Ask any cannabis farmer in Humboldt County who's navigating the labyrinth of paperwork, legalese and filing requirements of going legit — it ain't easy. Now imagine feeling your way through that maze of fees, regulations and codes without the guiding thread of a lawyer or an advocacy group. In your second language.
That's what many Hmong growers are facing amid California's shift from prohibition to legalization.
In Trinity County, an organization called Conscious Cannabis Resource has been helping Hmong growers understand and share information about coming into compliance. "There is a language barrier definitely," says Victor Vang, a member of CCR and a cannabis cultivator himself. The Trinity Pines area in particular, where tracts of land have been subdivided and turned into grows, has a large population of Hmong growers, many of whom moved there from Humboldt County looking for cheaper land.
Vang says first-generation Hmong growers, who immigrated to the U.S. as refugees in the 1970s and 1980s after working with the CIA against the communist government in Laos, drew on their agricultural backgrounds and adapted to the mountain farming of cannabis. Folks with "a green thumb are chasing that cash crop. ... They're just trying to get a piece of the American pie."
Vang and the small organization, which counts only two paid staffers and a half dozen volunteers, provide translation assistance and try to give farmers the information they need to figure out whether they'll pursue permits and how. Without that help, Vang says most in the isolated, off-grid outpost would be relying on word of mouth. He estimates the group has made contact with some 400 farmers, though only a fraction have taken the path of compliance.
The tight-knit community has the same issues with leaving the black market as anybody, according to Vang, including fees, rising building expenses and dropping price per pound. Add social barriers in the mix and the challenge only grows. "There's a huge cultural clash," says Vang. "There's always a barrier between government and the people. ... We try to bridge that gap." It's no easy task given complaints he hears about police racial profiling and alleged theft. "We're in a no man's land," says Vang, and the perception is that "police aren't out there to assist them, police are out there to get them."
Here in Humboldt, neither he nor CCR's founder Mai Vue have heard of any formal outreach program working with Hmong farmers. "What we've seen across the board with the Hmong, Bulgarian and Latino populations," says Terra Carver, executive director of the Humboldt County Growers Alliance, "is there hasn't been a lot of outreach." In fact, Carver says, "We haven't had any [Hmong or Hmong-Americans] come through our doors."
The Humboldt County Planning and Building Department, which is tasked with reviewing the deluge of cannabis cultivation permits, doesn't have a mechanism in place for tracking how many Hmong have submitted applications. And while it has access to translation services, it hasn't received any requests for or required a Hmong translator yet.
Maybe Humboldt's Hmong cultivators are doing way better than most with legal red tape. Or maybe somebody's fully bilingual kids are really hustling out there. But it might be that a whole slice of Humboldt's cannabis farming population doesn't have the kind of access to vital information as, say, their white counterparts. And if the goal is to move as much of the industry into compliance as possible — taxed, regulated and safe for consumers — Humboldt is going to have to figure out how to reach everyone.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.