The air was sharp with morning chill as our group left the unpaved forest service road for a small foot-trail. The path slowly twisted between pine, fir, dogwoods and small low-lying clumps of manzanita as we hiked down the ridgeline. A motley procession of khaki fatigues, designer hiking gear, stained Carhartts and well-worn work boots, we made for an unusual work crew. In fact we were a rare assembly of community and non-profit volunteers, congressional press agents, journalists, fire crews, Fish and Wildlife biologists, Forest Service rangers, sheriff’s deputies, and California National Guardsmen. All of us were present to witness first-hand the aftermath of a large trespass marijuana grow operation on the border of Wilderness in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. And witness we did.
Dropping down off the ridgeline and into a drainage, we soon encountered a large water diversion and catchment estimated by the NFS rangers to have 7,800 gallon capacity. Miles of black PVC irrigation tubing snaked down from the catchment on both sides of the drainage where approximately 1500 marijuana plants where growing in the poor, rocky soil and unstable slopes rising out of the drainage. Along with the black plastic tubing, we collected bags of chemical fertilizer, rodenticide, pesticides including carbofuran a highly toxic and illegal systemic pesticide, as well as trash and camp materials from the growers’ encampment and waste piles. All told, it took a National Guard helicopter five trips to remove close to 1,500 pounds of debris and toxic waste from the hillside.
Trespass marijuana grows on public lands such as the one described in the preceding vignette comprise just one aspect of a broader political, economic, and environmental issue: the expanding profit-driven production of cannabis taking place in watersheds throughout northern California. Cannabis cultivation per se is nothing new to the region as it has been historically an important component of the social reproduction of mom-and-pop back-to-lander households and other small time growers since the first hippie cultural refugees headed to the hills in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Yet, over the course of thirty years, the Federal prohibition of the production, sale, and use of cannabis, and succeeding medicinal use measures by a growing number of states have transformed cannabis cultivation from a relatively small, subsistence level underground economic activity to a significant cash crop and industrial force, rivaling in terms of revenue even today’s massive California wine industry (Kovner, 2010).
This economic boom, the cannabis equivalent of the historic Gold Rush (and popularly referred to as the “Green Rush”), has had positive and negative consequences for the natural and social environments of northern California. Following the collapse of the timber industry in the 1990s, the region’s historically underdeveloped economy has been buoyed by a river of cash flowing from the underground cannabis economy (Greenson, 2011). This in turn has helped to cultivate and maintain uniquely vibrant and resilient communities in an otherwise relatively depressed economic region. At the same time, cannabis production and trafficking has been and continues to be associated with periodic acts of violent crime (Stein, 1985; McDonough, 2013). Furthermore, like logging and gold mining before it, the cannabis industry has had undeniably harmful consequences for the health and integrity of regional watersheds and the sensitive habitats they encompass.
In spite of these issues, or perhaps, in part, because of them, the broader discussion of legalization has been taken up by anti-prohibitionists, California lawmakers, environmentalists and industry insiders alike. Ever, since the states of Washington and Colorado legalized recreational use of cannabis in 2012—and more recently Oregon this year, the question of legalization in California has become a matter of how, not if (Kemp, 2014). While the proponents of legalization and state lawmakers focus on the benefits of decriminalization and increased tax revenue at the state level, industry insiders, local governments, and environmentalists scramble to understand what legalization will mean for the local economies and natural environments of northern California.
This essay will attempt to address some of the questions that arise out of the complicated landscape of potential cannabis legalization. What effect will legalization have on producers, that is, which produces are likely to benefit and which to lose? What will be the environmental consequences of legalization? And finally, how might communities, whose economies and cultures have been intimately intertwined with cannabis for the past five decades, be impacted by legalization?
What follows, then, is an analysis of the historical transformation of the cannabis industry through the lens of political ecology. Political ecology is a critical approach to understanding the interconnecting linkages of political economy, socio/cultural institutions and practices, and ecology. As Robbins (2012) puts it, political ecology specifically “addresses the condition and change of social/environmental systems, with explicit consideration of relations of power” (p. 20). Such a critical approach to understanding the political, economic, social, cultural and ecological dynamics of cannabis cultivation reveals several interlocking themes. The first theme is found in the production of new subjectivities resulting from continuing cannabis regulatory efforts. The second theme is found in the relationship between ecological degradation and different approaches to the regulation of cannabis. And the final theme is found in the plant itself: where cannabis as a political object and actor affecting human communities, economies, and the natural environment.
