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Dark of Night Edits to a Sungrown Ordinance 

Well, the secret's out. As Thadeus Greenson headlined in the Oct. 5, 2017 Journal, there's "Way. Too. Much. Weed." He reported that a recent state Department of Food and Agriculture study "found that while California consumes about 2.5 million pounds of cannabis annually, it's producing more than five times that amount, some 13.5 million pounds." That extra 5,500 tons of weed is either smuggled out of state or, increasingly, rotting in despondent storage. In case you haven't heard, here in Humboldt the numbers are even worse.

On the eve of county and state regulations coming into effect in January, one might hope that regulators would address this budding crisis of overproduction. "Well-regulated markets" are, after all, a principle goal of regulation. But the only assured outcome of regulation is to drive small producers out of business by concentrating competition and increasing costs. In my neck of the woods, even apart from regulatory costs, small growers are giving up the ghost in droves because they simply can't sell their pot into a marketplace now dominated by huge producers. If you aren't selling in 100-pound units, good luck unloading them at all. Kids of today don't pick up pennies on the sidewalk anymore, either.

So it's been widely recognized here in Humboldt that Ma and Pa growers need a regulatory leg up to stay in the game, if only to slow their extinction as production industrializes. But something happened, not for the first time . . .

I experienced an unhappy deja vu at the recent county commercial cannabis workshop in Garberville. I'd pointed out in public comment that policies to help small growers that had been recommended by the planning commission after months of public hearings, then approved by the board of supervisors after additional discussion, had mysteriously vanished from the draft ordinance. A waiver was missing that would have lifted permitting requirements for small cannabis growers' existing homes if they are independent of the agricultural production on the property.

Permitting of rural residences has been a staple of county controversies for more than 40 years. This intelligent sidestep toward constructive regulatory relationships was praised across the political spectrum — so what happened to it? I learned afterwards — because new Planning Director John Ford at the dais had no idea what I was talking about — that the policy had been excised by staff. With no public process. Without the knowledge of the planning director. And obviously, without going through the planning commission or supervisors who had approved it. Though staff theoretically follow direction from their superiors, that's often not what we see.

The question arises, why should the public, and indeed the county, waste time, money and goodwill on extensive public processes over months and years when the results of those processes may be shredded at any point by staff speaking only to themselves, under no one's supervision? This is not the first time this question has come up. And it's a problem of policy as much as process.

Ford noted at the meeting that, "It's clear that the ordinance isn't clear." The fact is, it's as clear as a fouled process can make it. Dark-of-night edits just don't daylight well because they make policies and intentions incoherent.

But after I lodged my complaint, something extraordinary happened. As a courtesy I'd sent Ford a draft of this article as I prepared to submit it to newspapers and he emailed me back a brief thanks for letting him know what I would say. The next day, in his report on the workshop to the planning commission, Ford recommended reinstating the waivers that his staff had deep-sixed. Concerning their covert elimination, he said, "It does violate a commitment the county made to the public, to the cultivation community."

Yes, exactly! So he did something about it! I'm deeply grateful to John Ford for his leadership and prompt action.

It's what we need now. Commercial cannabis policy is a black hole of uncertainties and unknowns across California. Humboldt County's policies encourage great growth of the local industry, and incentivize locating or relocating grows to sensible places. Essentially, near roads and services bigger grows are permitted. But most of the growth, legal and illegal, is in inherently uncompetitive traditional locations, up dodgy mountain roads miles from services. Meanwhile, across California, new and old industrial growers in agricultural areas ramp up their own hyper-efficient overproduction for the statewide legal market opening Jan. 1. Conversions of lettuce greenhouses to cannabis mills are the talk of the Salinas Valley, for example.

In this challenging context, here's what is crystal-clear: the bubble that our county has blown up for the world to buy into is already busting. Small growers are abandoning businesses left and right. They're no longer able to support essential community nonprofits. Some are selling pounds for $400, down from $1,000 months ago. Many who took up the challenge to "grow big or go away" created by our proposed ordinance's strictures can't pay their bills from the glutted markets that our boom is only worsening.

Like the logging collapse decades ago, we're booming and busting at the same time, with producers dying out from the bottom up. The pipe dreams of regulators and exploiters alike are going up in smoke, while others still get rich despoiling the landscape and smuggling out of state. Meanwhile, county staff piles on more and more problems that were largely ignored for decades — rural road upgrades, legacy logging damage, unpermitted dwellings, environmental mitigations — as new mandates for growers to solve, when most of them will never be rich enough to reward planning staff's overreach. And the grossest growers bulldozing for big bucks operate outside of all rules anyway.

It's too late to do much of anything sensible about pot policy — though it's wonderful that the vanished policies for small growers will reappear. Additional sanity might be restored by scaling back the permissible size of big grows, aiming to both reduce their destructiveness and to signal that, on further reflection, we aren't wide open to abuse after all. In the bigger picture, I hope it's not too late to recognize that our county will never have, nor evolve toward, a rules-based society until both sides really commit to trying. At the workshop, I saw more effort from former outlaws than from their supposed law-givers. I'm very pleased that Director Ford saw fit to restore balance. May it never end.

My old deja vu is too-familiar history. It shouldn't be destiny. Our best hope is to engage honestly and fairly at every level, and see if sanity ever comes.

Charley Custer is a former pot farmer and recovering journalist. He is a founder of the Humboldt/Mendocino Marijuana Advisory Project (HuMMAP), which sued Humboldt County to scale back its permissive cannabis policies.

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Charley Custer

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