Sonoma County geared up for a green rush this month when it started accepting applications for marijuana-related businesses.

“Think about it,” said Tim Ricard, the county’s medical marijuana ombudsman, “it’s an existing industry that we’re essentially trying to permit in a very short time. It’s an exciting day for the county, and it’s an exciting day for our local cannabis businesses.”

Then again, maybe not.

There are an estimated 5,000 marijuana growers in Sonoma County. But, as reported last week, the county received just 18 cultivation applications in the first three weeks after its business permit program got started. Three other applications were submitted for manufacturing and distribution permits. The county permits are prerequisites for obtaining mandatory state licenses, which are supposed to be available by Jan. 1.
[related_articles location=”left” show_article_date=”false” article_type=”automatic-primary-section” curated_ids=””] Some potential applicants groused about the red tape and steep fees that go along with leaving the black market — echoing complaints routinely heard from people trying to start more traditional businesses.

“The regulations are too stringent, the application fees and taxes are too high,” said Erich Pearson, whose organization runs medical marijuana dispensaries in Santa Rosa, Sebastopol and San Francisco. “The preconception is the growers have financial means, but they don’t.”

Is it possible that legalization is pushing ganjapreneurs away from their progressive roots and toward the anti-tax movement on the political right? OK, probably not.

But here’s a more serious question: Will growing marijuana turn out to be less lucrative than many people assume? That possibility was raised this week by one of the state’s leading voices for legalization.

Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association, warned that there is a large surplus of marijuana in the state and no way to legally export any of it to other states or countries, which could push down prices and put some people out of business.

Josh Malgieri, vice president at Sonoma Cannabis Company, checking the growth of pot plants in Santa Rosa, Calif., March 15, 2017. Sonoma County has become a seedbed of cannabis experimentation, despite threats from the Trump administration to increase enforcement against recreational use. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)

“California is not just really good at growing the best cannabis in the world for Californians,” he said during a panel discussion hosted by the Sacramento Press Club. “We produce eight times as much cannabis as we’ll ever be able consume here in the state.”

Others at the Press Club event believe the surplus is even larger, with growers producing as much as 12 times more pot than Californians are prepared to smoke, vape, steep into their tea, rub into their skin or munch in candy bars, ice cream brownies and other edibles. “We are on a painful downsizing curve,” Allen said.

California’s legal marijuana market could bring in $2 billion a year, so there will be big winners. But evidence of limits can be seen even in the famous Emerald Triangle. Tim Blake, the founder of the Emerald Cup, told Los Angeles Times columnist Robin Abcarian that some of his fellow Mendocino County growers still haven’t sold their entire crop from 2016, the last year before legalization.

Blake canceled a weekend marijuana festival in Laytonville because, as Abcarian put it, “he was worried the event would be less like a celebration and more like a wake for all the folks who are about to get left behind.”

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