A Carrot and Stick for Pot Farmers 

The state water board has launched an unprecedented program that seeks to work cooperatively with cannabis growers, but other government agencies just want to raid farms and seize cash.

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Northern Californians are familiar with the pat narrative: Back-to-the-land hippies of the Seventies became soured by greed and then cashed in their old values to exploit the North Coast's pristine wilderness for a fast buck. That's an easy story to tell, and it's repeated often, but like most easy stories, it's incomplete.

In truth, the drug war and pot prohibition in California have given rise to a massive, totally unregulated industry that set up shop in a fragile environment that had already been devastated by a century of logging and clear-cutting. Logging, it turns out, also birthed an ideal set-up for illicit pot farms. The logging industry had partially tamed the remote, rugged landscape by building roads and clearing flat areas that turned out to be perfect for homes. Plus, logging made the land cheap. By the latter part of the 20th century, many property owners in the region were eager to offload land that would not produce timber again for several decades. Hippies grabbed a slice of the homesteading dream, but on land that already had severe environmental problems.

During the past one hundred-plus years, the logging industry managed to cut down 95 percent of the area's old-growth forests. Today, the vast majority of forest on the North Coast has been cut down at least once. And the second- and third-generation forests that replaced them are filled with young thirsty trees. This "thirsty forests" problem means that less water actually makes it into the creeks and streams than before, because the water is sucked up and evaporated by young densely packed trees.

Logging also caused massive erosion, filling countless streams with dirt. The alterations to the land now inhibit water from percolating into the ground, as it once did, and instead, it rushes out to sea. With less water soaking into the earth, creeks run dry in summer, helping kill off fish migrations.

The Compassionate Care Act of 1996 — Proposition 215 — further boosted the North Coast pot-industry and added to the region's environmental degradation. For nineteen years, the state has failed to create any regulatory framework for marijuana production, leaving growers, even ones who strictly produce for medical cannabis dispensaries, open to raids. The recession was another driver for the industry, as people scrambled for extra revenue and parts of the state that hadn't been traditional production centers entered the weed economy. And the near legalization of pot in 2010 created yet another little boom in production, with many growers convinced that that would be their last year to profit from black-market prices.

All this growth has put California in a unique situation as states across the West legalize: Rather than starting from scratch as Colorado did, California is in the process of trying to normalize and regulate an already massive and flourishing industry.Although accurate numbers are hard to come by, state and industry reps estimate that there are now 53,000 cannabis farms in California. According to the most conservative estimates, the state's pot industry produces $5 billion just in farm sales — not including revenues from value-added products or retail. Others put wholesale production at more than $5 billion in Mendocino County alone. By some estimates, pot is the state's largest cash crop. Surveys conducted by industry groups estimate that each farm employs an average of 4.5 full-time-equivalent workers, though many are seasonal. The population of Northern California counties swells by tens of thousands each fall with the arrival of "trimmigrants" who harvest the annual crop.

click to enlarge Pot grower Swami Chaitanya told the water board reps that growers are "afraid" of them. - ADRIAN FERNANDEZ BAUMANN
  • Adrian Fernandez Baumann
  • Pot grower Swami Chaitanya told the water board reps that growers are "afraid" of them.


In many Northern California counties, marijuana is the largest employer, the biggest industry and export, a source of culture, and a way of life.

Over the years, state and local agencies have attempted to corral the industry and stamp out its culture with raids and crackdowns. Humboldt County Sheriff Michael Downey, who has been working in the area for decades, said that at one time, the raids appeared to be working, and that law enforcement officials "had [the industry] pretty much beat back in this county. The marijuana going out of the county was pretty low."

But he added: "I'm not foolish enough to think that we would ever really win that war ... [but] it wasn't much of an industry back then. But today? To send [sheriff's deputies] out now is like, really? What are we really accomplishing now? We could do this every day and never make a huge impact."

Still, the raids and prohibition have continued and have not only made the environmental issues in the region harder to solve, but also have made them worse. For growers, if you have a decent chance of being raided in the future, it makes sense to score as much profit as quickly as you can. And if sticking around for the long run means probably getting busted, then spending time on environmental cleanup looks like a dumb idea. Moreover, if your money is illegal and you can't put it in a bank, or invest directly in the local community without laundering it, then why not buy another lot with cash, build some more greenhouses, and expand your enterprise?

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