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Humboldt's cannabis past, its future and where it all went wrong



Permit me to deliver myself of a considerable amount of pent-up feeling regarding the whole cannabis issue.

I've seen it all, having lived in SoHum for 45 years. Phase I, the Age of Innocence, when hippies sat naked in the sun with a toke under their skin, thanking God for the wonderful life amidst natural surroundings that we'd somehow been able to find in this still beautiful place. Under such circumstances we certainly weren't going to buy herb (which we all smoked); we grew it, and it didn't take long for us to take some down to our friends in the city; they got fine herb and we got a little money, which we could dearly use. Win-win.

Then Phase II. Somebody swung down the pike in the '70s saying, "Pull out the males!" Which we did and sinsemilla made its appearance. The power of the herb skyrocketed and so did the price, which was the watershed moment; the beginning of the madness that now engulfs us. (How enormously ironic that we were the ones who rubbed the bottle!) People started flocking into the hills, not at all for the reasons why the "originals" came but simply for the money, and all the ills associated with the pursuit of money for its own sake came into play, culminating in the current zoo.

Originally there had been nothing but Moms and Pops; now large grows popped up all over the place (the place being our home paradise in the hills), and they came with a full slate of negative impacts, from illegal grading, siltation of streams, discharge of poisons into streams and land, generator noise (truly distressing to those of us who love peace and quiet), lights doing to our night eyes what the generators do to our ears, sucking an inordinate amount of water out of our streams, trashing our roads and on and on and on. These grows should have been eliminated then and there; they should never have been allowed in "rural residential" areas but there was, aside from blanket (and overall ineffective) raids by CAMP, virtually no enforcement. So people realized they could get away with just about anything and they grew up a storm. A greenrush (or greedrush).

Then Phase III. There developed a general awareness of the fact that the public had nothing against cannabis and that this was leading to not just overt public acceptance but legalization, which meant that the gold mine would open not just for growers but for a whole new industry — including dispensaries, testing facilities, etc. — as well as local and state governments through the massive fees associated with legalized operations at every level. Naturally, Humboldt County, being situated at the head of the spear, felt obliged to maintain that leadership by setting up a legal framework for this new industry. It was a massive (actually impossible) task, and the board of supervisors, the planning commission and staff are to be congratulated for the enormous amount of work they have put in and continue to put in to the project; it's a substantial achievement.

But from the start of this process us old farts at HUMMAP have insisted that the way HumCo should handle things would be to eliminate grows over (say) 2,500 square feet and to ensure that the only product we would produce would be that for which we were already world-famous; genuine top-grade organic sun-grown Humboldt County sinsemilla, grown by many small farmers; emphatically not by industrial-sized operations, which we realized from bitter experience were far more harmful than helpful to the interests of the people or the land of Humboldt County. Nobody should have been allowed to grow on land that they did not own and on which they did not reside. To this rule there could be exceptions; e.g. there are areas in the county where larger grows could be considered appropriate (so long as they don't poison the land and make it impossible to convert back to the kind of food production that was so important in the 1930s and could well be again). Let others knock themselves out in this mad circus of harmful commercial activity; let them, if they lack the wit to do otherwise, ruin their rural residential neighborhoods, drain their streams and turn their lovely rural counties into money-mad industrial scrambles.

The board heard us out and said, "You make sense." Then they listened to the next layer of constituents, who wanted to grow big. They said, "Those old hippies are good people and they dream sweet dreams, but they're not being realistic. This train is roaring out of the station and if we don't get on board, we'll be left behind." The board said, "You make sense." Then the people who wanted to grow huge made their sensible case, and the board did what boards generally feel obliged to do since they represent all, not part of their constituents; they compromised, the result being the Commercial Cannabis Land Use Ordinance. So we have a legal framework of sorts and the new industry is trying to take shape.