A Brief History of Cannabis Regulation
The explosive growth of the cannabis industry is tied directly to the historical legal status of the crop and the variety of past attempts to regulate it. In the United States, cannabis has historically been cultivated primarily for its fiber which is widely known for its durability and has thus found wide use in maritime and industrial applications (West, 1998). For the purpose of this brief history, it is unnecessary to relate the historical details of the production of hemp (an industry term for cannabis grown for its natural fibers) in the United States. Rather, this history will pick up at the end of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, when an influx of Mexican immigrants brought with them the cultural practice of recreational cannabis use to the United States (Frontline, 1998).
Indeed, the term “marijuana” was promoted by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics during the first prohibition effort in the 1920s and 30s, and was meant to invoke racialized fears of the drug’s psychoactive effects (Peterson, 2014). The regulation of cannabis was largely left up to the states until 1937 when the Marijuana Tax Act was signed into law by the United States Congress; the law created an excise tax that effectively limited cannabis use to industrial applications (Frontline, 1998). It is worth noting here that California was one of the first states to prohibit the recreational use of cannabis with its 1913 Poison Act, and this prohibition was largely a racialized reaction by the privileged white population to the perceived threat of Chinese and Mexican immigration (Gieringer, 2012). Despite the prohibition on personal consumption, cannabis continued to be widely used as an industrial fiber and its cultivation was promoted by the government during World War II. In 1956 with the passing of the Narcotics Control Act, the federal government enacted laws that criminalized the recreational use of cannabis and were enforced with heavy penalties: “[a] first-offence marijuana possession carried a minimum sentence of 2 – 10 years with a fine of up to $20,000” (Frontline, 1998). With the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 70s came a loosening of drug laws. In 1970, Congress repealed most of the mandatory minimums for cannabis use convictions and the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act placed cannabis in a separate category from other narcotics. 1970 also marked the founding of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), which marked the formal beginning of the anti-prohibition movement in the United States. However, as the so-called cultural revolution dissipated in the late 1970s and early 80s so too did any hope of decriminalization. In 1986, Ronald Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, raising federal penalties for cannabis possession and sale, and instituting the “three-strikes” conviction policy and heavy mandatory sentencing (Frontline, 1998).
The “War on Drugs” continued for another ten years before California became the first state in the Union to legalize the medical use of cannabis with the passing of the voter initiative, the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, otherwise known as Proposition 215 (Balzar, 1996). Prop 215 essentially decriminalizes medicinal cannabis use, making it legal for physicians to prescribe cannabis without the threat of the loss of their license to practice; it also exempts patients and caregivers from criminal prosecution for the possession and use of cannabis for medicinal purposes upon the written or oral approval of a physician (California Department of Public Health, 2014). At the time of Prop 215’s passing, the reactions of the conservative leadership on Capitol Hill and in Sacramento were critical of the new law. Then California State Governor Peter Wilson was quoted as saying, “It [Prop 215] is [written] so loose it is a virtual legalization of the sale of marijuana” (Balzar, 1996). Meanwhile, Prop 215 proponents argued that despite the fears of the conservatives, there would not be “a wave of new marijuana use prompted by 215” (Balzar, 1996).
Due to the fact that patients are not required to register in California, it is difficult to determine the population of individuals using cannabis for medicinal purposes and how that population has changed since the decriminalization of the medicinal use of cannabis. However, California NORML estimates that 1.95 million Californians have used cannabis in the last month, and that 500,000 to 600,000 Californians use on a daily basis (Gieringer, 2009). A recent study by Ryan-Ibarra et al. (2012), appears to confirm these numbers. The study was based on a random survey of 7,525 individuals and sought to extrapolate the prevalence of medicinal cannabis use in California (p. 1). The study estimates that five percent of adults in California (roughly two million people) report having used cannabis for medicinal purposes (p. 1). It also found that the prevalence of ever using cannabis for medicinal purposes was highest among white adults and adults between the ages of 18 – 2 (p. 1). Despite these findings the authors are careful to note that the prevalence for medicinal use was reported by “every racial/ethnic and age group examined” (p. 1). The authors conclude that “Proposition 215 allows access to medical marijuana [sic] for many people, some of whom may not truly need medical marijuana [sic], but many who probably do. The law benefits the sick, but also may allow for extended legal use among young people…” (Ryan-Ibarra et al, 2012, p. 5).
