Depending who you ask, it was the pitch of a snake oil salesman or Humboldt County marijuana farmers' version of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech. Whatever your bent, it was an example of classic political oration with a heavy economic focus, an impassioned personal plea, with references to a way of life threatened by outside forces, and a dearth of specifics as to what's being proposed.
California Cannabis Voice of Humboldt co-founder Luke Bruner, clad in a white dress shirt and a navy sports coat, was addressing the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors at a meeting in February. The presentation came at the request of Supervisor Ryan Sundberg, as CCVH was busily working on an ordinance to regulate medical marijuana cultivation on large parcels throughout the county.
For many in Humboldt, this was their first introduction to Bruner and CCVH, though the nonprofit social welfare organization had already been working on the land use ordinance for more than six months, both behind closed doors and in a series of stakeholder meetings held throughout the county.
That afternoon in February, Bruner talked about marijuana's role in Humboldt, charging that the industry accounts for at least $2 billion of the county's $5 billion economy. He laid out a vision for a luxury boutique product that — in a post-marijuana legalization economy — could play a vital role in the county's tourism industry, much like wine in Napa and Sonoma counties. He explained that national trends in the movement toward marijuana legalization paint a foreboding picture, saying that regulatory frameworks in place elsewhere have put caps on the number of cultivation licenses issued, effectively squeezing out small farmers and leaving the legal marijuana industry in the hands of large-scale cultivators.
Humboldt, he said, has the opportunity to show the nation a better way, noting that America was "built on the back of small farms." Using the type of imagery and loaded language that are the cornerstones of political campaigns, Bruner talked about a recent drive he'd taken to Los Angeles.
"It was biblical," he said. "I beheld a withering valley, rivers with no fish, land that was barren and dead of micro-life, county after county that engaged in absolute agricultural destruction because agriculture had been allowed to proceed in an unregulated fashion. We hope to see a 21st century agricultural model emerge, today and going forward, where environmental protection and sustainability is united with small farms and economic success."
Bruner wrapped up with a plea, underscoring his point that this conversation is about more than marijuana, the environment, a struggling economy and potential revenue streams.
"Help the small farmer understand he doesn't have anything to be ashamed of, she doesn't have anything she shouldn't be proud of," he told the supervisors. "There's a social taboo that says that individual doesn't get to participate in our society, that says they're somehow less than equal, that says you don't get to go to a school board meeting and get your view heard, that your kids have to lie when they talk to their friends about what their parents do. That needs to go away. It's fundamentally, morally wrong, I believe, that that level of discrimination exists in our county.
"We are equals in society and we ask to be treated as such."
With that, the standing room-only Supervisors Chambers, packed with 100 or so CCVH supporters, broke out in tentative applause that lasted about 10 seconds. Then someone let out a "whoop" of approval, and the crowd rose to its feet, cheering and clapping for another 20.
The board appeared equally moved. Chair Estelle Fennell told the crowd that applause wasn't generally permitted, but she allowed it in this instance because Bruner's presentation was a "little bit of history." First District Supervisor Rex Bohn quipped to Bruner: "I think in a previous life you and I ran across each other: I think you were a preacher and I was in need of saving." Third District Supervisor Mark Lovelace thanked Bruner, saying "it's time for us to have a normal, rational, proud relationship with this industry." Sundberg went so far as to ask Bruner which two supervisors he'd like to see serve on a medical marijuana subcommittee.
For anyone who's watched the marijuana conversation play out the chambers of Humboldt's elected bodies, this represented a clear and abrupt change in tone.
It also represented calculated work on the part of CCVH, which, since its formation about 10 months ago, has seemingly united Humboldt's marijuana growing community behind a single organization that now stands as the loudest — and perhaps most important — voice in a conversation that has the potential to shape the county's environment and economy for decades to come. CCVH is pushing its proposal forward as an ordinance initiative, which means if it gets enough valid signatures from registered voters — 7,430 — in support of the ordinance, they can force the board of supervisors to either pass it directly as written or call a special election to let voters decide its fate.
