The Mendocino Cannabis Resource Conference in Willits this weekend brought together local growers, county agencies and industry consultants to prepare for permits for those interested in entering the legal market. Although the conference was designed to aid the small grower, many feel they don’t have the resources to use the information they were given.
Complicated certification processes, taxes and numerous fees are making some longtime growers reconsider their profession. As the cannabis industry and its players come out of the shadows and into the limelight, those who operate on a small, or “cottage,” scale have a decision to make: Is becoming legal worth it?
“I might as well get a regular job,” said William, who has a small plot in Laytonville, after hearing speakers describe the many steps people like him would have to take to keep his farm. He said most growers he knows plan to get out of the business after the county’s three-year grace period (called the “sunset provision”) expires, a part of the medical marijuana ordinance the Board of Supervisors passed on April 4.
“Legalization was the death of the small grower,” he said.
One man who grows cannabis in Willits said he has started the legalization process, but he is not sure if it will pay off or what his total cost will be. He had made a list of the 12 steps he would have to complete in order to comply, and felt overwhelmed to look at it.
“At this point, I almost feel like I have buyer’s remorse a little bit,” he said.
One example of a mid-size grower who made it work, Wendy Kornberg of Sunnabis, said indeed, legalization is not for the faint of heart.
“It is a tough road,” she said.
For her, the trade-off is worth it. She was willing to sacrifice her time and money for the relief of no longer having to look over her shoulder.
Other growers who feel the same way but simply cannot afford to comply worry they are getting left behind. Some at the conference pointed out the economic disparity between those who can become legal and those who do not really have a choice.
Ramón Garcia, representing 10 small growers in Northern California, said he would like to see equity provisions in Mendocino County like those the City of Oakland added to its medical cannabis ordinance last month, giving privileges to Oakland residents.
“We’re the ones that the back of the industry is made on,” he told a panel of local authorities. “This is more than just an industry; this is a community.”
Supervisor John McCowen responded that county permit fees were adopted on a cost-recovery basis adherent to the law, but state fees go too far.
While some were grateful to the Board of Supervisors for taking their opinions into consideration in drafting its ordinance, others were critical, accusing the board of using permit fees to pad its pockets.
“It is my opinion that we cannot say that government is coming around to accepting the cannabis community, except as county coffers,” said Pebbles Trippet, a well-known cannabis activist who spoke about its history in the county. She compared the current relationship of growers and law enforcement to the amicable one they had with former sheriff Tony Craver a decade ago, saying Sheriff Tom Allman is not cooperative. She also said local government is no help. She brought up a lawsuit that she is a plaintiff in challenging the legitimacy of Measure AI, the cannabis business tax voters approved last year.
“As for the community as a whole, I think we should stop running after the politicians,” she said. “It doesn’t do much good anyway.”
Contradicting that, Ron Edwards of NCGA Genetics the next day encouraged growers to be vocal and let local government know what they want, saying in a small county like Mendocino, they have the opportunity to give direct input and fight for their businesses.
McCowen and Supervisors Dan Gjerde sat on separate panels to explain county regulations. Their tone was largely supportive of those in the room, and they each stressed that the board plans to be flexible. McCowen said it was not realistic for county inspectors to make growers jump through hoops in the middle of the season and mentioned the board has asked inspectors to pay attention to how their regulations apply in the field, leaving a little wiggle room.
“One size fits all doesn’t quite work,” he said.
Vice Chairman of the California Growers Association Casey O’Neill said he has seen a fundamental shift in the way county departments look at cannabis, and it seems the stigma is gone.
“Everybody wants to make this work,” he said.
One key point in the equation of making it in the legal market is branding. Lauren Vazquez, a cannabis business attorney, said trademarks are a tool to survive that is often overlooked.
“You have a world-famous, internationally known cannabis brand (in Mendocino County),” she said. “That is going to take this area to the top of the industry worldwide.”
Kornberg also mentioned branding as a way to succeed. With Sunnabis, she formed her brand and logo under an LLC, which gave her added protection over her land in case something goes wrong (say, a crackdown by the federal government). With giant mega-grows coming online in five years, she said, “branding will keep your farm alive.”
Flow Kana, a Bay Area packaging and distribution company that sells “boutique quality” cannabis, touts the organic label from Northern California and is doing well with it. Brooke Carpenter, head of sales, said dispensaries are asking for organic, sustainable cannabis (sans pesticides), which is plentiful in Mendocino County. That is likely a big reason why Flow Kana has proposed a cannabis co-op at the former Fetzer family vineyard in Redwood Valley.
O’Neill said co-ops can be a way for small growers to survive in the market, so they can engage in economies of scale against big companies waiting in the wings. His HappyDay Farms operation contains about 60 plants.
“I don’t wanna get any bigger,” he said. “But I also want a future in the marketplace.”
In trying to comply, local growers should look out for environmental regulations, especially water. Only five people among 150 or so raised their hands when asked if they had started the process for a waiver of waste discharge with the North Coast Regional Water Quality Board. Attorney Ed Denson said the “deal” that was made in making cannabis legal was to crack down on environmental violations, which can now raise a cannabis-related misdemeanor to a felony.
“Some growers are just really tearing everything up,” he said, meaning everyone is under more scrutiny.
An upcoming issue that could also put some growers out of the game is a “track-and-trace” system, a reporting system between a farm and the government (intended to keep cannabis out of the black market) that has unknown costs attached to it. And the Board of Supervisors on Monday will again take up Mendocino 9.30, which would place limitations on indoor growing for personal use, like containing it to 100 square feet and including the six plants allowed under Proposition 64 in the current 25-plant maximum.
Going forward, the responsibility has been placed on growers who want to remain in the business to take compliance into their own hands. Some will undoubtedly decide to let the sun set on their livelihood, ceding to those who have the money to compete.