In 2003, the potential for a formal medical cannabis industry catering to the needs of California’s medicinal users solidified with the signing of California’s SB 420. SB 420 establishes guidelines for the enforcement of Prop 215 (CA NORML, 2014). Under SB 420, patients or caregivers may possess six mature or twelve immature plants and up to eight ounces of processed cannabis and SB 420 also offers exemptions to this limit for patients whose doctors say they need more. Additionally, SB 420allows local governments to establish higher limits if they wish and requires minimal compliance from local governments that had previously established zero tolerance policies. Significantly, SB 420 allows for patients and caregivers to operate collectively or cooperatively to cultivate cannabis and caregivers are allowed to receive “reasonable compensation” for the services provided to patients (Vasconcellos, 2003, my emphasis).
Combined, Prop 215 and SB 420 have provided for the criminal defense of cultivating, processing, distributing, selling, and administering cannabis for medicinal purposes in the state of California. Nationally, twenty states have legalized the medicinal use of cannabis since 1996, while the states of Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and the District of Colombia have legalized cannabis for recreational use (Lee & Gelles, 2014). In response to what amounts to a growing national referendum for the legalization of cannabis, the Federal Government has announced that it will let those states who have recently moved to legalize cannabis to do so, so long as they can create regulatory frameworks that prevent 1) cannabis from being sold to minors, 2) the proceeds of pot sales going to criminal enterprises, 3) legally purchased cannabis being sent to states where its illegal, 4) authorized cannabis businesses from being used as fronts for drug trafficking, 5) violence related to cultivation, 6) driving while under the influence, 7) trespass grows on public lands, and 8) the possession of cannabis on federal property (Harkinson, 2013). This move by the Federal Government was reinforced by a recent amendment to the 2015 federal spending bill which forbids the Department of Justice from spending money to prosecute dispensaries or patients that are operating within the parameters set by states law (Harkinson, 2014).
While this emerging movement towards the legalization of cannabis for medical and recreational use suggests a historic victory for patients, users, and anti-prohibitionists alike, it is also a major defeat for the Federal Government’s War on Drugs. Ironically, this defeat also comes as a sea change for the communities that have been built up around the historically production and sale of cannabis over the past thirty to forty years. Drug war era enforcement programs such as the multi-jurisdictional Campaign Against Marijuana Planting had a complex relationship with the communities of northern California, functioning in ways that spurred economic innovation, stabilized the local economy, promoted small-scale production, and prevented the excesses of growth from further degrading the natural environment in which these communities are situated. With increasing legalization and declining enforcement, the future of the economic, social, and cultural organization of these communities has come into question.
I woke up to the sound of a steady, deep staccato reverberating through the hillsides and valley below us. Although I had grown used the peculiar sound of helicopters operating in the skies above our watershed throughout the last half of the season, it still set me on edge, filling me with the watchful and ready feeling that prey must feel when alerted to the presence of a predator. I got up out of bed and, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes, made my way to the front deck which looked out over the Jewett Creek Valley. My mother stood on the deck with my baby brother and sister who clung to her legs as she looked through the viewfinder of her Canon up towards the empty horizon. The sound was getting louder, the helicopter closer. In a moment, the chopper came into view over the forested ridgeline to the east. It was flying low, so low that you could see the face of the spotter sitting in the open hatch shooting pictures of our house below. Mom shot back.
The chopper hovered over our house for moment, then moved away and followed our creek up the mountainside. The excitement done, we moved back into the house to start the day.
No sooner had my mom put the coffee on, then we heard a heavy knocking on the backdoor of the house. I wasn’t quite sure what was going on; who could be knocking? I hadn’t heard a vehicle coming up our driveway, and my dad wasn’t supposed to be back until tomorrow. Living of the grid on sixty acres in southern Humboldt, unexpected visitors weren’t a common occurrence. I reached hesitantly for the door and pulled it open. Standing on the other side were two men in camo fatigues, faces painted, and holding assault rifles. It was CAMP.
