Pros and Cons of Cannabis Legalization in California: Grower Viewpoints

By Colleen Ferguson on March 17, 2017

The majority of Californians celebrated the passage of Prop 64 and the legalization of recreational cannabis for adult use, but several groups opposed the measure. One of those groups is cannabis growers themselves. A poll before the vote (conducted by the California Growers Association) surveyed 750 cannabis farmers, distributors and retailers, and it found that 31 percent were in support of the bill, 31 percent opposed and 38 percent undecided. 

Opposition and indecision stemmed from concern that Prop 64 will ruin business for small cannabis farmers. I talked with two growers from Humboldt County (who wished to remain anonymous) to get their viewpoints on the pros and cons of the new legislation. While the specifics differed for each grower, their main concerns were where the money will go and what the legislation means for the future of their livelihoods.  

The Money

Legalization is estimated to bring in tax revenue as high as $1 billion each year, intended to first cover “all reasonable costs” to administer and enforce the regulations, and then to fund local health departments, research and prevention programs.

“Anna,” a licensed medical cannabis grower in Humboldt County, would have preferred that the bulk of money went to schools, much like it did in Colorado, though she is pleased some funds will be used to restore and protect the environment. This is important to Humboldt County growers who already respect and follow environmental regulations. While many small growers (even those working illegally) abide by water laws and land protection, some growers (many from outside the Humboldt community) divert thousands of gallons of water from the rivers, use harmful pesticides and allow unabsorbed fertilizers to wash into the waterways, which has far-reaching effects on wildlife and the immediate environment.  

Prop 64 intended to deal with this problem directly, with the bill stating “if a business does not demonstrate they are in full compliance with the water usage and environmental laws, they will have their license revoked.” In addition, the legislation plans to allocate approximately $150 million to help restore lands and waterways which have been damaged by cannabis farming, protect public lands from being used for cultivation activities and to provide continued environmental protection. 

“Christine,” another small-scale grower, would like to see tax dollars go to medical research, saying, “Research has definitely been lacking, and the progression of science will be a huge step for the plant.”  With $10 million slated to go to California public universities to study the effects of cannabis, and another $2 million to go to the UC San Diego Center for Medical Cannabis Research, it looks like Christine will get her wish.

In addition, both Anna and Christine are second-generation Humboldt County residents and expressed concern for the local economy and a desire that legalization become a financial boon to the county. Prop 64 does allow for cities and counties to ask voters to approve extra local taxes on cannabis, which could increase local government income. Additionally, opportunities will exist for local governments, public safety agencies, schools and nonprofits to compete annually for hundreds of millions in grants to fund programs and balance enforcement costs.

The Future of Small Grows

The biggest concern for both growers is whether or not small-time cultivators will be able to survive in the corporate cannabis world. Although Prop 64 “ensures the non-medical marijuana industry in California will be built around small- and medium-sized businesses by prohibiting large-scale cultivation licenses for the first five years,” the industry will most certainly change. After this five-year grace period, industrial-sized farms will be allowed in, a prospect that is expected to attract corporate agriculture. 

While Anna views regulations and environmental compliance as a positive move overall, she does mention that those very environmental regulations will cost tens of thousands of dollars per farm. “It can be hard for small-time growers to fulfill all the necessary compliance. I am interested to see if small operations will still be able to afford to grow here.” 

For those who have been cultivators and consumers of cannabis long before it was even medically legal, imagining big business coming into this previously unseen and criminalized market is emotional. So, though Christine is thankful for comprehensive decriminalization, saying it is “necessary and overdue,” she is worried about the integrity of the industry. She believes that, when cannabis is influenced by corporate greed, it will be an inferior product: “To me, intention is of utmost importance.” 

Christine went on to say, “We will become weed snobs. [Legalization] may allow local growers to continue with the art of the plant and provide opportunity for people to really craft this industry and carve out a niche in the next five years. Aside from being a livelihood, growing marijuana is also a hobby trade for many people, and passion for the plant will continue to shape the industry here.” 

She compares the potential future of the cannabis industry to beer: “Not everyone wants Budweiser, and not everyone will want mass-produced, big-business cannabis.”  

This can be seen in the actions and words of the Humboldt Growers Association, whose intention is to encourage artisan growing and processing, “balancing economic and environmental sustainability.” In a blog posted last year, the organization stated “Humboldt Growers is moved by a keen sense of urgency, a concern that Humboldt county small farmers, with their exceptional product, will be cut out of the [cannabis] trade.”

So, as California prepares for licensing in 2018, cannabis growers prepare their crops for the coming season and wait with bated breath to see what the next decade will bring.  

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