It's a political power play, and one that's facing considerable skepticism and backlash, most notably from the environmental community. Friends of the Eel River Executive Director Scott Greacen said it's "beyond a dereliction to hand this process to a self-interested group." That's a refrain that comes up frequently when talking to critics of CCVH's proposal, with folks pointing to Wall Street, oil companies and big timber as examples of what happens when an industry is allowed to write its own rules. And, they charge, there's nothing in the current working draft of CCVH's ordinance to address the environmental crisis going on in overburdened watersheds throughout the county.
While the outcome of this process remains up in the air with a big political fight looming on the horizon, CCVH has seized control of the conversation. A local chapter of a state-wide organization, it's clear CCVH's foothold in Humboldt has a lot to do with two men.
It was one of those April days in which Eureka's skies loom gray and overcast while Garberville's are a cloudless blue. Kevin Jodrey stood in a cultivation room in Wonderland Nursery, an organic medical marijuana dispensary just outside of the Southern Humboldt town, with a few dozen plants scattered around in various stages of growth.
"That's the plant that saved Humboldt," Jodrey said, gesturing toward a tray of plants in the corner, the New England accent of the 48-year-old's Rhode Island youth still heavy on his tongue. "That's the Mendo Purp."
Jodrey said that in the early 1990s, Humboldt's marijuana industry was struggling. Canada — British Columbia particularly — was "grinding out" high quality weed that was flowing across a porous border and flooding markets throughout the West Coast. "Then purp comes onto the scene," Jodrey said, referring to the strain known for the purple hue of its buds. The color, Jodrey said, gave the marijuana instant recognition everywhere it went — from living rooms to street corners — and it became the it strain, moving almost as quickly as it could be grown under names like "Urkle," "Barney" and, simply, "Purp."
"Humboldt County transformed itself and re-energized on this plant," Jodrey said, adding that after the 2001 terror attacks caused national borders to tighten considerably, Humboldt was atop the marijuana world.
When it comes to the genetics of marijuana, Jodrey's an expert — an internationally recognized expert — and he exudes an unmistakable joy when talking about the plant that's been a staple in his life for some 35 years. Jodrey also has seemingly had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Sitting on a bucket in a work area of Wonderland that day, Jodrey explained it as dual pendulums passing each other, swinging in opposite directions. One pendulum represents skill, the other fate.
For Jodrey, the skill pendulum swings way back to his early teenage years, when he was a high school student in Rhode Island growing marijuana on property owned by his family. According to a profile in the online magazine The Kernel, Jodrey's first gig in the marijuana industry was helping a neighbor break up pounds of marijuana offloaded from fishing boats from Columbia and Panama, preparing them for distribution. In 1983, Jodrey's small grow operation got busted by the police and he spent some time in a juvenile facility and a reform school. Immediately after getting out of high school in 1985, Jodrey joined the U.S. Coast Guard and — for the most part — left marijuana behind for four years as he worked as a salvage diver and on drug interdiction missions in the Pacific. Describing himself as "mission-oriented," Jodrey said life in the Coast Guard suited him, but he didn't have any trouble leaving it behind.
"The day I got out of the Coast Guard, I went and bought indoor grow lights," Jodrey said. That was 1989 and he was living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He was working as a contractor, but put together an indoor grow operation — both to supplement his income and because he simply loved the act of growing.
Jodrey said he kept growing, even as his contracting business exploded, with his crew specializing in restoring and repairing lighthouses, a lucrative specialty. The work kept Jodrey on the move and twice brought him to the North Coast — once to work on the Cape Mendocino lighthouse and again to repair one on the Samoa Peninsula. He fell in love with the area and, in 1993, moved to Humboldt County. The plan, he said, was to run a construction outfit. But Jodrey said he quickly saw that, as the son of a scientist mother and a father who was a contractor and a master landscaper, he was poised to become a major player in Humboldt's underground industry.
"It was just one day I realized I have the perfect skill set to be a dope grower," he said, adding that he had both the construction background and the cannabis know-how necessary to take an operation from inception to harvest. Jodrey said he worked around the county taking on large-scale jobs, converting clumsy diesel-generator powered grows into "efficient indoor jobs," some necessitating a couple hundred lights. Jodrey got an agriculture business degree from College of the Redwoods and planned on going on to get a bachelors from Humboldt State University, but in the late 1990s, with California's Proposition 215 in full swing, the local marijuana industry exploded.