The Economic Incentive of Enforcement
In 1983, three years prior to Reagan’s signing of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, California’s Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP) was established (Corva, 2012). CAMP was a multi-agency joint task force that coordinated federal, state, and county efforts to police cannabis cultivation in California. According to Corva (2012), CAMP emerged out of multiple cultural contexts existing at the national, state, and local levels. Cannabis had become the symbolic weapon of the “culture wars” of the 1960s and ‘70s and had become associated by the mainstream with a “moral panic” promulgated by increasingly present sensationalist media coverage that associated drugs with perceived increases in violence. As Corva puts it, “The culture wars inscribed cannabis, particularly radical cannabis users, as threats to national society at the same time that a state-level iteration of law-and-order politics in California associated cannabis growers in Northern California with increasingly violent disorder significant enough to warrant a [sic] the creation of an institutionalized rural policing task force” (p. 74).
CAMP began its campaign by targeting the small, rural communities of Humboldt and Mendocino Counties where back-to-landers had sought refuge from mainstream society during and after the dissipation of the cultural movements of the previous two decades. During the ‘70s these cultural refugees had begun cultivating their own cannabis for personal use, smuggling in seeds from around the world and crossing strains to create specialized hybrids valued for their production of female flower and the quality of the high (Cockburn, 2010). During that same time, the United States had been pursuing efforts to eradicate the cultivation of cannabis in Mexico, one of the largest international supplier of cannabis to the U.S. in the 1970s (Corva, 2012, pp. 72, 76). With the consequent significant decline of Mexican cannabis imports to the United States, from 40% in 1977 to 9% in 1980, the growers of Humboldt and Mendocino Counties were well positioned to supply the resulting domestic demand, with a better quality product (Corva, 2012, p. 76). In a decade, the price of a northern Californian cannabis had increased from $400 a pound to $1600 a pound (Cockburn, 2010). By the time CAMP showed up on the scene, Humboldt and Mendocino growers had already grown accustomed to reaping in the rewards of prohibition as realized from the Department of State’s unintended subsidization of the domestic cannabis economy.
CAMP actions involved a variety of strategies including low-flying helicopter surveillance (pilots were often rumored to be Vietnam war veterans accustomed to quietly navigating heavily forested hillsides), vehicular road patrols, cross-country foot patrols that often wandered in and out of private properties without required search warrants, undercover agents, road blocks, and even large-scale military mobilizations (Bishop, 1990; Cockburn, 2010; Corva, 2012; R. Filbey, personal communication, November 22, 2014). In 1990, the multi-agency operation “Green Sweep” was executed in the King Range National Conservation Area (Bishop, 1990). Roughly 200 Army soldiers, National Guardsmen, and Federal agents spent two weeks combing the hillsides for “guerilla grows” and ultimately destroying 1,200 cannabis plants with no arrests made (Bishop, 1990). As the local writer and cultural critic Alexander Cockburn explains it, the efforts of CAMP in the hills of southern Humboldt and northern Mendocino only served to increase the growers’ payday. The Drug War, “in this case brought relatively few casualties and many beneficiaries into the local economy: federal and state assistance for local law enforcement; more prosecutors in the DA’s office; a commensurately expanding phalanx of defense lawyers; a buoyant housing market for growers washing their money into legality; $200 a day and more for women trimming the dried plants” (2010). Soon enough local ranchers were adding cannabis cultivation to their traditional economic activities of raising cattle and felling timber (Cockburn, 2010). This was the proto-Green Rush, marking the nascent growth spurts of the underground cannabis economy buoyed by prohibition.
The Cultural Consequences of Enforcement
Corva identifies three factors that contributed to the subsequent intensification of cannabis cultivation over the next ten years. The first was the new arrivals of people who, alerted by the growing media coverage, came “explicitly to make money” rather than to seek out an alternative lifestyle. The second factor can be found in the “rising wholesale farmgate prices [net profits]” of cannabis that made it possible for back-to-lander families to increase the material qualities of their lifestyle. And finally, the cultivation of cannabis provided relief from the economic vicissitudes of the timber industry for “old settler” families in the region (Corva, 2012, p. 76). All of these factors were supported to some degree by the federal and state prohibition of cannabis and the resultant eradication efforts. Indeed, as many critics have pointed out, the irony is that prohibition did little to stop the production of cannabis and much to promote it.
