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Note: This is the third part in a trilogy on the topic of Cannabis cultivation in northern California. Previously published: How Green Is Your Pot? Questions for Conscientious Cannabis Consumers and The Mark of Malice in California’s “Emerald Triangle”
2017 was my fourth season in a row working in the Cannabis industry in California, and it might well turn out to be my last, considering how rapidly the industry is changing, especially since the 2016 passage of Proposition 64 for adult recreational use.
My employment has always been hourly, arranged with handshake contracts, and “at will” for all parties. Never been a boss and haven’t wanted to be. I’d already had my days of running-the-whole-show when I was farmer in Oregon growing vegetables, seeds and herbs (but never pot) for the ten seasons up ’til 2014. Since then, I’ve been perfectly content as a helper for somebody else‘s headaches. Though not elevated in the hierarchy, and certainly not privy to all matters of the trade, I’ve appreciated the “inside” vantage point I’ve had to observe the transitions in the industry, at least as they’ve been playing out in northern California.
I’ve always been strongly in favor of the complete decriminalization and legalization of marijuana for a few reasons. First and foremost, there’s the racist, classist drug war and its unjust imprisonment (an entirely redundant phrase, I know), which must end. Secondly, its ridiculous to outlaw either a plant (no matter its qualities) or a state of mind (no matter how altered). Thirdly, Cannabis has impressive potential as a source of fiber, food and medicine. Cultivating it widely could reduce more destructive practices such as logging, cotton-farming and prescribing pharmaceuticals.
I am thrilled that, as laws are relaxed, fewer people are being jailed and previous sentences are being reduced or dropped. This is non-negotiable. At the same time, I have been keeping my eye on other effects, which have been mixed. Watchdogging is needed; the pot industry is a force to be reckoned with, especially in Calaifornia.
Though still a sector of “the informal economy” (as it is properly called, the “black market” existing only in other countries) marijuana is the biggest cash crop in California. The exact annual take is a matter of debate but what’s not is the burgeoning economic size of the industry itself, in a state that, were it an independent nation, would rank as the sixth largest economy in the world.
The sins of pot farming are many, as is the case with all agriculture. As an historical wave it represents the third (and likely final) ecologically extractive economic boom in the area, the first being gold and the second timber. Indeed, the rapid expansion of the Cannabis industry in northern California has been dubbed the “Green Rush,” an unfortunate moniker considering the genocide and ecocide of the “Gold Rush.” To put it coldly but factually, Cannabis is the financial engine of the current generation of settler colonialism in northern California, and thereby enables the ongoing occupation of stolen native lands.
So what? you might say. That’s how it is everywhere in the US.
Sure, and that’s why it matters everywhere in the US. The widespread nature of our collective crime doesn’t make it less criminal. Here are my observations of the shape of oppression in this place.
* * *
Men dominate the weed industry. Too often, the only way for women to gain entry is by attaching themselves to a man who is already established. Due to economic dependency or personal greed (which knows no sex) the women end up staying in unhealthy, abusive relationships.
Over a decade ago, on my first visit to a pot farm, I knew a man and woman grower couple in Humboldt who got into screaming matches all the time. Sometimes he would hit things or slam them around. Never her (that I knew of) but I feared on her behalf. A half a dozen other people were working at the farm and although everybody was annoyed by the loud fights, no one suggested doing anything about it.
Capitalism taints humans relationships in many ways, and this is one of them: you risk losing your job if you address a conflict between two people if either or both of them are your “superior.” This is a totally dysfunctional way for a group of humans to behave, but we take it for granted as normal, everyday. In actuality, such unearned rank is just an invention of the urban-agricultural complex, and it does not befit us.
One day the man came storming outside with an axe and started brandishing it at her car. I got between him and the vehicle (without really thinking) and politely, but firmly, asked him not to damage it because she was gonna be giving me a ride to the bus in town later that day (which was true). The fire in his eyes simmered down pretty fast and he lowered the axe and walked away. There was no penalty for me in this case, financially or otherwise, but it was my last day anyway.