Jodrey said he had more work than he could do, noting that he consulted on so many grow operations in Sunny Brae he had to keep a map to track which homes he'd worked on. And Jodrey said he kept learning, treating every job as both a business card — something that would have his name and reputation attached to it — and a learning platform in which he could study different strains and different setups. "It was total saturation, total immersion," he said, adding that he became known for the consultant that delivered guaranteed production. "My reputation is golden. I'm the guy who brings in the fucking loot. It's just: be straight, be on point, satisfy the requirements. That's the mission."
Despite the indoor boom, Jodrey also kept growing outdoors, mostly just on small personal projects that allowed him to try different things and hone his craft. So why, as the indoor market was flourishing, did Jodrey think outdoor was worth the time? "There's no other crop growing indoors, so why would cannabis stay inside once you erase the stigma and the illegality associated with it?" he answered. "I always knew it was going to go back outside, which is why I needed the organic ag background."
Around 2008, one of Arcata's medical marijuana dispensaries, the Humboldt Patient Resource Center, was having some problems with its production line and Executive Director Mariellen Jurkovich said she knew just the man to call. The only problem was Jodrey said he wasn't interested. Repeatedly. Finally, the two ran into each other at a community event and Jurkovich convinced Jodrey to sign on as her cultivation director.
Jodrey spent about four years in the role, totally overhauling the dispensary's grow operation. He said it taught him a lot about the dispensary world and the medical side of the cannabis industry. He said he was also confronted by a parade of people coming into the shop to ask him for pointers and advice on their grows, so Jodrey started a volunteer program that essentially let folks come in and pick his brain, as long as they helped out and kept busy while doing so.
But by late 2012, Jodrey felt ready for a change and started looking at setting up his own shop, ultimately purchasing Garberville Grass. Wonderland Nursery opened in 2013 with a unique business model. With Southern Humboldt awash in marijuana bud, there's little demand for a traditional dispensary selling buds, edibles and concentrates ready for consumption. Plus, Jodrey said he left the Humboldt Patient Resource Center tired of that model, saying it made him feel a bit like a drug dealer taking advantage of the sick. He figured he'd rather just deal with the plants. Wonderland specializes in selling clones — ready-to-grow clippings of female marijuana plants that are essentially genetically identical to their mother plant — and offers customers nine strains to choose from.
Almost any large-scale cultivation operation starts with clones, and lots of them. The manicured marijuana buds patients buy in dispensaries and recreational users seek out are the flowers from unfertilized female plants. Because fertilization leads to seeds, which decrease potency and tarnish the taste, growers have to be fastidious about making sure their gardens are entirely female, which is part of what makes clones so popular. And because clones are essentially just continuations of their mother plants, they offer remarkable reliability when bought from a trusted source.
This is a huge component of what Wonderland offers, Jodrey said, a trusted name and reputation standing behind its product. "Trust is delicate and we try not to screw it up," Jodrey said. Another thing Wonderland offers its customers is access to Jodrey's knowledge base. That April day, Jodrey was frequently pulled from conversation to answer questions. There was a caller asking what to do about a spit bug infestation. Another wanted advice on treating an esophageal condition. A woman came into the shop with a bud from her late-husband's last harvest, wanting help identifying the strain so she could plant it again. Jodrey said he's also always willing to consult about which strain is best suited to the varied and unique microclimates of Humboldt County, helping farmers lessen the need for heavy irrigation, fertilizing and other chemical-heavy interventions.
Jodrey's model seems successful. He noted Wonderland has essentially doubled its business each summer since it opened. Currently, all the nursery's inventory is spoken for, with Jodrey's crew just working to keep up with back orders. "Our growth rate is wicked," he said.
While selling clones is the nursery's financial bread and butter, it has some CBD strains — those high in cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive compound believed to have powerful and far-reaching medical effects — of which it offers free clones to patients. "This is it in real life," Jodrey said, referring to Wonderland as cannabis business as it can and should be, noting that he recently toured a group of California lawmakers and regulators through the dispensary.