True to the evolutionary nature of systems of relations, the CAMP enforcement efforts produced innovative responses from the targeted communities of growers. Many outdoor growers shifted their grow strategies, dividing their gardens up into smaller ones to ameliorate the possibility of discovery and destruction. At the same time, grows were relocated under the forest canopy and other less visible and difficult to access locations (The grow that I alluded to in the last vignette, busted by my family’s property in Southern Humboldt, was located in the middle of a manzanita grove which had been hollowed out to create room enough for 7,000 plants!) (Corva, 2012; R. Filbey, personal communication, November 22, 2014). Other growers moved their production systems indoors.
Indoor grow operations, unlike outdoor grows, were not visible from the air and therefore required search warrants (Corva, 2012). The move indoors, in turn, required the development and refinement of the technology and techniques of indoor horticulture, creating in the process a whole new infrastructure industry. Portable diesel generators, high intensity lighting, CO2 generators, hydroponic and drip watering systems, synthetic and increasingly sophisticated organic fertilizer systems, growing media, HVAC systems, activated charcoal can air filters, sterile cloning stations, and timers, all were developed or improved upon to increase the productivity of indoor grow operations, allowing for the control of every aspect of the growing cycle. Not only did indoor grows reduce the chance of being busted and improve the quality of the cannabis being produced, but it had the added benefit of producing cannabis all year round, with up to three or four harvests possible in a year by controlling the amount of lighting the plants received and thereby forcing the plants into flower at a more rapid pace. These manipulations of the cannabis plant resulted in increased yields (even accounting for higher amounts of input) and allowed growers to escape the seasonal downturn (R. Filbey, personal communication, November 22, 2014).
Additionally, under prohibition, cannabis was transformed through the processes of United States) to a plant that gradually expressed larger more resinous flowering bud structures. The potency of the plant also increased tremendously, with the average content of the psychoactive molecule in cannabis, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), increasing from just under 4 percent in 1983—the dawn of the Drug War—to 9.6 percent in 2007 (Yen, 2008). The development of greater potencies reflects not just a desire of cannabis producers to increase the value by weight ratio of their product. That is, growers didn’t necessarily select and improve upon cannabis strains for the sole purpose of profit. Rather, growers were also consumers, and the improvements in production and potency of the cannabis crop reflected their desire to develop and use the different psychoactive properties of the various combinations of cannabis strains. The cannabis plant, then, can be seen to act upon the course of its own evolution through its relationship with human individuals and communities. If cannabis was not valued for a particular effect that was favored by fringe communities, as opposed to more licit, mainstream intoxicants such as coffee and tea, then it would not have shaped the communities that chose to cultivate it in the way that it did, nor would it hold the position it does today as California’s largest cash crop (Pollan, 2002).
In considering these material changes that resulted from the increased presence of law enforcement, we see how a particular form of regulation—prohibition—created evolutionary changes in the material processes of cannabis production, as well as changes in the strategies chosen by individual cannabis cultivators, all of which led to changes in the social, cultural, and environmental dynamics of the communities in which these activities took place. One aspect of these changes was the unification and maintenance of the regional identity and social fabric of these communities. As Lewis Coser (1956) points out in his examination of the functions of social conflict, conflict often leads to the strengthening of associations and coalitions and in the case of multiple groups’ antagonism with a common enemy, social conflict may lead to “the formation of new groups with distinct boundary lines, ideologies, loyalties, and common values” (p. 140). In northern California, the response to the heavy-handed tactics of CAMP was to unify what were relatively isolated individuals and communities strewn about the remote watersheds of the region. A common identity and culture coalesced in response to the perceived intrusion and aggression of drug enforcement agencies (Corva, 2012, p. 74). As the lives of back-to-landers, ranchers, and new-comers were increasingly invested in the cannabis economy, a culture of mutual understanding and support developed. People would call in to the regional public radio station, KMUD, to report observed law enforcement activity, providing a heads-up for others in the area of activity (Kemp, 2010).
