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After decades of trench warfare, pot growers and the local government are making nice

Ever since their Volkswagen buses puttered up Highway 101 some 40 years ago, Humboldt County's marijuana growers have been quasi-citizens. On the one hand, they've drastically reshaped the region's economy and collective identity: The money that's generated directly and indirectly by the pot industry finds its way into almost every resident's paycheck. As the timber market has waned, these amateur botanists have cultivated their own form of resource extraction, using fertilizers and tiny scissors rather than chainsaws and lumber mills.

On the other hand, the illegality of their endeavors has kept them in the shadows, hiding their professions, incomes and their valuable crops from "the man," whether that be the IRS, a police helicopter or a neighbor. They would never call the cops to their house, or allow a building inspector on their property. They couldn't voice their concerns openly to their city council or the Board of Supervisors.

That's starting to change. Nearly 15 years after the passage of Proposition 215, the "Compassionate Use Act," legalized the medicinal use of marijuana in California, the wall between Humboldt County growers and their government has been crumbling. The mutual distrust has started to fade, and together they've begun figuring out how to legally produce and market Humboldt County's most notorious product.

Arcata led the way. Fueled by community backlash over increasingly problematic grow houses, policymakers implemented a medical marijuana ordinance in December 2008 that established rules for individual growers, collectives and dispensaries. The drafting process invited collaboration from growers, patients and concerned citizens alike, and the resulting ordinance has been widely (if not uniformly) praised by locals as well as officials from across the state, where numerous jurisdictions have used it as a model.

Eureka used Arcata's document as a template for the ordinance that it put into effect last September.

Now it's the county's turn and it must tackle a challenge not faced by either of its predecessors. As incorporated cities, Arcata and Eureka had the luxury of dealing exclusively with urban environs; their ordinances regulate indoor grows and dispensaries. The county, on the other hand, has to factor in the vast unincorporated areas -- thousands and thousands of rural acreage already strewn with marijuana gardens. By necessity, the county ordinance will be far more complex and wide-reaching than its urban cousins'. Even so, it will barely put a dent in regulating the marijuana industry.

"When you think of an industry that's suddenly come out of the shadows ... the idea that we're going to have an ordinance to deal with it is really inadequate," County Supervisor Mark Lovelace said. "We don't have a [single] timber ordinance or a [single] ranching ordinance."

California AWOL on Pot Law?

What local jurisdictions need, he said, is help from the state. "We don't have the resources to regulate this industry entirely by ourselves." Impacts of marijuana cultivation and sales range from water withdrawals to herbicide and pesticide use to food safety, law enforcement and beyond. Yet Lovelace has found that most government officials outside of Humboldt County are unwilling or unable to talk openly about such concerns. "In some cases people's voices drop, like they can't say the word 'marijuana' at full volume," he said.

Lovelace remains determined to forge ahead in the hope that Humboldt County, like Arcata, can lead by example. "If we want the state to step up and take some of the regulation burden off our hands, we'd do well to provide them with a model for how to do it," he said.

Larry Oetker, Arcata's director of community development, is less hopeful. "The state has completely failed to adopt any standards whatsoever to regulate medical marijuana," he said flatly. "I have quite frankly given up on them on this issue."

While California avoids the issue, several other states -- most notably Colorado -- have passed statewide protocols governing marijuana production. This has allowed major new supply centers to develop. Denver, for example, has issued more than 300 sales-tax licenses for dispensaries; they now outnumber liquor stores by a third and are twice as numerous as the city's public schools. The resulting boom in legal production has been a major factor in driving down the black market price of marijuana across the country. But if there's any market that can challenge illegal drugs in terms of inflated premiums it's pharmaceutical drugs. Among the wide variety of medical cannabis products now available you'll find pills, teas, tinctures and an ever-expanding menu of edibles, from peanut butter kush ice cream to chicken pot pie.

Jeff Leonard, a member of Eureka's medical marijuana dispensary selection committee, believes that the county's window of opportunity is now. The former city councilman recently visited Colorado, where he spotted a dispensary called the Humboldt Care and Wellness Center. The owners, he said, had never even been to the region. "They just know that 'Humboldt' is associated with high-quality cannabis," he explained. "They're making money off the Humboldt County name." That doesn't sit well with Leonard. "I think, for us, we've got to be careful over the next few years. If we stay in the dark ages we'll find that people all over the West Coast will be making money, branding what's essentially our product. And we're not going to be able to compete -- especially with what prescription pharmacies are selling today. Humboldt County producers ought to be right in the middle of that market."

