Organizers behind the Humboldt Cannabis Reform Initiative gather signatures at the Humboldt County Fair. | Photo by Ryan Burns.

Last fall, a group of disgruntled Kneeland residents arranged a meeting with Humboldt County officials at Kneeland Elementary School. The neighbors were upset because they’d recently learned that an out-of-towner planned to build a 40,000-square-foot cannabis-growing operation in a bowl-shaped valley near their properties. In fact, the grow op’s hoop houses would be plainly visible from some of their own homes atop Barry Ridge, a 2,660-foot-tall peak from which, on a clear day, you can look down and see Freshwater five miles below, and beyond that, Arcata Bay and the Pacific Ocean.

One of the neighbors, retired U.C. Davis professor Mark Thurmond, told the Outpost that somewhere around 100 people attended the meeting, including First District Supervisor Rex Bohn, Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson and Planning and Building Director John Ford. 

The neighbors wanted answers. “We were all pretty upset,” Thurmond said. They’d learned that the applicant planned to drill for water, which they saw as a threat to their own water supplies. They were also worried about increased traffic, noise, environmental impacts and unsavory characters — like the “quite well-armed” Bulgarians who Thurmond said ran an illicit grow in the area.

The neighbors wanted to know why only one among them had been notified about the application. (The answer: geographic proximity.) They wanted to know why county staff wasn’t doing more to crack down on permit violations, and when Ford said planning staff was often busy processing cannabis applications, it didn’t go over well. “Everyone shouted almost simultaneously, ‘Then stop the permits!’” Thurmond recalled.

Above all, the neighbors wanted to know how they could stop the proposed project from being permitted.

They couldn’t, as it turned out, and they left the meeting just as disgruntled as they’d arrived.

“It became clear … that neither the Planning Department nor the Board of Supervisors was going to entertain any discussions for how we could get more say in the process,” Thurmond said. “Some of us, two or three, said, ‘We need to look into this more. So we began an informal working group of people on the hill, all of whom were retired. … Most of us are in our 70s. We garnered the derogatory name of Gray-Haired NIMBYs Twisting in Their Depends.”

They continued meeting and strategizing, researching and collecting data, and eventually they hired San Francisco attorney Kevin Bundy. 

Roughly a year after the hilltop meeting, the Gray-Haired NIMBYs have prepared a ballot measure that could fundamentally alter the legal cannabis industry in Humboldt County. The Humboldt Cannabis Reform Initiative recently qualified for the ballot thanks to a vigorous signature-gathering effort that included tabling outside local grocery stores, the Humboldt County Fair and elsewhere. If passed, the measure would dramatically restrict the size and number of permitted cannabis cultivation operations in the county while increasing government oversight and adding new rules for water storage, well-drilling, access roads, generators and more.

Organizers argue that since legalization, the Emerald Triangle’s quaint mom-and-pop weed scene has been transformed by greedy newcomers who exploit our county’s name recognition while running noisy, polluting, water-guzzling mega-grows. On their website they say the initiative would “protect residents, land owners, and our beautiful natural environment from harm caused by large-scale industrial cannabis cultivation.”

But local cannabis cultivators interviewed by the Outpost say that if the Humboldt Cannabis Reform Initiative passes, it could be a death knell for a local industry that has supported families for generations. They say the proposed new rules are an inflexible and ham-fisted overreaction at a time when the industry is already reeling — at least here in Humboldt County, where growers are struggling to make ends meet amid rampant statewide overproduction, the proliferation of massive corporate greenhouse grows to our south and a renewed surge in illegal cultivation.

“I’m concerned that the ramifications of this thing getting passed is going to be the complete destruction of Humboldt County’s cannabis industry,” said Drew Barber, a licensed cultivator operating a 10,000-square-foot grow in Petrolia. 

On Tuesday, the Humboldt County Growers Alliance, a cannabis industry group, published a 15-page analysis of the initiative that reaches the same conclusion. It says that if voters pass the initiative it will lead to “the practical elimination of legal cannabis agriculture in Humboldt County.”

