The Supervisors of Humboldt County are charged with the unenviable task of regulating legal marijuana in such a way that they don’t kill the economy of Humboldt now or choke it down in the future.  All the while, they and everyone else is aware that legal medical cannabis is not the economic engine of the county, it is black-market Humboldt Homegrown sold here and conveyed by terrified drivers across the state and across the nation which brings greenbacks into these golden hills and puts money into the coffers of businesses and counties alike.

Earlier this month, a proposal for regulating marijuana was discussed by the county and met with some hostility from many growers.  Not all are unhappy with the proposal though.  Nonetheless, a meeting was held in Southern Humboldt to gather community input and start discussion on how the ordinary folk of the county think the Supervisors should proceed.  Supervisor Cliff Clendenen and Mel Kreb from the Planning Commission were there as well as several members of the press and members of the Humboldt Growers Association. There are hopes for more such meetings throughout the county.

Charlie Custer, the moderator of  this first meeting, wrote an excellent summary of the main points that were discussed that I’m featuring below as a guest post.  They’re long but worth the read.  Not all of the ideas came completely out of the meeting.  And I don’t agree with all of them but some are new and important.  Here’s Charlie Custer’s summary:

At the Garberville Vets Hall…, a couple dozen people interested

in the challenges of marijuana regulation started a conversation that

HuMMAP, the Humboldt Medical Marijuana Advisory Panel, wants

to take on the road countywide. We will hold public hearings across

the county to assure that our government gets the information it needs

before attempting to codify regulation of our biggest industry. In order to

spark ideas and discussion, here’s a boil-down of the night’s agreements

and disagreements which we invite citizens of the county to think about

and weigh in on, as the long process of ordinance writing, and creating

industry representation, moves forward. For the most part, people agreed

on a great deal.

General Advice

First off, county regulators, planners and residents should understand that

the current “gray area” in which medical marijuana thrives is a place of

rapid evolution. It isn’t susceptible to rigid control because it’s a moving

target, and will dip back under the county radar if regulations hinder

more than help its growth. The immediate goal of regulation should be to

change attitudes and assumptions, by gathering people into compliance

with incentives—because we’ve learned that punishing non-compliance

not only doesn’t work, it creates conflict in place of cooperation and

coordination, which is what we need to face the great changes ahead of


Humboldt is a marijuana production area, which means that we export

most of what we grow. So a defining regulatory goal must be to

encourage trade within California rather than restricting it, as some

current ordinances do. What’s more difficult to hang regulatory ropes

around is the black market beyond California, which also absorbs a large

amount of our production. This will be illegal for at least another few

years, yet we should recognize that it’s part and parcel of what created our

industry, and will continue to be important, whatever our regulations say.

So we think a different path of regulation than has been taken in the past

is appropriate now.

The way medical marijuana became an industry is simple to say, but hard

to grasp. In a nutshell, we can call the strategy ‘Pushing the Envelope’.

Until legalization happens, we must stretch the boundaries that our

industry thrives within, or we’ll lose our industry to other boundary-

pushers who are better organized, better funded, and closer to consumers.

The great centers of ‘potrepreneurialism’ have never legalized marijuana.

They simply made harassing it the lowest law-enforcement priority, and

what resulted was the vast British Columbia export industry, the global

Amsterdam pot-tourist trade, and the burgeoning Oakland industries,

among many others. If we don’t understand how those areas grew, we

will not grow, we will shrivel while they thrive.

The first organizing principle of effective regulation in our situation

should be to protect existing jobs, and to regulate already existing,

thriving activities. Jobs should not be eliminated helter-skelter if the

industry is meant to stabilize and grow. This isn’t to say that grow houses

shouldn’t be regulated or that housing stock shouldn’t be defended; it’s

to affirm that regulation is not extermination. The goal of defending our

housing stock is not furthered by stigmatizing people, nor by punishing

them with unresolveable property title quagmires such as the county has

proposed in an ordinance we think should be withdrawn. We must be

clear on our regulatory purposes, and not exceed them. If regulatory goals

overreach they may fail spectacularly, as our billion-dollar local industry


In this light, it’s clear that even the best police make bad regulators.