Stereotypes Wrong

As a mortgage insurance inspector, Redway resident Charley Custer has been places few county code inspectors dare to tread -- at least, not without weaponry. He's been inside the homes of countless Humboldt County marijuana growers, and he says they've been misrepresented. Most are nothing like the infamous weed kingpins who reign over their gardens like plantation masters, or the greedy criminals who destroy rental properties with fire and mildew.

"The problem with so much of what we know about marijuana is that we see only the worst players involved in its activities," Custer said. "That's all we hear about. There are many indoor marijuana growers who are exemplary families and who therefore never appear on the radar." He's working to put them on the radar by giving them a voice in county policy decisions.

Custer serves as secretary for the Humboldt Medical Marijuana Advisory Panel (, an ad hoc committee created last year (at the behest of Lovelace) to serve as a liaison between the weed-growing community and the county Planning Commission. It's a position for which Custer is well-suited: His insurance job gives him a foot in the professional realm, but he's also a founder of the Tea House Collective, a group of growers that supplies medical marijuana to the Bay Area.

Custer describes the panel as "more of a conversation than an organization." Nonetheless, they plan to submit their own draft ordinance to the Planning Commission sometime before the May 12 meeting -- the next time the issue will be officially discussed. Custer has some fundamental concerns about the drafting process thus far. Specifically, he doesn't like that the template -- Arcata's ordinance -- was motivated by a community uprising called "Nip It in the Bud," which aimed to drive indoor growers out of town. As such, he said, the current draft of the county ordinance is a blunt instrument that makes no distinction between good people bending the rules and out-and-out criminals.

Outlaw Past

The local history between growers and the government compounds the problem. For a generation, a large portion of county residents has studiously avoided government oversight, leaving thousands of parcels in dubious legal standing.

Under the proposed ordinance, any time a county official, say a building inspector, spotted a marijuana grow during a routine inspection of something as innocent as a tool shed, that official would be empowered to investigate the ownership of the property. "This is one of the reasons why so few people go through county departments for routine services -- out of fear that they'll be caught in these administrative fly traps," Custer said. Catching "good people" in these traps -- people who are growing weed primarily to help make their mortgage payments or produce medicine -- "seems like a very unfortunate way to build cooperation with the county's principal economic activity," Custer argued.

That said, he commended the planning commissioners for their willingness to listen and learn, something he believes will be especially important as the county tackles the challenges of regulating outdoor cultivation. "They [the planning commissioners] get that we don't have the luxury of ignoring it much longer, especially as legalization grinds forward," Custer said. "I really give them high praise."

Perhaps the most challenging hurdle for policymakers has been the mental shift -- thinking of cannabis not as a drug but as a medicine. Eureka Community Development Director Sidnie Olsen remembers grappling with this transition herself when she began working on the city's medical marijuana ordinance. "I was struggling with, how do you write this ordinance to prevent [abuse]?" she said. For government employees and elected officials, who often have no direct experience with marijuana, this can be a monumental challenge. Even here in Humboldt, conversations about medical marijuana are inevitably colored by the stigma of criminality and skepticism about its medicinal usefulness. It's a common if generally unspoken assumption that dispensary "patients" are mostly stoners faking maladies to get high legally.

But after doing more research and receiving feedback from patients and suppliers, Olsen's perspective changed. When she finally got down to writing the ordinance, she said, "I was thinking of the old man who has Parkinson's disease or the woman who has osteoporosis, a grandmother. Is that grandmother going to want to go down to some hippie-groovy, you know, mood light kind of thing? No. They want to go to a place where they can have dignity. ... You can't design your projects with violations in mind."

County Tip-Toes

So far the county has issued three permits for medical cannabis dispensaries. When the ordinance is eventually passed, these dispensaries will have a year (or less if their permit so stipulates) to come into compliance. The first permit was issued last August to the Humboldt County Collective. The second, issued just last month, went to the Hummingbird Healing Center. In recent months these two dispensaries have been engaged in something of a turf war, fighting for legitimacy and clients while located mere steps apart in the Myrtletown district, just outside Eureka city limits.

The county issued an injunction against Hummingbird last spring for operating without a permit. The issuance of a permit for Hummingbird last month prompted an appeal from Bill Byron, owner of the Humboldt County Collective. Byron said he filed his appeal after the county rejected another resident's plea; the collective's owner said he acted to preserve the right of reply.

