A Budding Industry

The rise of cannabis consultancy



In marijuana country, you get used to not seeing your farmer friends for months at a time as they prepare their sites, tend their plants and deal with the stress of harvest time. But in the past year, thanks to Humboldt County's compliance program and the passage of California's Proposition 64, an entirely different group of professionals has experienced an intense workload and multiple trips into the hills.

They are the consultants, scientists and legal experts tasked with helping cannabis farmers get legal. And while farmers bite their fingernails and wonder if legalization is going to mean boom or bust, for these ancillary professions, the process has been all boom.

"It's been insane, it never stops," says Jack Henry, a wildlife biologist with Timberland Resource Consultants who has watched the stream of growers interested in coming into compliance go from a trickle to a deluge. "At first it was really slow. When I first started this, I went out on my first assignment in [2013] and I watched my boss talk growers off a ledge to sign paperwork. It's really nice to see people embrace it a little bit but it's been insanely busy."

Henry does the same kind of work for cannabis farmers that he would do for more traditional agriculture operations, but says these farmers are held to different, higher standards.

"There's such a broad spectrum of laws and agencies," he says, adding that when he got his degree at Humboldt State University, he never imagined he'd be working with pot growers. "To protect the environment, it's good in a sense. But it puts some of these guys in a tight spot."

Among the common issues Henry sees in the field are farms built around roads never intended for year-round use. Many cannabis grows are former timber lands, with roads only meant for the summer. In the early days of the industry, before mixed-light grows and greenhouses became the norm, this was less of an issue. But now roads that were never meant to be used in the winter are seeing heavy wear, resulting in erosion and runoff into nearby streams.

Henry, who helps growers pass inspections by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the regional Water Quality Control Board, admits that his clientele self-selects. The farmers he works with want to come into compliance, which means their operations are probably in better shape than those who are going to stay in the black market. Many complain about the high costs of the required inspections and mitigation work, but Henry says skilled people, like engineers, expect to be paid appropriately for their work.

"It's just like the gold rush," says Henry. "It wasn't the gold miners who got rich, it was the stores who sold the picks and shovels."

Paul Gallegos, a former Humboldt County district attorney, is currently helping some cannabis farmers structure their businesses. He says the morass of laws surrounding medicinal and recreational cannabis, federal, state and legal scheduling can be confusing for many.

"So many people are trying to figure out what's going on," he says. "Now with the passage of [Prop. 64], people are even more confused."

For clients who are trying to operate legally as medical cooperatives, he breaks it down to the three Ms: marijuana, members and money. The marijuana must be accounted for from start to finish — "seed, stem, leaf and bud." Co-operative members must be valid patients and up to date on their referrals. The money has to be accounted for. For growers trying to get into compliance, a history of solid bookkeeping could work in their favor for state licensing. But professional, squeaky clean operations aren't the norm in the industry.

"They whine to me, 'What do you mean, I need an onsite septic system? What do you mean I need a handicap-accessible bathroom?'" says Kimberly Preston, of Omsberg and Preston Engineering. "I walk them down the hallway of my office and show them my bathrooms. 'You're getting legal. You're no different than me in what's required. And while you're at it, put Microsoft Word on your computer and set up your voicemail.'"

Preston, who has worked at the firm since 2004, refers to all the farmers she works with affectionately as "Farmer John." If the learning curve for some cannabis growers is steep, Preston's team has also struggled to keep up with the ever-changing terrain of county and state requirements.

"It's been crazy," she says. "Forget anything and everything I ever knew about engineering in the last 20 years, it's gone. The only thing you can still count on is that water flows downhill."

The green rush has been an economic boon for her firm, which reduced its staff from 14 people to two after the 2008 financial crash but has now grown to employ eight engineers, all working full-tilt to help growers with grading plans, septic testing and design, topographic and boundary surveying.

"They don't think they should have to do any of it," says Preston, laughing. "Because they've never been regulated, they don't like it. They don't understand the cost, because their money has always been their money. And I would sure like to be part of helping them get bank accounts."

She says there are several consultancy firms that are charging "unethical" rates, several times more than her, for their work despite not employing licensed engineers.

"It floored me," she says, adding that she considers herself a lobbyist for her clients. "I keep thinking, is everything I'm doing in vain? Will the state not give them your licenses? Will the feds not put up with it? I don't know. I do unto others. I give honest answers. I put in a good day's work."

"There's a lot of snake oil salesmen out there," agrees Ronald "Ronzo" Mattson, owner of Verdant Bridge Enterprise. Mattson, who owns a garden supply shop and has been working in the local cannabis industry since the early 1980s, shies away from calling himself a "consultant," partially because so many unqualified people have attached themselves to that title. Verdant Bridge got its start after Mattson himself waded through the compliance process, and it mostly does rehab — taking parcels that were trashed by the previous growers and bringing them up to code. Mattson says he chose the name Verdant Bridge because everything else was taken.

"Everything with 'Humboldt' or 'green' or 'organic' was gone," he says, referring to the large variety of cannabis-related businesses in the area.

Mattson's crew often visits sites that were trashed by the previous owners, plots rife with garbage, illegal grading and illegal water diversions. He says restoring property to a more natural state and having state agencies give it the thumbs up is very rewarding. His company is currently only taking on a handful of clients and it's still overwhelmed.

"Right now Humboldt County is an engineer's goldmine," he says. "Everyone needs pot plans done. Structures need to be done. Unpermitted structures need to be permitted. There's a lot of engineering. It's basically site-specific. If you have a very clean site and not a lot of issues, it's not going to cost you a lot of money."

How much money should a grower expect to pay for permits, engineering and all the various inspections, if they're not getting fleeced? It really depends, says Mattson's business partner, Fauna O'Brien.

"A simplistic snapshot, with low-end zoning, tier one with the water board, maybe under $10,000," she says. "If we want to talk about large and tricky situations, personally I've seen clients get close to the half million mark just trying to get to the point where they can get approved. It depends on how people have treated their land so far."

O'Brien declined to say which consultancy firms she's heard negative things about but urged farmers to ask questions and work with licensed professionals. She says it hurts to see people in her community be taken advantage of by people who have "popped up out of the woodwork calling themselves consultants."

"It's the heart and soul farmers, the ones who are absolutely passionate about it," she says. "The ones who are trudging through this compliance process are the ones who have been waiting for this all along. They want to do this without the fear or anxiety of having it all ripped away from them."

Linda Stansberry is a staff writer for the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @LCStansberry.

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