Later, on the drive to town, I told her that she didn’t have to stay; that if she wanted to she could come back to Portland (where we had originally met and where she had friends) and that there were people there who could help her to get her back on own feet again. (This was before Portland’s gentrification, when such networks of mutual aid were stronger.) She was appreciative, but turned it down. “I really want to work with this plant,” she said. Last I heard she was still with him, still farming.
They weren’t the last volatile couple I met on pot farms, nor was he the last hot-headed man. As in the wider society, sexism is the norm, though in the lawlessness of the back country, it can do without the veneer required in the boardroom.
Sex trafficking has been increasing as the industry expands. Stories circulate about women who are brought to remote farms and forced to provide sex as well as farm work. Statistics back up these stories. For example, the number of calls received by Humboldt Domestic Violence Services increased by about 80% from 2011-2015.
Adding insult to injury, sometimes women in the Cannabis industry are disparaged as “grow ho’s.” Proponents for the term might hold that it isn’t applied to all women, just certain ones who behave badly. To this so-called reasoning I will give no ground. Are there women of little experience and knowledge who hook up with a grower and then abuse their position to lord it over the people “below” them? Sure, but there are already words for that like “bias,” “nepotism,” and “preferential treatment,” all of which are the bread and butter of capitalism and which aren’t cause for sexist name-calling (as if there’s ever cause for that). If you want someone to be pissed off at, just look at all the assholes in charge.
* * *
Abuse of women has been affiliated with the abuse of nature for centuries. This is patriarchy. Environmentally, marijuana farming has been detrimental for northern California in a number of ways, such as: depletion of creeks as water is diverted for irrigation; nitrogen-based fertilizer run-off into waterways which leads to algae blooms and dead-zones with no oxygen; animals and birds poisoned by rodenticide or caught in traps set out to kill mice (who can gnaw on marijuana stems); trash, much of it plastic, strewn through the forest; and carbon emissions from gas-powered generators, pumps and other farm equipment. (For more details on these topics, see my article, How Green Is Your Pot? Questions for Conscientious Cannabis Consumers.)
But once marijuana is legalized, won’t government regulation of the industry end its environmental abuses?
That’s a nice thought, but as it is, regulatory agencies are normally controlled by the corporations they’re supposed to regulate. The revolving door between the two is a busy one.
Rules are promulgated but are watered down; penalties are set but not levied; standards made but not enforced. If any meaningful limitation happens, it’s when citizens can apply enough pressure (by whatever means necessary) to force the government to follow its own laws. Of course, the channels for citizen involvement are also being increasingly constricted.
Besides all that, you’ve got plain old-fashioned palm-greasing.
An anonymous source told me a story about a Cannabis inspector, “X,” whose job takes them on-site to approve permits for growers who are on the legalization track. They are focused in part on water usage and environmental laws.
Based on their observations, X was finding that basically every grower was out of compliance. But X also believed that growers are “never going to change” so, as I heard the story, X has been “essentially taking bribes.”
Wow, that was quick.
So, as government stats are released and media stories run on how the compliance process is progressing, we might consider taking their numbers with a grain of salt. Or a fistful.
* * *
Perversely, new rules could also end up promoting environmental abuse. For example, as they currently stand, county regulations in Humboldt County encourage clear-cuts.
In February 2016, the county’s Board of Supervisors adopted their “Regulations for Cannabis Related Commercial Activity,” which include an incentive for clear-cutting. Here’s the language in section 22.214.171.124, which covers “Outdoor and Mixed Light commercial cultivation of cannabis for medical use”:
“In all zones where cultivation is allowed consisting of timberland, the commercial cultivation of cannabis for medical use shall only be permitted within a 3-acre conversion exemption area or non-timberland open area, subject to the conditions and limitations set forth in this section.”