They can’t be expected to know how to encourage an industry they’ve

tried to discourage. More fundamentally, all industries are best and

most commonly regulated by industry professionals who know what the

industry needs, in cooperation with government balancing their needs

against everyone else’s. For this reason, the first and most emphatic

recommendation we make is to create a county-recognized Cannabis

Council, by whatever name, that assists in ordinance writing and

regulatory follow-through.

Public safety and economic stability go hand in hand. Working

together we can promote economic goals that will help social and

cultural cohesion, by promoting self-sufficiency in our production

techniques, incentivizing water-wise and environmentally healthy

practices, sponsoring discussion and education to continuously improve

industry standards, building value-added processing industries upon our

agricultural base, and perhaps most important, by understanding that

our county’s biggest job, and biggest challenge, is not to regulate our

industry, it is to promote it, in order to assure that we’ll continue to have

an industry to regulate. Our industry has thrived without regulation for 30

years. Let’s focus on what we need, and work together to achieve it.

Specific recommendations

The county should undertake a SWOT analysis of

industry Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and

Threats. HuMMAP has already written an industry

survey that the county could help take countywide

in order to learn more about the marijuana industry’s

practices and reach. It’s often suggested that our

Agriculture Department, which currently does little

more than inspect agricultural scales, could play an

important role in upcoming regulation. If that’s not

feasible, a county-sanctioned third party or trade group

could also, at a minimum, weigh and certify qualities

of Humboldt medical marijuana.

What qualities should be certified? Should our

marijuana be organic, sustainable, fish-friendly, fair

trade, biodynamic, high-end, family-farmed? Or is it

a commercial commodity? A standard-setting council

should make these decisions, which will influence how

our Humboldt ‘brand’ is perceived outside the county.

County branding should also be informed by market

research (and ultimately marketing) in California’s

principle cities. The county should team with local

resources such as HSU to fund and write needed

studies. It should also coordinate local ordinances to

move in common directions. For example, current

municipal laws discourage out-of-county dispensary

sales, and ban indoor domestic production while

mandating indoor warehouse production, in a county

world-famous for its abundant outdoor production. Is

any of this sound policy?

Trade within the state must be encouraged, and our

county lobbyist should be engaged to work for our

economy’s benefit in Sacramento, as discussed below.

The regulatory challenges and practices of urban and

rural areas are very different, and shouldn’t be broad-

brushed. This is one of the fatal flaws of the county’s

recently proposed ordinance. It must be replaced with

an ordinance written to suit its regulatory purposes.

Other thoughts to consider: the Humboldt brand

deserves its own public discussion. It is widely

thought to be natural, small-farmer friendly, and

environmentally healthy, and some have suggested

that the carbon footprint of natural production should

be calculated and highlighted, to contrast with

unsustainable urban production methods. But it’s

widely recognized that we have good and bad players

in all fields, including marijuana growing. Trainings

and effective sanctions against destructive practices

must be discussed and designed for our brand to be a

meaningful commitment to consumers. These issues

will be discussed in public hearings to come, but will

also profit from closer attention within the industry.

Cannabis Council

A representative industry group working closely with

government is essential to any well-regulated industry.

The most familiar example of this in Humboldt is the

Planning Commission’s Forestry Review Committee,

which is named by the Board of Supervisors with

extensive timber industry input. It reviews policies,

holds hearings, makes recommendations and

communicates informally with citizens across the

county. These are the first duties that a Cannabis

Council would also undertake. Additional duties

may also become clear. Such a council, whatever it’s

named and however it’s constituted, must be broadly

representative of industry groups (family farmers,

dispensaries, suppliers, etc) geographical areas, and

diverse interests (some people want to grow a lot

more than other people, for example). It could build

understandings useful to many rural counties heavily

dependent on marijuana production, yet unrepresented

in discussions that may determine their fate.