Which will, in my not particularly humble opinion, lead directly to Phase IV. When the other 40 states snout up to the trough, the basic law of supply and demand comes into play in a big way, the price goes through the floor (it's already well on the way) and the whole thing collapses. God only knows what Lorillard and Reynolds have been doing in the corridors of Washington, but we can be sure they haven't sat on their hands. Already there's a shadow entity patenting cannabis strains, which could be enormously significant and harmful.

I'm reminded of how us kids would put 50 fireflies in a cream jar on top of a barber pole in our bedroom at night, so we'd have a little lighthouse. In the morning, in the cream jar there'd be a bunch of legs and wing casings and one Bad Bug. I think this scene will evolve in much the same way, with a few big players and a small chance of a boutique market surviving where Phase I types can continue to exist. But I'm not holding my breath; the odds would be much better if HumCo had focused on protecting a strictly mom-and-pop system. The passengers who bought a ticket on this train like to think that it's going to be a smooth ride but I predict otherwise; there will be unforeseen problems ahead on this track. Just as with the logging, fishing and other boom-and-bust economies, the bottom line is proving to be money, not long-term vision and effective protection of the resource base.

Meanwhile, we "original" hill dwellers weep. The problem grows have not been eliminated; they've been legitimized. Our roads are being trashed and are now downright dangerous to drive. (Aside from the constant stream of big fertilizer trucks, water trucks, etc., the industrial level of employees involved with these grows has tremendously increased car traffic on our narrow dirt roads.) Our creeks and rivers are being drained, our lands polluted.

Directly in what used to be my pristine view there are four large greenhouse grows stacked up on the hillside; four big scars on the hill (care to bet on whether or not the grading was permitted?), much of the graded material is probably now in the creek below and they have roaring fans that, over a mile away, make it sound as though I am back in New York City when I open the sliding glass door of my bedroom at night. Not to mention the grow(s) 90 degrees from there, where there's a steady generator hum and they're regularly transporting tanks of water from that property to a different grow scene. And someone just stole my main toolbox from my barn (never a problem until recently). Our local Facebook page lists 10 incidents in the past month of tires picking up greenhouse screws on the road (and that's just the ones listed).

We expect little enforcement; there are just too many grows. Unless the county wakes up to the possibilities of doing it with paper rather than brute force; if problem grows can be identified then fines can be levied and liens placed. But it would seem staff is far too busy working on legalization to put much effort into enforcement. And even if substantial action were to be taken along those lines, there are far too many large grows that will be legal under the new rules; industrial operations will be allowed to continue on rural residential lands where, as I've already observed, they should never have been allowed in the first place.

Many of us feel that the county made an enormous (although understandable) mistake in failing to see how sketchy the future of this whole "industry" (which rests entirely upon the artificially high price created by illegality) rather than having the vision and courage to focus on and protect top grade, dispersed, wholly organic mom and pop production, thus maximizing our chances for an economically sustainable and environmentally viable future.

Another thing: In view of my experience working with county government over the last four decades, it's difficult for me to ignore the substantial feeling on the part not just of officials but also of others, that we shouldn't be living out here in the hills. Some environmentalists (ironically our natural allies) think that the very presence of humans on "resource lands" necessarily degrades them (never mind what their cities did to the land on which they sit, how our logged-over hills have improved under our stewardship or our natural right to the pursuit of happiness), and they've been a significant force working to harm our interests.

Regarding the official attitude: when United Stand began its work nearly 40 years ago, the chief building official publicly announced that he felt it was his duty to "use the codes as a tool to rid the county of the riffraff." I think this attitude has improved but it certainly hasn't disappeared; quite recently former Planning Director Kirk Girard was quoted to me as, when asked directly, "Are you trying to get rid of us?" having replied, "Yes. We're trying to get you out of there so we can gentrify the county on the Marin/Sonoma model and bring some real money into this county." So we do occasionally get the feeling that our legitimate concerns are, shall we just say, being overlooked and this whole marijuana issue is an excellent example.

Peter Childs is a retired musician and activist, who worked with United Stand in dealing with Humboldt County government over the last four decades. He resides in Miranda.

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