So, if your property is zoned TBZ (Timber Production Zone) then you are only allowed to produce Cannabis inside a single 3-acre area that is either already open (such as a meadow) or is a “conversion exemption area,” i.e., forest converted to agricultural use by clear-cutting. it. (This is one of many issues that differs by county. For example, in Mendocino, immediately to the south, “Growers are prohibited from cutting down oak trees to accommodate their operations” [Ukiah Daily Journal]. Better to be a squirrel in Mendo!)
Humboldt County is rugged, hilly land, much of it densely forested and designated TPZ. Many thousand Cannabis-growing operations already exist in TPZs so the potential is great for clear-cuts throughout the county, with the cascades of environmental disruption that follow them.
Making Cannabis production legal in TPZs was pushed by area growers, partly through an industry political action group, California Cannabis Voice Humboldt. CCVH’s efforts were opposed by “somewhat strange bedfellows,” Arcata’s Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) and Humboldt Redwood, a timber company headquartered in Scotia, which issued a joint statement against CCVH’s proposed ordinance that was published in the Eureka Times-Standard.
Though the final ordinance written by the county did not give the CCVH everything it asked for, Humboldt’s regulations are widely recognized as being pro-“Green Rush”: which is to say, quite business-friendly and a far cry from “green.”
The issue of TPZ conversions came to my attention because I saw one of these three-acre clear-cuts happen, at a farm where I worked in 2015, 2016 and 2017. The trees were intact the first year, and gone in 2016 after the regs passed, with the space full of weed beds this year.
The transition was shocking. I’ve seen clear-cuts before – they are common throughout the Pacific Northwest – but repeated viewings have not muted my awareness of the suffering they cause; rather, my perception has sharpened and my sadness has deepened.
So I set up my camp spot on the edge of the clear-cut. I wanted to “bear witness” as it’s called. The wild creatures who lost homes, family and food certainly deserved far more, but that’s what I had to offer. Someone needed to acknowledge the event, and by eating and sleeping there, I could not avoid it.
I was glad I did because one hot afternoon during siesta, I was lying in my hammock in the shade when a squirrel came bouncing through the branches and stopped at the edge of the clearing. There, s/he chittered loudly, in a scolding tone. Perhaps a once familiar route was now gone. Definitely many acorn-bearing oak trees had been among the casualties. And here was someone to yell at about it – me!
“Yes, I know,” I answered. “I’m sorry!”
The squirrel gave another couple chirps, then returned into the forest. I was grateful I’d been there to deliver the apology.
The landowner was no hippie. An Alex Jones fan and Trump voter, he was gleeful at the sorrowful reactions of some of the farmworkers when the trees were actively being cut down and trucked away. Telling the story later, he openly mocked their grief. I’m going to call that what it is: sociopathic behavior. But as observers of our society know, such is typical.
As I said earlier, I favor Cannabis legalization in part because the war on drugs and mass incarceration must end. But does the cost of human liberty really have to be environmental degradation? For every x number of people released from prison will xnumber of acres be clear-cut? That’s a truly nasty exchange. I hate it and I hope it’s very temporary. Damn capitalists.
* * *
Ironically, the forests could benefit from a human touch, if that touch could pick up where it was interrupted by the European invasion. Some thinning is just what much of the forest land needs. But not by the saw; by the flame.
Native Americans intentionally set fires on a regular basis as an essential practice of “wild-tending.” Wild-tending is the cultivation of undomesticated food plants and the intentional shaping of their landscapes for dependably meaningful yields.
These low-intensity blazes had a number of positive effects for the Native Americans: they favored mature oaks at the expense of baby firs; they kept populations of acorn-eating weevils in check; they encouraged the growth of food plants including berries, roots and seeds; and they improved the landscape for herd animals. In the immediate aftermath, they also provided a harvest of roasted grasshoppers. (I consider myself food adventurous, and would be willing to try that. Insects and their grubs are common food sources in other cultures. I think the word “gross” is better applied to the brutalities of contemporary animal agriculture.)
