The money waters the weed, which grows tall and strong on the “trellis.” Graphic: County of Humboldt.

After about three hours of discussion, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors this afternoon voted to move forward with “Project Trellis,” that government-led program to aid the local cannabis industry that we wrote about yesterday.

The project – which will initially be funded by at least $1.7 million taken from Measure S, the excise tax on cultivation that voters passed in 2016 – was devised by county staff at the direction of the board, and takes a three-pronged approach to supporting the industry: through small grants, a countywide branding and marketing campaign, and participation in a “local equity program” that could be eligible for state funding.

The board split the omnibus program up into several parts and voted – unanimously, in each case – to move forward on them. The various parts of it will come back before the board for final votes in the coming weeks and months.

Natalynne Delapp, operations director of the Humboldt County Growers Alliance, said that the board’s votes to get “Project Trellis” rolling made this a “historic day” for the county.

“This is a way for us to reinvest in our future and allow us to survive and thrive in a regulated marketplace,” Delapp said.

Scott Adair, the county’s economic development director, led the months-long effort to draft “Project Trellis,” and he set the stage this morning with a PowerPoint presentation to the board that emphasized how much the county has changed in the last couple of decades.

When his daughter saw his first slide, he said, she asked why he was including a picture of the Vietnam War in a marijuana presentation. The kicker, of course – it was not a picture of the Vietnam War, but of Operation Green Sweep-era enforcement in the Humboldt County hills.

The message was clear: In less than two decades we’ve gone from military raids on growers to contemplating a local government program like “Project Trellis,” which he believes will be a groundbreaking effort to serve and promote local cannabis. “We have not found any other program … as broad as this one in any other county,” Adair said.

Why the need? As Adair explained it, there are a multitude of federally funded programs to assist small farmers and businesses (the Small Business Administration, Small Business Development Centers, the USDA) that are not available to participants in the cannabis industry, thanks to continuing federal prohibition. Therefore – and especially given cannabis’ central place in the Humboldt County economy – it’s in everyone’s interest to backfill with similar programs aimed at growers specifically.

The board decided to split up the discussion in part because the last of the “prongs” – the local equity program – comes with a deadline. In order to qualify for a piece of the $10 million that the state has set aside for disadvantaged would-be participants in the legal cannabis industry, the county has to have a program up and and application in to the state’s Bureau of Cannabis Control by April 1.

The state’s $10 million pot of cash is a product of last year’s Senate Bill 1294 (full text here), which intends to offer assistance to historic victims of marijuana prohibition. The act reads:

It is the intent of the Legislature in enacting this act to ensure that persons most harmed by cannabis criminalization and poverty be offered assistance to enter the multibillion dollar cannabis industry as entrepreneurs or as employees with high quality, well-paying jobs.

In some ways, it’s hard to see how the Humboldt County marijuana industry would qualify for this pot of funds — especially given the numbers presented earlier in the morning, which showed how Humboldt County continues to profit mightily off the marijuana trade. Also, the text of the bill specifically references the fact that black and Latinx people were treated more harshly by the criminal justice system under prohibition, and its overarching goal is to make the industry “representative of the state’s population.” (This seems to be the “equity” intended in the title of the bill — the California Cannabis Equity Act.)

Nevertheless, the feeling in the board’s chambers seemed to be that the largely white Humboldt County industry was also “harmed by cannabis criminalization” and could therefore qualify for a slice of this cash, so long as it acted quickly. If the Bureau of Cannabis Control approves Humboldt’s application, it would immediately given $100,000, plus a share of whatever is left over from the $10 million pot after all the other local jurisdictions get their $100,000. This money — along with some of the Measure S funds — would be used to aid local industry participants with permit application fees, finding a business location, recruiting and retaining workers and a number of other red-tape-type (and sometimes expensive) business headaches.

The board asked Adair to come back to its meeting next week with specifics on what the local equity program and the application for state funds might look like, with the idea that both could be officially approved well before the April 1 deadline.

The conversation moved on to Project Trellis’ “microgrants” prong, which would fill the same role for the cannabis industry that a similar project run by the Headwaters Fund Board and the Redwood Region Economic Development Corporation does for non-cannabis business: Small, one-time grants to worthy for-profit businesses for specific projects they need to undertake. These would be funded largely with Measure S money.

The supervisors agreed that they preferred to create a new committee to make recommendations on the dispersal of these grants, rather than farm them off to the Headwaters Fund Board. This new committee would be composed of one representative appointed by each supervisor, two others chosen by the board as a whole, and two representing the cannabis industry. This prong, too, will come back for a final vote at the board at a later meeting.

There wasn’t much controversy about the “marketing and branding” prong — everyone agreed that marketing and branding is a good thing, and that any effort to brand and market Humboldt County Cannabis is good for all. The board will also hear about this again in coming meetings; if it ends up following the staff’s proposal, this branding and marketing effort will get 70 percent of the Measure S funds — $1.2 million or more.

The only moment of near disagreement came near the end of the long session, when it came time to take about those Measure S funds. The county excise tax took in a whopping $17 million last year, and staff’s proposal was to award 10 percent of that — $1.7 million — to the three Project Trellis projects

Supervisor Steve Madrone, who represents the north county, said it wasn’t enough. He said that he’d like to see a much higher percentage of Measure S go to Project Trellis. He threw out a figure of $5 million, and later thought that maybe all the net proceeds from the tax should go toward Trellis.

His colleague, Supervisor Mike Wilson of Arcata, tried to throw cold water on this. He said that he’s already heard from constituents who had complained that when Measure S was pitched to the electorate, it never included any mention of the proceeds being used for direct aid to cannabis industry-associated businesses. (The description on the ballot — see here — mentions “public safety,” “job creation,” “environmental cleanup,” “mental health” and other things, but never cannabis promotion specifically.)

For only $1.2 million, Wilson said, the county could provide free public transportation countywide. But he said that he understands that if the county wants to keep collecting money from the marijuana industry then it needs to do what it can to make sure the marijuana still exists, and so he felt comfortable moving forward.

Like everything else Project Trellis-related, though, the exact funding formula was left to be hammered out at a later date.

Also on the agenda: Craig Tucker, a private consultant who works with the county on river-related matters, gave the board an update on what’s happening with the Potter Valley Project — the dam system that takes water from the Eel River and sends it south to the Russian.

PG&E announced earlier this year that it would walk away from owning and operating the dams, leaving their future up in the air.

Tucker said that an ad-hoc, “two-basin” committee convened by Rep. Jared Huffman has been making great progress lately. Scientists consulting with the committee have determined that the larger and more fish-damaging of the two dams — the one upstream at Lake Pillsbury — can be removed without affecting water delivery south to Sonoma County. 

They’ve also done studies showing that the current diversion scheme barely affects downstream river flows, Tucker said. That’s due in part to the fact that the dams contain only a tiny portion of the entire Eel watershed, but also because federal fish scientists have restricted the volume and timing of the diversions.

These findings seem to give hope that the fish-killing Scott Dam can be taken out without severely impacting residents in the south, who rely on the diversions for much of their water. And though it’ll be months or years before things shake out, a “Two Basin Solution,” where everyone walks away more or less happy, seems more and more possible.