As Jodrey was setting up his shop, the pendulum of fate began swinging back in his direction. Last summer, down in San Francisco, an attorney and political organizer by the name of Matt Kumin, who had long been active in medical marijuana policy, felt the time was finally right to push for change. The U.S. Department of Justice had recently issued a memo essentially saying it would refrain from trampling all over states' medical marijuana regulations, so Kumin started a political action committee, California Cannabis Voice, with the aim of getting some medical marijuana regulations implemented in California. Kumin teamed up with Terrance Alan, a prominent San Francisco community organizer best known for his work on an ordinance that was a precursor to Proposition 215 and helping San Francisco form its now all-powerful entertainment commission. The two quickly started looking to the Emerald Triangle, hoping to form some local chapters and get buy-in from the heart of California's industry.
Because of Jodrey's personal reputation and that of Wonderland — an all-organic, fully licensed dispensary paying payroll taxes for its 11 employees — Kumin and Alan made the call. Jodrey said he's generally distrustful of politicians, but knew Kumin and Alan both had a history of civil rights work, so he asked Alan to come up to Humboldt to talk to him in person.
When the two sat down together, Jodrey said he listened as Alan talked about grass-roots organizing and the need for local buy-in to help effect change at the state level — first regulation then legalization. Jodrey said he told Alan that the effort needed to be more local.
"I said, 'If you want the people of Humboldt to support you, you have to help them put a system in place to allow them to do what they do. You have to have the local ordinance,'" Jodrey recalled.
Of all the people to become the face of the Humboldt County marijuana industry, Luke Bruner was an unlikely candidate. A baby-faced 30-year-old conservative Catholic from the Chicago area, Bruner's a recent Humboldt transplant and a relative newcomer to the industry.
The son of a corporate attorney mother and a retired speech-writer father, Bruner graduated with a theology degree from Holy Cross College in South Bend, Indiana. After a stint teaching theology to high schoolers in Montana, Bruner returned to Indiana, where he got his first community organizing experience with the 40 Days for Life campaign, which bills itself as the "largest internationally coordinated pro-life movement in history, helping local communities end the injustice of abortion."
An injury — he slipped on some ice, hit his head and hurt his leg — landed Bruner back living with his parents and searching for change. He said he was essentially in a rut when he opened an edition of National Geographic to find a centerfold of Humboldt State University scientist Steve Sillett and his crew 14 stories up a 30-story redwood. The next year — 2010 — he arrived in Arcata, site unseen, enrolled in HSU's masters in business administration program. Before leaving Illinois, Bruner said he consulted a counselor, who suggested he try medical marijuana in California. Bruner said he had liked smoking pot in high school, so decided to follow the advice.
Shortly after his arrival, HSU's business program hit the skids, as it lacked accreditation, and the university suspended new enrollments. Bruner left school, but had fallen in love with Arcata and Humboldt. Bruner wandered into the Humboldt Patient Resource Center one day and noticed it had a lending library behind the counter. He asked to borrow a book on cultivation, read it that night and returned the next day to take out another. In short order, he met Jodrey and the two clicked.
Bruner said he spent a couple of years finding his way. He tried to take online business classes but gave it up, saying he "needed the human element." He said he did some work on the periphery of the marijuana industry — trimming jobs and some mediation work — then, when Jodrey was looking to start up Wonderland, he hired Bruner to help get the place permitted, which turned into a full-time gig as business manager.
"He's a brilliant, gifted kid," Jodrey said of Bruner.
Sitting in his Wonderland office — which consists of a folding table with a couple of laptops on it and a shelving unit filled with binders — Bruner said he's got a touch of Asperger syndrome. He said he struggles with social anxiety (he declined to have his picture taken for this story, saying he's already feeling overexposed) and has trouble reading the mood in a room, but he can devour and retain complex information. He's also politically minded, quoting freely from Rules for Radicals, famed community organizer Saul Alinsky's guide for organizing low-income communities to self-empower and effect change.
Matthew Owen, a home mortgage consultant with the local Wells Fargo and husband of Fourth District Supervisor Virginia Bass, said he got a call out of the blue one day from an attorney friend of his from the Eureka Rotary Club. The friend said he had a client who was looking to become more politically involved and asked Owen to meet with him.
"We sat down and we chatted," Owen recalled of meeting Bruner, adding that he was instantly taken by him. "Luke's one of the most dynamic, energetic people I've met in my whole life."