With the lack of fire, the forests are dense with “toothpick” trees, the savannahs overrun by conifers, and the sustaining complex of grassland foods degraded by cattle or choked out by exotic introductions. No need to wish for fire, though, or to try to put it off; sooner or later we can expect basically every acre of the west to burn. California’s temperatures are rising and its drought is not over, one wet winter notwithstanding.
Historically, the ecosystems of northern California are fire-dependent. But at some point, the accelerating rate of climate change will overtake the speed at which ecosystems can adapt, if that hasn’t happened already. Environmental health now requires new approaches, such as “assisted migration.”
But by and large, pot farmers aren’t even interested in what passes for “responsible management,” let alone a radical approach like rewilding. Almost to a person, they’re in it for the buck. So all around them, the ecosystem’s state of health worsens, both through neglect and through destructive choices.
* * *
The wildfires in northern California were a clear and present danger this season. Smoke can blow quite a ways so you don’t have to be right next to the fire to feel its effects. On some days, it was just a haze blurring the horizon’s hills but on others it was visible at 100 yards. Sunsets and sunrises were reliably colorful and frankly quite beautiful. The moon, too, was often struck with orange or even red.
I was outside doing physical labor so I was acutely aware of the air quality and sometimes I had to wear a paint mask to breathe comfortably. On the worst days, it smelled like standing next to a campfire and the next day I’d wake up with a sore throat like I’d partied in a smoky bar the night before.
Between two farming jobs I spent a few days at a friend’s cabin in the hills above Willits. One morning started out clear and sunny, but by 10am, dirty yellow clouds started to appear in the south. I went down into town to pick up groceries and a few things for my next gig. I was planning to leave the next day, so my truck was otherwise packed and ready to go. This turned out to be a good thing.
In town, internet and cellphone service were both down so no stores were taking debit or credit. It was cash or check only. This wasn’t a big deal to me as I’d just been paid from my last job with a stack of twenties.
In the first store, I heard that the 101 South was closed from fires. That canceled my plan to go to Ukiah!
In the second store, I found out that Highway 20 West had just closed too, cutting off access to Fort Bragg, the ocean and Highway 1.
In the third and final store came the news that Highway 20 East had also shut down, which left only way out, north on the 101. When I stepped outside, ash was falling from the sky. That made up my mind and I headed out of town minutes later.
I had a little less than half a tank of gas, but didn’t fill up in Willits. There were multiple gas stations en route to my destination and I figured the people staying in town needed the fuel more than me. As I drove north, the cellphone blackout continued, through Laytonville, Leggett and up to Garberville and Redway.
The clouds of smoke followed me as I traveled and I wore a paint mask for breathing the whole time. The hills were shrouded and the sun was a dim yellow/orange disc that you could look at directly without squinting.
The fires that started that day blazed for weeks, spurring evacuations and several human deaths. Many weed farms were also wiped out, and just before the main outdoor harvests were due to begin, too. There were surely people who not only lost their crop this year but won’t return to the business at all; the expense of rebuilding infrastructure will be too much in a market with shrinking returns.
A month later, driving between Willits and Ukiah on the 101, I saw the blackened hills. It was too early to tell how many trees were killed and how many will leaf back out in the spring. But in many areas it appeared that the fires had swept through quickly and done little more than remove all the underbrush and dried vegetation. I thought of how fire is a natural part of the cycle of life in these ecosystems and then my perception of the landscape changed: it no longer seemed ravaged but rather renewed.
Just another month after that, following rain, the ground was greening up again as the rich seed bank erupted into new life.
* * *
It’s make-or-break time for many small growers in northern California. Prices are falling, competition is increasing and the cost of doing business is rising.
What started out in 1996 (with legalized medical) as a steady decline down a long slope has since become a plunge off a cliff. As recently as 2006, growers could sell a pound of weed for $3000. Eight years later, in 2014, it had halved to $1500. In 2017, just three years on, the price during the October glut was $800 or less, which is halved again.