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The Humboldt Cannabis Reform Initiative would cap the number of cultivation permits at or slightly below the current number, which Humboldt County Planning and Building Director John Ford estimates at 1,200. It would also limit all new and expanded grow permits to a maximum cultivation area of 10,000 square feet while prohibiting grow lights, phasing out generators (except small ones for emergency power) and requiring a hydrologic study that proves “no negative impacts” for any new well.

Applicants would also no longer be allowed to “stack” more than one permit, a term for growers with multiple permits for a single piece of property. The window for water diversions from streams would be reduced by a month while water storage requirements would increase. Furthermore, public hearings would be required for all new cultivation-related permits. Neighbor notification requirements would increase, and county staff would be obligated to investigate all public complaints, among other provisions.

The signature-gathering effort wasn’t initiated or completed in time to make it onto next month’s general election ballot, which means voters likely won’t get to weigh in for almost a year and a half. However, there are a couple other possibilities. 

The Board of Supervisors will soon be presented with the certified petition, at which point they’ll have three options, per the state elections code: Most likely they’ll choose to submit it to the voters, without alteration, at the March 2024 general primary election. But if they want they could adopt the ordinance exactly as written. The third option would be to schedule a special election. That last option would likely cost the county between $35,000 and $40,000, according to Clerk-Recorder and Registrar of Voters Kelly Sanders.

The project that inspired this whole effort — that 40,000-square-foot grow op in Kneeland — got downsized in the permitting process and has yet to be built. Regardless, Thurmond and his fellow organizers say their reform initiative is necessary to protect people who aren’t part of the industry.

“I have empathy for growers who spent a lot of money getting [their operations] going,” Thurmond said. “But I think what we don’t hear about is all the lives that other people put in, the decades of saving to build a place in the country to not only retire but to live the last years of their life — only to have it essentially done asunder, in some cases, destroyed by the county forcing upon them these operations that take water, they pollute the air, cause a lot of noise, create dangerous traffic issues, bring in criminal elements … . This is the other side of the coin that we don’t hear about.”

Thurmond believes that the county’s existing permitting system — the Commercial Cannabis Land Use Ordinance (CCLUO), adopted in 2018 — is legally indefensible because its Environmental Impact Report doesn’t comply with the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.

“The whole ordinance is CEQA non-compliant,” he told the Outpost. He said the authors of the environmental report acted as if the entirety of Humboldt County was a single type of environment rather than analyzing the unique conditions within each watershed. He also said the authors failed to conduct a cumulative impact analysis, accounting for the net effect of all cannabis-related water diversions, traffic and other impacts.

Thurmond and his allies also object to the fact that county staff historically have not conducted annual inspections on every licensed cultivation site and that the county has allowed operators to conduct their own road assessments and self-attest that they meet Category Four standards

Fundamentally, though, they’re just tired of the nuisances.

“I agree with many of the growers who complain that there are a lot of complicated issues they have to address, and it can be very expensive,” Thurmond said. “But it seems to me that once someone makes that investment — which is huge, sometimes several hundred thousand dollars, I’m told — it would be prudent to keep neighbors happy, keep their lights covered up, don’t make a mess of the road [and] drive sanely.”

The sun peeks through the clouds at East Mill Creek Farms near Petrolia. | Submitted.

Natalynne DeLapp, executive director of HCGA, said the complaints about CEQA compliance ring hollow.

“That ship sailed years ago,” she told the Outpost. “There was a 45-day opportunity in which they could have done something about it,” she added, referring to the public review period for the Environmental Impact Report. 

But she has more fundamental objections to the Humboldt Cannabis Reform Initiative: for one, the fact that it’s a voter initiative. DeLapp said she was consulted early in the process by the organizers, including another retired college professor, Elizabeth “Betsy” Watson, and explained to them her concerns about the initiative process. Once a voter initiative is passed, it’s extremely difficult to make changes except to render the rules more restrictive. The only way to make larger changes is through litigation or by submitting another initiative to voters and hoping it passes. DeLapp feels this is a bad approach to industry regulation.