At its March 3 meeting the Planning Commission issued a third conditional use permit to Reed Thomas, a 28-year-old Garberville native who's currently serving on the boards of three Sacramento dispensaries. His plan is to come back to Garberville, where both sides of his family still reside, and provide Southern Humboldt with its first dispensary.

In a phone conversation last week, Thomas expressed wide-reaching visions for both the medicinal and financial potential of medical cannabis in Humboldt County. On the subject of weed-as-medicine, Thomas spoke excitedly about cannabidiol, or CBD, a chemical compound in cannabis that recent research suggests helps relieve convulsion, inflammation, anxiety, and nausea, and inhibit cancer cell growth. For years growers and researchers have fixated on a different cannabinoid -- tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. It's the primary psychoactive component in cannabis, so cultivators have been aggressively cross-breeding marijuana strains to increase the concentration. Thomas said that for medicinal purposes, that may have been the exact wrong approach.

But he was equally passionate about the financial opportunities that, from his perspective, this region is currently allowing to pass by. "If there's anywhere that should embrace [medical marijuana] it's Humboldt County," he said. "I mean, we're teetering on the very end of the chance for Humboldt County to really embrace it as a new, budding industry -- no pun intended."

Like former councilman Jeff Leonard, Thomas argues that it's foolish not to capitalize on both the wealth of know-how and the preexisting reputation of Humboldt County. "The fact that people still don't want to see that is frustrating," he said. Even though legalization measure Prop. 19 failed, he added, that in no way affected the marketability of cannabis.

Patience, Grass-buyer

Regardless of such warnings, county officials are taking things slowly. The Planning Commission recently decided to draft its medical marijuana ordinance in two phases, starting with indoor growing and dispensaries (again, based largely on the ordinances in Eureka and Arcata) before moving on to the more daunting challenges presented by regulating large-scale outdoor cultivation. "At this point we're trying to just do the low-hanging fruit," said county planner Steve Lazar.

That approach has caused worry among grower advocacy groups like the Humboldt Medical Marijuana Advisory Panel and the Humboldt Growers Association. In particular they're concerned that language in the ordinance will effectively ban outdoor growing entirely, despite assurances from the county that that won't be the case in practice. They also object to the proposed ban on "cottage industries" and edible forms of cannabis.

As for outdoor cultivation, the Planning Commission is seeking feedback from growers and looking at other jurisdictions for ideas. The most applicable model comes from our lookalike neighbor to the south, Mendocino County, where qualified patients can purchase up to six zip ties from the county's public health department. The ties, which can be placed around plant stalks, effectively licensing them, cost $25 apiece, with half off for veterans and patients with Medi-Cal or Medicare. The Humboldt Growers Association reportedly plans to suggest an alternate approach based on regulating the square footage of mature crop canopies.

In Eureka, meanwhile, the city council was set to consider at its Tuesday meeting a recommendation from its selection committee to invite three specific dispensaries to apply for conditional use permits. The city's ordinance allows for up to six dispensaries to operate within city limits. The city of Blue Lake is reportedly in the early phases of drafting its own ordinance through a contract with Arcata's Streamline Planning Consultants. Garberville, being unincorporated, will be governed by the county's ordinance.

Thanks to the legal green zone established by Prop. 215, the drafting of these regulations has allowed unprecedented involvement from the region's most reticent citizens. Supervisor Lovelace believes that this development is a sign of maturity. "Just getting to a comfort level where we can have a hearing at the Board of Supervisors and have people come in and identify themselves as marijuana growers -- that's been a huge sea change," he said. Unlike most of the country, he added, "here locally we're able to talk about this like adults."

For the first time, marijuana growers are openly part of that discussion. Charley Custer, the pot-growing insurance inspector from Redway, said he and his fellow members in the Humboldt Medical Marijuana Advisory Panel believe that such grown-up talk is key to making progress on this issue. "We really believe in open communication, and we hope that more and more people will be talking with their friends and neighbors about how our economy will evolve here," Custer said. "If we can get marijuana out into the open -- get it accepted as a fact of our lives -- we'll all be more comfortable figuring out how to work with it to benefit everyone." 

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About The Author

Ryan Burns

Ryan Burns

Ryan Burns worked for the Journal from 2008 to 2013, covering a diverse mix of North Coast subjects, from education, politics and marijuana to human suspension, sex parties and amateur fight contests. He won awards for investigative reporting, feature stories and news coverage.

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