Trusting government doesn't come easy to Northern California weed farmers — not after a drug war that has lasted for four decades. Yet there they were: sixty or so professional outlaws, sitting in folding chairs at the Grange Hall in Laytonville, Mendocino County, with their bushy beards, skeptically eyeing the reps from the water board.
The decades-long war on pot has left growers with a habitual distrust of power and a culture of secrecy. Here in Northern California's Emerald Triangle — composed of Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity counties — it can be considered impolite to ask someone what he or she does for a living. After all, the police are explicitly committed to tearing down the region's largest industry and employer.
Yet after decades of summer raids, of marines in choppers and deputies hauling woodchippers, the triangle has more pot than ever, more plants, more pounds. It's a multi-billion dollar industry that, until this year, has flourished with no regulation and no government oversight.
The results of the forty-year experiment in near laissez-faire capitalism coupled with intermittent-yet-harsh crackdowns by law enforcement are myriad, but in recent years much attention has focused on the impact that certain kinds of cannabis cultivation inflict on the environment — a phenomenon that, until 2015, had no real official solution except for more of the same: raids.
But on this warm spring day at the Grange Hall, the water board reps were offering a new strategy: a truce in the old fight. They were hoping to bring growers out of the woods and out of the shadows and work with them.
The crowd looked much like what you'd expect to find in any rural American farm community: a mix of old and young, mostly white and male. Straw hats, rubber boots, and muddy Carhartts abounded, though with a bit of a tie-dye aesthetic mixed in. The talk outside was of weather and soil, but with a joint passed around instead of a beer.
After some preamble, the reps from the regional water board went up to the front. Environmental scientist Connor McIntee, a stocky man in his mid twenties with a reddish blonde ponytail and beard, and geologist Derek Magnuson, also bearded, spoke to the crowd in clumsy bureaucratese. They had only been on the job a few months, under a new program. They were representing the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, a semi-autonomous state agency charged with regulating the quality of surface waters for all watersheds from Tomales Bay in Marin County to the Oregon border.
During the presentation, you could hear the rustle of paper as the farmers flipped through the sheaf of new regulations that the state was proposing. Some people took notes, some just listened. Up front, the informal moderator, Casey O'Neill, encouraged the crowd to hear what water board reps had to say. In his early thirties, short and wiry, with an energetic sense of humor, O'Neill farms two acres of vegetables and cannabis in Mendocino County. A third generation cannabis grower and chair of the Emerald Growers Association, a trade group for cannabis farmers, he'd helped organize the meeting.
O'Neill pointed out that regulation is needed and inevitable, tossing out his repeated refrain that "regulation is coming, and it's either going to happen to us or by us."
The water board reps' basic pitch: Starting this summer, and going fully into effect next spring, the board would regulate cannabis cultivation on the basis of environmental impacts. Growers would be asked to invest time and money in the proper stewardship of the land and in repairing damage that had already been done. In exchange, the board offered, basically, an understanding: the government would give growers time to fix old problems and would provide a them with a framework to diagnose and repair issues. And all of it would be totally, officially, unconcerned with the legality of marijuana.The water board's unprecedented approach to cannabis in California this year is based in part on the acknowledgement of a paradox: Although the worst actors in the marijuana industry have severely damaged the North Coast's environment, growers are the only people with enough money — and enough interest in the land — to clean up the mess, including the mess they inherited from the state's logging industry. In other words, the environment needs pot growers now more than ever, and it needs them to keep making money.
Not surprisingly, many growers in the Triangle welcome the water board's kinder-gentler approach this year. But they remain wary. And for good reason: Other state and local agencies don't appear to be ready to work cooperatively with growers and are still relying on raids and crackdowns. On June 22, the Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity county sheriff's departments spearheaded a massive raid on growers in the Island Mountain area of the Emerald Triangle, inviting the California Department of Fish and Wildlife along to document and prosecute environmental crimes. The water board, however, was not invited.
In other words, state agencies that should be working together are instead often working at cross-purposes, and so the atmosphere of paranoia and the fear of cooperating with the government continue along the North Coast, thereby raising concerns that the water board's new strategy will ultimately fail. And if that were to happen, Northern California's environmental woes could compound for years to come.
Toward the end of the meeting in Laytonville, an older man with a long white beard, wearing white Hindu robes, stood up. Swami Chaitanya, a representative of the old counter culture, pointed to the decades of raids and the continuing resistance of local officials and law enforcement to try anything new. Although he urged his fellow farmers to work with the water board and organize politically, he finished by turning to the reps who led the meeting and shouted: "Thank you for coming. But we're afraid of you."
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