“Look at what we see with the Planning Commission pretty regularly,” she said. “They’re like, ‘Oh, what are we going to do with groundwater? Are we going to require rainwater catchment?’ These things happen on the dais, from the public, from the planning director, from the Board of Supervisors. Little amendments are always being made. You cannot do that with a citizen’s initiative.”

HCGA Policy Director Ross Gordon agreed and said there’s “a pretty substantial gap” between the initiative’s stated purpose and its actual text. While proponents say they aim to encourage small-scale farmers, Gordon said 90 percent of the initiative’s rules and restrictions are applicable “to every farm in the county regardless of size, down to the smallest 2,000-square-foot farm.”

Worse, he said, is that the initiative’s definition of expansion is written to include any increase in the “number or size of any structures used in connection with cultivation,” including water storage, solar panels, drying sheds and other infrastructure he believes are necessary for compliance and environmental sustainability.

The initiative would also require the county to hold a discretionary review hearing for every application it receives for new or expanded commercial cannabis cultivation activities. HCGA’s policy paper says this would dramatically slow the approval of water storage, renewable energy and other compliance-oriented projects.

“As a concrete example,” the paper says, “the county is currently distributing $12 million in grant funding to cultivators to install water storage and renewable energy infrastructure, and has received hundreds of applications for these grant funds. Under the [initiative], each of these hundreds of ‘expansions’ would require an independent discretionary approval.”

Barber finds that provision particularly onerous. “This is absurd, right?” he said. “So, if I want to put in a 3,500-gallon water tank or I want to put another 1,000 watts of solar panels in, now I have to go back through the multi-year-long process of getting a new zoning clearance certificate for my farm. That’s like many thousands of dollars that I don’t have.”

Barber said he understands why the initiative’s organizers are pursuing this. “They’re just trying to make their neighborhood better, and I totally get that,” he said. “But this is the wrong tool for that job. … It’s a countywide solution for a neighborhood problem.”

Barber believes it would make him and other farmers less capable of succeeding in the statewide marketplace. “It will make it so that my farm cannot be adaptable to both the changing environmental conditions as well as the changing market conditions,” he said.

Fellow cultivator Geoffrey Churchill operates a 13,000-square-foot farm near Berry Summit (not to be confused with Barry Ridge). He said it took him six years and about $150,000 to get through the permitting process, and he believes the initiative would have unintended consequences on the many local farms that have entered into compliance agreements with the county — to-do lists for coming into compliance. In his case he worked out a schedule with the county to complete a cannabis processing building, an irrigation pond, solar infrastructure and improvements to his property’s access road. 

Under the Humboldt Cannabis Reform Initiative he’d be unable to make any of those improvements without reducing the size of his farm, and even then each component would require a discretionary hearing with the county.

“It’s just gonna make things super difficult for both the farmer and the planning department to move us all through [the compliance agreements],” Churchill said, “and I would say probably 85 percent of farms that have been permitted still have compliance agreement issues that they have to finish.”

Allison Shore owns and operates a 10,000-square-foot farm near Kneeland, meaning she’s neighbors with some of the initiative organizers. Shore said she’s worried about a provision that would change the definition of “outdoor cultivation.” 

Under the county’s current permitting system, outdoor cultivation can include the use of tarps for light deprivation, a technique growers use to maximize yield and stimulate flower growth. But the reform initiative defines “outdoor” to mean cultivation “without the use of artificial lighting or light deprivation in the canopy area at any point in time.” Light dep, therefore, would get reclassified as “mixed light,” which would bump Shore and hundreds of other growers from Tier 1 to Tier 2 of the county’s Measure S excise tax framework, thereby doubling their annual tax bills. 

Shore said she’s already working 9-to-5 at a bank to make ends meet, so she couldn’t handle that extra expense.

“And I think [this provision] would also encourage people who are then trying to foot that bill to add extra lights and be more environmentally damaging,” Shore said. “If this [initiative] was to go through, it would be the nail in the coffin for all kinds of people like me, small farmers whose families have been here for generations.”

