on the harvest. Many of those involved in the industry are second or even third-generation growers, inheritors of family land and perfected growing techniques. Legalization of marijuana and the projected drop in price pose not just an economic threat to rural communities, but a threat to their heritage as well.

“I love that word, heritage,” say Lelehnia Dubois.

Dubois is a member of the Humboldt chapter of California Cannabis Voice, a group that's advocating for the legalization of cannabis by 2016. One of the stated goals of the Humboldt chapter is to ensure the preservation of the region's culture and economy.

“One commonality all throughout our community is that we like the way we live. People move here for the lifestyle. Cannabis is only the economic background of that heritage. It's just kind of the tool that makes it all work.”

A primary concern with the advent of legalization (seen as a given in the 2016 elections) is that small growers will be cut out of the industry. In Colorado and Washington, for example, only a limited amount of licenses were issued, and those primarily went to commercial growers. CCV Humboldt worries that small growers in Humboldt will see their cultivation techniques co-opted by large companies in more favorable agricultural regions, such as California's Central Valley (already pitched as the villain in historic conflicts over water rights.) Cut out of the economic pie, small farmers will be left with a paucity of options: either face the legal risks of selling their product in “dry” states, where it can still bring a competitive price, or starve.

California Cannabis Voice is seeking to stave off this fate by drafting an ordinance to be backed by the county's Board of Supervisors. The ordinance sets “best practices” guidelines for growers and calls upon the county government to support, regulate and promote ethical cultivators. The hope is that growers complying with the ordinance will be grandfathered into the licensing process once legalization goes statewide. The ordinance, now in its sixth draft and expected to be on the desks of the board by June, is being touted as the future industry standard.

Several environmental groups have sounded the alarm as the ordinance process moves forward, saying that CCV is rushing the process through without creating the regulatory framework necessary to enforce environmental stewardship. The environmental impact of illegal grows has been a hot topic for a while—pesticides, water diversions and illegal grading have all left their mark on the local landscape. The ordinance contains language which addresses these issues, but many say the wording is too nebulous and there are just too many loopholes to take the risk of giving growers cultivation carte blanche.

Dan Ehresman, executive director of the Northcoast Environmental Center, was present for the intial stakeholder meeting when the ordinance was being drafted. 

“We may have been hopeful at the beginning of this process that they were going to be listening to a broad base of stakeholders, but it's clear that they have a set agenda and that they're moving forward without including these essential components that a lot of people talked about,” said Ehresman in a recent radio interview.

Far from simply supporting the mom-and-pop grows that are touted as the backbone of the cannabis community, Ehresman and others worry the language in the ordinance, as it stands, opens the door for commercial agriculture with little to no oversight of environmental impact.

“Any ordinance needs to have funding for not only running the program but enforcing important environmental laws that are being violated right now. We need to deal with the existing impacts to salmon and downstream communities before we can even think about expanding exponentially from where they are today. Unfortunately, CCV's proposed ordinance is geared towards turbocharging the green rush while enabling mega-grows at the expense of family-scale farms, healthy watersheds and safe communities,” says Ehresman, “A lot of people in the cultivation community are well-intentioned and want to address environmental concerns, but [the] current initiative only plays lipservice to it.”

Meanwhile, Dubois and her cohort are excited about the branding potential of Humboldt County in the brave new world of legalized weed. There's no question that the region's traditional growers are going to take a hit once the state's fertile agricultural breadbasket—yes, that vilified Central Valley—is able to plant cannabis right out in the open. A big part of the Emerald Triangle's appeal, after all, is its remoteness and concurrent inaccessibility to law enforcement. Plenty of people may move shop once they don't have to grow weed behind a locked gate down gravel road anymore. But the Redwood Coast's rugged terrain also means a unique array of microclimates—frosty mornings, long, rainy winters—creating cannabis cultivation conditions unable to be duplicated anywhere else in the world. 

“This is a great environment for connoisseur, Napa-style grows,” says Dubois, who adds whatever the outcome of legalization is, she has been heartened to see community members from many different walks of life rally behind the issue.

“We really want one thing, which is to maintain our culture here. The economic aspect is irrelevant. I have a son, and this is the culture I want him to be from. It's time to fight for it, because if we don't stand up for it, it's going to get taken away from us.”

Linda Stansberry is a regular contributor to The Fix. She has recently written about the glut of misery memoirs and Gabor Maté. Her latest project is On the Tracks.

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Linda Stansberry is a writer and regular contributor to The Fix. You can check out her blog or follow her on Twitter.