"I'm not sure brand dilution can get any worse than it has up to now," says Chrystal Ortiz, marketing and branding coordinator for True Humboldt. True Humboldt, a co-op of local cannabis farmers, is one of several organizations trying to turn the region into a brand and realign that brand with values that will sell.
At the heart of the issue is appellation, the protected geographical distinction of where a product comes from. Champagne, for example, can only be called such if it's bottled in Champagne, France. Appellation rights for cannabis growers were one of the provisions in the recent spate of state medical marijuana laws largely celebrated by local growers. But what Humboldt's appellation will actually come to stand for is under pressure from competing visions and practices.
Appellation may call a halt to the canny canna-businesses as far away as Long Beach and Colorado using the Humboldt name as a marketing tactic, but many believe that unless they can reverse the blemish of violent crime, trespass grows and environmental degradation that's become associated with the industry, the victory may be hollow.
"Over the years, we've had an influx of people who didn't share the Humboldt values, who were of more the extractive philosophy," says Ortiz. "Stuff with pesticides, stuff that's mildew laden has gone on the market as from Humboldt. Plenty of people think we have an opportunity to set quality standards, like France did with wine."
Who will safeguard those quality standards? Some point to certification programs like Clean Green, which analyzes best practices for cannabis farms in six states. Clean Green started in 2004 when a friend of Chris Van Hook, who owns a United States Department of Agriculture organic certification company, asked him if he could certify his cannabis crop. Because the USDA does not recognize cannabis as legal, there's technically no way for it to become "certified organic." Van Hook applied the same standards used in evaluating mainstream agriculture to cannabis when he created Clean Green. The company has become the go-to for dispensaries that want to help their clients source their buzz back to best practices.
Those best practices include a legal component, i.e., the farms have to have a legal market outlet, according to Karin Roscoe, the company's outreach coordinator. Because the company is run through Van Hook's law firm, farmers inspected by the company are guaranteed attorney-client privilege.
"It's a complicated question," says Roscoe. "Right now, the black market is a huge deal. It's cost effective to drain the rivers, get in there and make a quick buck. We're all just waiting to see how that's going to shake down."
Whatever the outcome of the anticipated legalization of recreational weed on state and national levels, there seems to be no shortage of marketers prepared to capitalize on the national appetite for small, sustainable goods with a wholesome backstory. True Humboldt touts members of its cooperative as "dedicated to carrying the tradition of quality," citing the original back-to-the-land values that made Humboldt herb famous. Legalization, Ortiz says, will spur cooperation among farmers to adhere to sustainable practices in order to meet the standards of the brand.
"When you attach someone's name to a product, it creates pride," she says. "Back in the day when you were just a farmer with turkey bags on the kitchen table and the buyer offered $1,200 because that's what the next guy was charging, you could say you weren't using pesticides, were using tea, and it wouldn't matter."
An important step, she says, will be to create brand scarcity, although it's unclear how that will be accomplished. Black market weed of dubious quality may continue to be trucked out of the Humboldt hills, and it's unlikely your average budget-conscious college student will look for a logo before packing it into his or her bong.