Owen said that Bruner told him that he and his associates believed statewide marijuana legalization was coming in 2016 and wanted to make sure Humboldt's small farmers were protected, fearing legalization would lead to a takeover by corporate America. A local ordinance, Bruner said, was the only thing that could possibly save Humboldt's way of life. Bruner didn't say much about how he came to meet Owen, but said Owen was nice to him and went out of his way to treat him well. Owen even asked Bruner to tag along on a wine-tasting trip to Sonoma County, wanting Bruner to understand the marketing and branding that drives a luxury boutique industry.
"You don't go drink wine in wine country," Owen said. "You go to Ferrari Carano to drink Ferrari Carano wine out of a Ferrari Carano glass. Most of the wineries, if they're any good, don't sell you wine — they sell you an experience."
Between Ferrari Carano and a wine makers' dinner at Michel-Schlumberger, Bruner said he got to meet a number of industry marketing and hospitality directors and pick their brains about wine clubs, tastings and packaged luxury local products, like wine baskets with dried fruit, cheese and crackers. "These people aren't fucking around," Bruner said. "There's a cultural gap, but we're a luxury product and a boutique industry, just like them."
Sometime after the trip, Bruner asked if he could volunteer to help out on Bass' re-election campaign, which was being managed by Richard Marks, an accomplished former union organizer and sitting harbor commissioner with a reputation as a strong political mind.
Marks said Bruner dove into the campaign. He went door to door, walked precincts, and did some phone banking. Bruner was interested in the process, Marks said, and when the campaign entered its stretch run, Marks let Bruner shadow him for the get-out-the-vote effort. Marks' impression?
"He's a genius," Marks said, adding that Bruner proved able to digest and retain massive amounts of information in a short amount of time and has a mental capacity that impressed him. "You don't meet too many people like Luke Bruner. He's an anomaly. ... I think I'm pretty well versed in political statistics, but me, I need a computer. I need to see trends. He can see that in his head."
Shortly after Bass won re-election, taking 52 percent of the vote to edge out challenger Chris Kerrigan in June, Marks said he got a call from Bruner, asking if he'd be willing to come down to Wonderland to discuss some ideas with a couple guys from the Bay Area.
Those guys were Kumin and Alan, and with Bruner and Marks they discussed a local land use ordinance, timelines and strategy. A short time later, Marks signed on to be California Cannabis Voice Humboldt's consultant and then became executive director of the organization, which now boasts more than 600 members with a 14-person board of directors.
Though new to California politics, Bruner has proven adept. In addition to being a driving force behind CCVH's ordinance efforts, he's also spent a lot of time working with the offices of State Assemblyman Jim Wood and Sen. Mike McGuire, lobbying both on their respective medical marijuana regulation bills that are currently pending in the Legislature. But perhaps the most impressive thing on Brunner's resume is his ascension up the ranks of the notoriously closed and outsider-wary circles of the marijuana industry. In addition to his roles with CCVH and Wonderland, Bruner is also an executive member of the Emerald Grower's Association and is currently running for a seat on the California Industry Association's board of directors.
It's hard to tell how much of it has to do with timing and how much can be credited to Bruner, but whereas previous marijuana regulation efforts in Humboldt have seen growers split into divergent factions, this campaign has been largely marked by unity. When Woods' bill got a recent hearing in front of the state Assembly Agriculture Committee, about 100 marijuana farmers showed up wearing matching green t-shirts with #SameTeam written across the back. During the meeting, one member of the group addressed the committee as the others stood in unison behind him. When he finished his remarks, the group sat down on cue.
Bruner and Jodrey were quick to deflect credit, saying any success CCVH has had is largely due to its dedicated board of directors and a whole lot of neighborhood meetings, with growers gathering around with some beer and some grass, and maybe a pig on the barbecue, to discuss the vision and the ordinance.
"If an organization is personality driven, it's not going to be successful," Bruner said. "It needs to be issue driven and community driven."
In December of 2012, Friends of the Eel River Executive Director Scott Greacen gave a talk at TedX Eureka on the environmental impacts of outdoor marijuana growing. It may be the most succinct summary of Humboldt County's marijuana environmental crisis on record, clocking in at just over 11 minutes long.
In it, Greacen detailed a list of problems — from soil dumping and pesticide use to illegal water diversions and unpermitted grading — that are imperiling Humboldt watersheds and several threatened species. Though brief, Greacen's presentation was nuanced, separating private grow operations and the massive ones carried out on public lands and explaining why a one-size-fits-all enforcement approach has failed and actually exacerbated impacts.
