I listened to the “Community in Crisis” Southern Humboldt Town Hall Meeting held last Thursday at the Mateel on KMUD, which broadcasted the meeting live. Many people who the county believes grow cannabis but have not applied for permits have recently received “abatement letters.” These letters threaten landowners with $10,000 dollar a day fines if they do not remedy county code violations within 10 days. That’s $10,000 a day, per violation. The code violations range from growing marijuana without a permit to building code violations to illegal grading. Some of these violations are easier to remedy than others. Grading violations might take years to remedy.

Many complained that the $10,000 a day fines are excessive and arbitrary. Humboldt County Planning Director John Ford explained that the fines were not arbitrary, but that they were set “intentionally high” because when the fines were lower, people in the black market cannabis industry, where profit margins were high, could thumb their noses at the county, and absorb the expense of these fines as part of the cost of doing business. That’s one more way that the marijuana industry has made life harder for everyone else in Humboldt County. Our building-code violation fine structure now assumes that every homeowner is a drug kingpin, and that the only reason anyone builds anything out in these hills is to produce illegal drugs for sale on the black market.

I know what it is like to get one of those “abatement letters.” I know what it feels like to have your home threatened in that way, so I sympathize with the stress and anxiety that people feel right now. I also understand the stress of losing a reliable and satisfying source of income for reasons beyond your control. That sucks too. I get it. I’ve been there and I know how it feels. I heard a lot of anger, a lot of fear and a lot of hurt. I recognize and understand those feelings and I sympathize, but I also heard a lot of confusion that night.

People found the regulations confusing and many people complained about it. At least two people complained about the challenge of converting acre-feet to gallons. I understand that there are few things in life more tedious than government paperwork, but growers should remember that these regulations, especially at the county level, as odious as they are, were largely created for their benefit.

It was mostly growers at those meetings where the county’s cannabis cultivation ordinance got crafted. Growers very specifically wanted regulations to protect small growers from a corporate takeover. Local growers sought water use limits and forbearance requirements to protect their own water supplies, as well as endangered salmon, and local farmers demanded an end to light-leaks and generator noise, because they live here too.

At the state level, when Lt. Gov Gavin Newsom came out here to Garberville everyone cheered when he promised to keep the price of marijuana high. It takes a lot of stupid regulations and taxes to keep the price of cannabis high. Time was, we could get “law and order” Republicans to vote for higher taxes to pay more cops to bust more people, and send them to jail, and that was enough to keep marijuana prices high, and the lawyers of the million or so innocent people who went to jail every year, for decades, in the War on Drugs, handled most of the paperwork. Today, all of that paperwork must be done by people who wish to do business in the cannabis industry.

Without all of that paperwork, fees and taxes, the price of cannabis would drop to almost nothing, overnight. Only people in the marijuana industry benefit from making marijuana artificially expensive, and everyone else in society suffers as a result. As cannabis consumers, we pay a premium so that the state can create a whole new bureaucracy to help subsidize growers. I’m not surprised there’s a lot of paperwork involved, but at least now it gets done by the people who benefit from the program.

Growing marijuana is not a terrible thing. There’s nothing wrong with growing marijuana. However, it is a terrible thing to turn a forest into a farm. Turning forest into farm can be worse than logging, because a farm is permanent. Today, it should be a crime to convert forested land, anywhere, into a farm, and it certainly should be a crime to do it here. It certainly would be a crime to lose our wild salmon to a thirsty plant that really doesn’t belong here. People who intend to grow cannabis commercially in our delicate forest ecosystem should expect that their activities will be held to a high level of accountability.

Unfortunately, the problem really has nothing to do with the regulations. The problem is the reality of legalization. The price of cannabis continues to plummet, and way too many people grow now. The state has already licensed too many growers to grow way more weed than Californians can smoke. We can’t force people to smoke more weed, and people already spend as much money as they can afford on it. All of the paperwork in the world can’t keep the price of weed high if more and more people keep growing more and more weed.

The reality is that most of the people who have a long history of growing cannabis as a cash crop here in Humboldt County, have no future in the legal cannabis industry. The legal cannabis industry is a cut-throat high-stakes game right now. A few people will win that game and make enormous amounts of money, and maybe a few of them will even live here, but unfortunately for this community, most of the small players in this game will lose, or have already lost, and a lot of those people live here. We can change the regulations, but we can’t change the facts, and it’s about time we stopped bickering about the regulations and faced facts.

This community has a history we can be proud of, and cannabis is a big part of that history, but we can only claim that proud history if we can gracefully walk away from the ugliness of prohibition. We cannot solve this crisis with a new cannabis ordinance, because the problem isn’t cannabis regulation, the problem is cannabis obsession.

It’s time to realize that cannabis is not what makes us unique, special and valuable. What makes our community special is what we’re blessed with, the forest, the mountains, the rivers and the ocean, but also what we’ve earned, our culture, our innovative lifestyle, and the aesthetics of hand-built and home-spun. It’s about time we realized that those things are more valuable than cannabis, and that we should recognize, reaffirm and celebrate them, instead of clinging to the withering carcass of prohibition.


John Hardin writes at Like You’ve Got Something Better to Do.