State issues

There are several ways that the county can and should

go to Sacramento for immediate clarification and

assistance. These should be priority areas for our

county lobbyist. Humboldt and other rural counties

urgently require a clear right to transport their produce

to other areas of the state. To distribute in other places,

a clear right for collectives to associate and cooperate

is also essential. More broadly, rural interests have

not figured in any statewide marijuana ordinances

proposed, nor in legalization initiatives to date. This

must change, and the county can lead in changing it.

Open issues to be decided

So far we’ve summed up areas of broad agreement.

There are some policy decisions that must be made

with public discussion much larger than we’ve had so

far. Humboldt’s instinct until now has been to borrow

marijuana ordinances from other jurisdictions. This

is a poor idea for our unique circumstances. One of

our valuable local suggestions goes against a model

the county is considering adopting from Mendocino

County, where medical marijuana is permitted on

a payment-per-plant basis. The Humboldt Growers

Association has suggested, and HuMMAP agrees,

that regulation of mature canopy size rather than

plant numbers is a wiser way to allow for improved

stewardship, and discourage waste of resources in

artificially bulking up yields of individual plants. But

this approach may be inconsistent with the federal

government’s 99-plant enforcement threshold, since it

doesn’t count plants at all.

However, a small-sized canopy can’t contain a huge

number of plants. So what should the canopy limit

be? Originally HGA proposed 40,000 square feet per

parcel, approximately one acre of mature marijuana

plant canopy. After Proposition 19 failed and federal

pressure induced Oakland to suspend plans for even

larger, multi-acre indoor grows, the city of Berkeley

also pulled its proposal to license several 30,000-

square-foot warehouse grows. In this climate, HGA cut

its proposed canopy limit in half, to 20,000 square feet.

The HGA estimates in their latest proposal that such

a half-acre canopy would likely contain between 200

and 800 plants, depending on growing technique. They

say this high limit will leave decisions about grow

size to individual grower’s comfort levels. The county

may have its own thoughts on comfort levels. The only

small survey conducted so far suggested that a majority

of growers prefer lower limits, along the lines of 2500

square feet.

Meanwhile HuMMAP had its own qualms about the

large size proposed, suggesting that large growers

should pay a graduated increase in fees for large

production, as a way of encouraging small, family-

sized grows that would help stabilize rural producer

populations. This is the core question many people

see in rural Humboldt: may thousands of relatively

inefficient, small-scale marijuana farmers be driven

out of production and off their land, while a relative

handful of big players ‘industrialize?’ HGA says their

proposal protects us from industrialization, while some

small producers say it introduces it. What is the right

size of a family farm? When does familial production

become industrial? Should there be a cap to ambition at

all? Or should the cap be entirely environmental rather

than numerical? And what will happen to any of this if

pot’s legalized by the quarter-section in Iowa? These

questions deserve countywide consideration.

Another murky area surrounds the growing medicinal

practice of eating and/or juicing raw marijuana leaves

and buds. More than one plant may be consumed

every day by one person, and the federal threshold

clearly wouldn’t allow for, say, a marijuana juice bar’s

necessary inventory. But county policy should do so,

because successful policy encourages experimentation

and growth, with confidence in success amidst

failures. Might the county push an envelope of

permitted young-plant cultivation, under condition

that abundant young plants must be consumed before

they significantly flower? There are many regulatory

riddles for us to solve together. It’s a good thing it’s

not the job of the county to figure these things out for

us, because they can’t. Can we? Let’s get talking, and

see what we learn together.

HuMMAP will host public hearings in any community

that requests it. We’ll provide background materials,

structure and facilitation to whatever degree people


You can contact HuMMAP here.