"We are dealing with a species of wicked problem," Greacen said. "Now wicked problems are problems of relationships, they are complex and really resist definition and are very hard to solve because they throw off these unintended consequences, especially if you try to solve them with just one single approach. Far better, the literature says, to bring many diverse viewpoints together to try to anticipate, so you can minimize and mitigate the harms that are inevitable in any policy change in a wicked problem. The key lesson here is we have to take full responsibility for our actions, including inaction."
When CCVH went public with its plans to create a land use ordinance, holding a pair of stakeholder meetings led by a professional facilitator from University of California Berkeley, a number of prominent local names in the environmental community were in attendance. But while people like Northcoast Environmental Center Executive Director Dan Ehresman and Environmental Information Protection Center Director Natalynne DeLapp had a seat at the table, Greacen was conspicuously absent. Asked why he thought he didn't get an invite, Greacen didn't mince words.
"When presented with a steaming heap of bullshit, I'm the most likely guy in the room to say, 'Hey, this is a steaming heap of bullshit,'" he said. "This is a snow job. They had an answer in their pocket and tried to pull together a group of people not so much for collaboration, but for cooptation. There's a fundamental problem in CCVH's approach. They're not trying to solve the same problem we are. They're trying to solve the perception of environmental problems, not the problems themselves."
Ehresman said he had high hopes for CCVH, even through the initial stakeholder meeting. Critical voices weren't given a seat at the table, which made him skeptical, but Ehresman said he was pleased to hear calls for regulation from people within the industry. And, he said, he walked away from that initial meeting believing there was a widespread consensus on lots of issues, including the need for a regulatory framework and the coordination of regulatory agencies, a funded enforcement mechanism, labor protections and chain-of-custody requirements, as well as revenue generated for the county government and watershed restoration. But Ehresman was soon disappointed.
"A lot of the key components identified that came out of a broad consensus are not part of this ordinance," he said. "Based on the first six drafts, it appears they're going in the opposite direction of what we'd like to see. They seem to be opening the door for larger-scale grows on more parcels."
The environmental community's criticisms of the ordinance largely center on three things. First, and probably foremost, the latest draft of the ordinance would make marijuana growing operations with 5,000-square-foot canopies a principally permitted use — a right, as Greacen called it — on all parcels in the county larger than five acres. (A recent study shows the average size of existing grow operations to be about 2,300 square feet.) Second, the ordinance would make marijuana cultivation a compatible use on timber production zone lands — lands that have been set aside for the preservation of timber. Third, the ordinance lacks a component that would generate revenue to ensure compliance and enforcement, much less to go back into the county general fund or pay for environmental mitigation.
Greacen and Ehresman said these are all pretty much nonstarters, and that the county needs to look at a way to crack down on bad actors and mitigate the impacts of existing grow operations before opening the door to more. Greacen said the environmental community would have long ago sued the industry into compliance if it existed with a single fixed address and phone number, instead of thousands of them. The differing views on the best path forward go back to divergent goals, Greacen said, charging that CCVH's primary goal is legitimizing the existing industry, while environmentalists want it cleaned up and regulated.
Back at Wonderland, Jodrey said the ordinance is really about saving his community. In his view, it gives an industry an opportunity to step into the sunlight, showcasing what it does right and fixing what it does wrong. Once that happens, he thinks it will begin to self-correct and the bad actors will be weeded out. What's obvious, he said, is the current system isn't working for the environment or the industry. The ordinance, he said, is about trying to find a better way.
"I have no aspirations to be cannabis king," he said. "We're doing all this because this is where I live. This isn't really that fucking complicated. This is where I live and, in 20 years, I want it to be better than it is now."
Bruner and Marks said they are confident the latest draft of the ordinance — expected out in the coming days — should go a long way to addressing environmental and revenue concerns. CCVH hired former supervisor and coastal commission chair Bonnie Neely's firm, the Sacramento-based Nossaman LLP, to fine tune it. With CCVH operating on a tight timeline, wanting an ordinance approved by November at the latest, the process is going to move quickly.
In short order, CCVH seems to have unified the local marijuana industry behind a single vision. Now comes the hard part, getting the board of supervisors and the citizens of Humboldt to believe that vision is in the best interest of the county as a whole.