Why so fast? One basic rule of a capitalist “free market” is that if supply goes up faster than demand, then prices fall. The marijuana market, being unregulated until now, has been hewing more closely to such classroom concepts than to a mainstream industry such as, for example, fossil fuel production, which is rife with subsidies and other not so invisible hands that shape it.
The last few years have seen a tremendous influx of new growers into rural areas all over California and the Pacific Northwest but northern California has been a particularly popular target due to its reputation. “Humboldt,” after all, is a globally-recognized name, or “brand,” as the marketers call it.
From 2009-2012, the amount of land under Cannabis cultivation in the state doubled. Along with this trend, real estate prices have gone through the ceiling, since the demand is growing for something that has a finite supply. Because start-up costs are thus higher, the new growers entering the market have to be bigger to begin with. They are producing more supply, and with it, downward pressure on prices.
But the competition is not just within a given county in northern California. Another concentration of farms has been growing around Grass Valley, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The area is convenient by car from both Sacramento and Reno. Less remote is a selling point, so fewer buyers make the drive to the coast with its crazy tangle of unpaved roads.
Demand from New York City and the East Coast has also fallen, due in this case to a rapidly expanding supply from Massachusetts. At a brisk clip, the Commonwealth decriminalized small amounts in 2008, passed medical in 2012 and then recreational in 2016. Along with Maine (and notwithstanding the District of Columbia) Massachusetts is the only state east of the Rockies that has fully legalized. New York’s 2014 medical marijuana legislation is quite restrictive in comparison, so it depends on out-of-stater suppliers. Drive time from Brooklyn to the Berkshires is three hours but to Mendocino County is three days. Do the math.
Prices have thus fallen to a threshold at which some significant percentage of current pot farmers won’t be able to stay in business. Those who can will be those who either scale up and mechanize or who successfully create boutique brands. As with the niche market for organic produce, “value added products” are where much of the money promises to be: in refinement, in all senses of that word.
* * *
The marketing strategies of urban retail stores are also making new challenges for small growers. Retailers crave the novel, but at a pace that’s faster than farming.
It’s not new for strains to come into style. Growers have been playing that game for a couple decades, introducing new “flavors” every season, hoping to spark a trend and cash in on it. Well-known breeders gain fame and fortune from their hybrids and crosses.
But urban retail has upped the ante. They operate with the dynamics of the fashion industry. Make a star, sell it high, then ditch it before it loses luster. Train the customers to desire the shiny and the new.
So not only is, say, “Green Crack,” no longer “in,” it’s actually “out.” Fresher flavors have not just eclipsed its popularity, they’ve virtually kicked it off-stage altogether.
A couple of growers I talked to were pretty pissed off about this, and about the insultingly low prices being offered for “Green Crack.” Finding out you planted the “wrong” thing in August or September is way too late. Like, six to nine months too late and there’s no going back.
But the cool kids in the city don’t care about that. Or about how it’s grown as long as the label says the right thing.
* * *
In May, I read a story in Science entitled “Where have all the insects gone?” which revealed alarming declines in flying insect populations in Germany, according to multi-decade research. As a kid, I loved “bugs” and I even raised caterpillars in screened-in boxes and then released the butterflies and moths when they emerged from their cocoons. In recent years my fascination with the etymological world has been expressed through macro photography.
I had my own personal suspicions that there were fewer butterflies around than when I was a child, but I also knew it wasn’t too logical to compare the urban/rural interface in Nebraska in the 70’s to city center Portland in the 20-teens. But considering how many other aspects of the natural world are in decline, I wasn’t surprised to have this news confirmed. That didn’t make it less heartbreaking though.
At one of the farms where I worked, most of the plants were grown in hoop-houses. Crowded, warm, moist environments like that tend to breed disease and pests, and mites were thriving there. Every few days, therefore, the plants were sprayed with an insecticide, taking special care to apply it to the bottom sides of the leaves, too.