Another aspect of prohibition and CAMP policing was to effectively support a network of small cannabis producers, insulating these small producers from the threat of competition and market capture by the less risk adverse or by the more highly capitalized.
As the government eradicates the larger, more visible plantations, the less visible and safer enterprises might enjoy a greater share of the market. Governmental eradication of marijuana [sic] agribusiness therefore can serve a protective subsidy for small, independent growers, doing as much for the cause of democratic capitalism as the Small Business Administration could ever hope to do. (Raphael, 1985, as quoted in Corva, 2012).
This combined effect of prohibition and enforcement has weakened since the passing of Prop 215 and SB 420. Many northern California growers have reconsolidated and centralized their grow sites, abandoning the “guerrilla grow” for increasingly plantation like endeavors. In turn, more cannabis is being produced and the price per pound is dropping. In the early 1990s, a pound of cannabis fetched anywhere from $5000 to $6000, but this price has fallen to under $2000 a pound a decade later (Montgomery, 2010). This price trend is expected to continue as the cannabis cultivators scramble to grow larger gardens in an attempt to cash in before legalization makes it possible for much larger, corporate producers to flood the market with cheap cannabis. Another, unfortunate, consequence of this last frenzy of cultivation brought about by the loosening of cannabis laws, are the increasing environmental impacts of expansive, hastily built grow sites.
The Environmental Consequences of Regulatory Regime Change
Much recent attention has been given the devastating effects of illegal, “trespass” grows on public lands. Gabriel et al. (2012), have linked the deaths of Pacific fishers, a member of the weasel family currently being considered for listing as endangered, to the consumption of rodenticides originating from trespass grows operated in large by drug trafficking organizations (DTO). However, the often racialized discourse surrounding DTOs illegal activities on public lands, largely—with some notable exceptions—fails to take account of the equally environmentally devastating activities taking place on private lands throughout northern California. As of 2013, 4100 grow sites have been identified in Humboldt County (Rodriguez, 2013). On July 10, 2013, a bust in Fieldbrook, CA resulted in the seizure of 1449 cannabis plants on a property with two large indoor grow structures and seven greenhouses; the 100 kilowatt diesel generator used to power a total of seventy-two 1000 watt grow lights had been leaking diesel fuel directly onto the ground (Kemp, 2013). On August 27, 2013, two greenhouses were busted on property in the Mattole Valley area, where 877 cannabis plants were growing and close to $200,000 in cash was discovered. Water for the operation was being illegally pumped out of the Mattole Canyon Creek a spawning ground for Salmon and Steelhead and which had been dewatered (Kemp, 2013b). On September 9, 2013, 16 individuals were arrested at a large, 160 acre, grow complex that had a total of seven greenhouses almost 2000 plants, 375 pounds of dried bud, and a significant amount of environmental damage, including the use of heavy equipment to alter a natural watercourse, clear cutting of trees, and illegal roads cut into hillsides, and an illegal water diversion resulting in a dewatered creek (Goff, 2013). While the list of environmentally damaging busts could continue, ad nauseam, what is essential to understand is that these illustrative examples are the result and function of a changing cannabis regulatory regime. This poses the question, then, of what the future of regulation and the cannabis industry in northern California will look like?
Sweat was streaming down our faces and soaking our shirts despite working in the shade. Silently, I cut the bucket free from the metal fencepost with a pair of dikes in my gloved hand. The buckets were really plastic 32 gallon garbage cans; filled three quarters of the way with dark, loamy soil, the buckets must have weighed close to 50 pounds. Moving the buckets down off of the brush covered embankment was the easy part, it was working the eight foot metal fence posts out of the rock ground that was the hard part. You could use a pick-axe to free them up, but sometimes it felt like days before they would come free of the ground.
We had spent two weeks of long days consolidating the scattered grow buckets from the guerilla gardens left over from the early days. We were building new gardens, no longer hidden from sight beneath tan oaks or protected by a barrier of whitethorn. The new gardens were fewer, but larger and graced with perfect southern exposure. The times were changing, and my friend felt like he only had a few more seasons in him. His kids had all grown, left home and gone to college, and he and his wife were on-again-off-again. He had to make these last seasons count: he was ready to move on; and so we worked our way into the purple dusk.