Organizers Mark Thurmond and Betsy Watson deliver their signatures to the Humboldt County Elections Office last month. | Submitted.

Not every grower in the county is against the initiative. Ettersburg resident Robert “Woods” Sutherland, whose organization the Humboldt-Mendocino Marijuana Advocacy Project (HuMMAP) sued the county over a previous cannabis ordinance, recently told the Outpost that members of the group are divided.

“I’ve taken a survey among our members, and we have more supporting it than opposing it,” he said. “But a few of the people opposing it are pretty strongly opposed, so it’s a bit of a tossup.”

Sutherland himself is conflicted. “I saw some things in it I’m not entirely fond of,” he said. “At the same time, the major changes we need are not going to be made by the sit-on-our hands [county] supervisors.”

Sutherland has long been a proponent of reducing the maximum size of farms allowed in the county. He resents the people who came here to “parasitize” the Humboldt County reputation for the sake of profit. “They killed the goose,” he said, referring to the proverbial bird that laid golden eggs.

He envisions a return to the days when Humboldt County earned its reputation for high-quality bud that was grown in harmony with nature for the benefit of the whole community. Sutherland doesn’t have much sympathy for most of the folks currently struggling to keep their farms in business. 

“HCGA says it’s just the outlaws who are making the problems, but that’s not the case at all,” he said. “Many [permitted growers] are engaged in consciously illegal practices. … We attracted a lot of lowlife people up here, and they’re still here. The people who are having a lot of trouble, that’s just what we knew was gonna happen. The people [making big profits] were always going to head to perdition.”

Sutherland thinks these nefarious growers deserve their comeuppance. 

“That’s why I support this initiative,” he said. “I don’t like a lot about it, and nobody does — no growers do. But it’s a step forward.”

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Thurmond said the initiative is not anti-cannabis; rather, it’s about making sure the industry doesn’t destroy the quality of life for those who aren’t involved in it. 

If passed, the measure would cap the total number of cultivation permits at 1.05 times the number of unexpired permits that existed in each county watershed as of March 4, 2022. As Thurmond explained it, the system for permitting new grows would then operate much like state liquor licenses — if the county has reached its cap within a given watershed, applicants must wait until someone else goes out of business and relinquishes their permit.

He argued that this is a much more reasonable cap than the 3,500 cultivation permits allowed under the county’s existing ordinance, the CCLUO. 

Given the current number of active permits — somewhere around 1,200 — Thurmond finds that prospect absurd. “They want to triple it!” he remarked. 

DeLapp said that’s an unreasonable fear. “Their ordinance, I believe, will be functionally irrelevant” by the time it’s on the ballot, she said. HCGA’s policy analysis argues that Humboldt County’s cannabis industry is retracting rather than expanding at this point. Citing state licensing data from the California Department of Cannabis Control, the paper notes that the number of licensed cannabis farms in the county declined by 28 between February 28 and October 10 while the total​​ cultivation acreage decreased from 435 acres to 419 acres.

Reached by phone, Planning and Building Director John Ford said the majority of cultivation applications were submitted under Ordinance 1.0, then tapered off after passage of the CCLUO in May of 2018. 

“Within the last year we’ve seen maybe a handful” of cultivation applications, Ford said. 

Thurmond isn’t convinced that the current market forces will last. 

“We have a situation where there are large corporations, cartels and syndicates interested in Humboldt County — in the name and the fact that it’s an accepted culture here to do this,” he said. “They can sit out the low price for several years and then buy up land, if they haven’t already.”

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It will likely be a while before voters get to decide which vision of the future is more likely and which approach to regulation is wiser. Both HCGA and the organizers of the Humboldt Cannabis Reform Initiative say their goal is to support a localized, small-scale and sustainable cannabis Industry in Humboldt County, and yet each side sees the other as a threat to that objective.

There are other elements of the initiative that weren’t explored in this story. If you’d like to dive into the details you can read the full text of the initiative by downloading it via this link. You can also read HCGA’s policy analysis via this link.