Future Forward: Humboldt Grown Cannabis Regulation
Currently, in Humboldt County, California, there is a popular understanding that the local cannabis industry and the economy it produces needs to be protected. The longstanding cultural unity of the back-to-lander values—freedom of living, respecting the Earth, self-sufficiency, and community mindedness—that has defined the communities of Mendocino and Humboldt Counties have done so through the auspices of a prohibition subsidized cannabis-based underground economy. Now with the specter of legalization on the horizon, the very cultural fabric weaving these small, rural communities together is being threatened. Local cannabis industry representatives note that the current national legalization trends suggest that a state regulatory framework for growing and selling cannabis will likely begin by limiting the number of permitted producers (Greenson, 2014). According to the Humboldt Chapter of California Cannabis Voice (CCVH), this will result in “Humboldt County’s 10,000 marijuana farms (CCVH’s number) will be squeezed out of the newly regulated industry” (Greenson, 2014). While some have argued (Gettman & Kennedy, 2014) that any approach other than an open market approach will result in the same regulatory failures of prohibition (i.e., continued black market activity, sales to minors, high prices and excessive profits, and institutional revenue seeking behavior), it is clear that in a legalized but deregulated cannabis economy local producers would still ultimately suffer from being outcompeted by outside capital.
The success of the regulatory framework development effort on the part of CCVH lies not in whether or not it passes into law locally, but, rather, if it is recognized as a strong, viable model of regulation for the State. The crux of the matter will be on the setting of limits for the size of producers’ cannabis grow canopies. The current version of the Humboldt framework, as developed by CCVH, proposes a range of canopy sizes, from 1 percent of total parcel size, to 1,750 square foot of canopy for parcels less between five and ten acres, to 60,000 square foot canopies for parcels larger than 40 acres (Greenson, 2014). To understand what these proposed canopy ranges means in terms of production and the environment, it is important to look at what is currently happening on the ground. In the Mad River watershed of Humboldt and Trinity Counties 160 grow operations have been identified with an average canopy size of 2,300 square feet (Greenson, 2014). And as I have previously illustrated, even these relatively small operations have had deleterious consequences for the watersheds they are located in. Local environmentalists are opposed to setting such high canopy limits, arguing that such proposals would be the highest level of permitted operations in the state (Greenson, 2014). Even if a final version of the CCVH proposal somehow gets voted into county ordinance or is approved of by the board of supervisors (the more democratic of the two), there is no guarantee that the California State legislature will agree with the set canopy limits. There is little doubt that state lawmakers will be hearing from the vested interests of Big Tobacco and other corporate bodies when it finally comes time for California to craft a framework for legalization. However, the future remains ever hopeful: as we have seen, the traditional response of cannabis growers and communities of Humboldt, when faced with outside antagonists (e.g., CAMP), has been to consolidate their individual resources and cooperate for the benefit of each other. This is unlikely to change.
In this essay, I have attempted to illustrate how the prohibition of cannabis has produced particular subjectivities, economies, and cultural communities as are found in the rural cannabis cultivating areas of northern California. While some might argue that the federal and state prohibition on cannabis was neither artful, nor a successful technique of governance, its rise and fall have certainly had and continue to have profound, if heterogeneous, effects upon the communities and environments of northern California. Along with the economic and cultural transformations of these rural communities, the cannabis plant itself has undergone significant change. And yet, it is difficult to make distinctions as to where the influence of human communities on cannabis ends and where the influence of cannabis on human communities begins: the two remain intimately intertwined. Finally, we have seen how the rise and fall of prohibition and its enforcement has worked to ameliorate the environmentally destructive tendencies of profit seeking in some communities and landscapes, while only serving to encourage such behaviors in others. The communities of Northern California have lived, worked, and known the cannabis lifestyle for over a half century. In that time the plant and its metabolisms have become imprinted in the cultural DNA of the region. Cannabis is now as much a part of northern California as the coast redwoods, salmon, and humans. While the days of the Green Rush may fade, like the timber boom and the Gold Rush before it, the common cultural values of the freedom of living, respecting the Earth, self-sufficiency, and community mindedness it leaves behind will undoubtedly endure.
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