The product they used was OMRI-certified, meaning it’s acceptable under the USDA’s National Organic Program standards. One of the active ingredients was an essential oil, which seems pretty benign.
So when I was asked to apply it to the plants one night, I did. I disliked the smell so I got through the task as fast as I could. A couple months later, back at the same farm, I was asked to spray the hoop-houses. again, and did.
In the meantime, more stories detailing extinctions and plummeting populations had been in the news. On the third occasion when I was asked to spray, I had gotten as far as putting on the backpack sprayer before something in me snapped, and I found myself unable to start the task, let alone complete it. So I found a trimmer who wanted outside work to do it instead.
An insecticide is an insect killer, even if it’s “organic.”
So I couldn’t do it myself, knowing what I knew, and – more urgently – feeling what I felt. Yes, my brain knew something was wrong but it was my heart that really stopped me.
* * *
Some growers mention 2021 as the year when “everything will change.”
I looked it up, and they’re referring to Part J of Section 2 (Findings and Declarations) of the text of Proposition 64 which “ensures the nonmedical marijuana industry in California will be built around small and medium sized businesses by prohibiting large-scale cultivation licenses for the first five years” [my emphasis].
Some of these same growers believe that “large-scale cultivation” will move the crop down out of the hills and into the Central Valley. This would be ironic since those counties voted against Prop 64. But I’m willing to bet they’ll accept the influx of cash. Even at lower prices, marijuana will be a profitable crop when pursued at the economies of scale executed on the flat, open valley floor.
I have mixed feelings about this. First of all, if marijuana cultivation declined in a major way in northern California, the rivers and wildlife would be getting a big break. More water flow for the fish; fewer traps to kill mammals and birds; less spraying to exterminate insects; etc.
But on the other hand, why are the valleys always the sacrifice zones? So few wild places are left in the well-watered lowlands that Agriculture always covets and claims. As much as the forests of the hills have been chopped down, so too have the prairies and wetlands been plowed under and drained, and to a worse degree actually.
What will large-scale cultivation look like? You better believe Monsanto and the rest of Big Ag is studying it. And as soon as its better for them that marijuana no longer be cursed as a Schedule 1 drug at the Federal level, it won’t be. GMO weed is on the way.
The footprint of farming needs to be reduced, not expanded. As climate disruption worsens, energy resources dwindle, and the economy decays, crops will need to be prioritized on a purely practical scale where edible/essential is on one end and ornamental/extra is on the other. We will see how Cannabis fares then.
* * *
Marijuana’s medical benefits served as the gateway to its legalization. Its proven efficacy for certain conditions is scientifically uncontroversial. Add to this list a host of additional claims – some based on sample sets of patients numbering as low as a dozen, so we’ll see – and Cannabis starts to sound like a panacea. But marijuana’s recreational effects have always been the main draw.
Contemporary strains have been bred for a much higher percentage of THC than was present in the more rustic stock of the 60’s and 70’s. More significantly, in the last half decade or so, concentrated forms like “dabs” have become quite popular. So much so that it’s now standard to say, only half-joking, that “no one smokes flower [buds] anymore.” Some concentrates are so strong that they are nearly pure THC. What this means is that people are getting higher than they used to.
We can all laugh at the ridiculous claims of anti-drug warriors who scorned facts for scare tactics in their efforts to paint Marijuana as the “devil’s weed” over the last century. “Reefer Madness” has become a complete joke for good reason.
As a “good leftist,” I feel like I’m supposed to reject the anti-marijuana propaganda of the prohibitionists (no problem – done) but accept without qualification the claims of its proponents that use of the plant ranges from totally harmless to magnificently beneficial. That’s where I’m skeptical, in part from my own personal experiences with the plant over the last thirty years.
I am willing to believe that in earlier decades, marijuana’s potential for personal mind expansion and social radicalization was real. Many, many people thought so, including luminaries like Carl Sagan, who said: “The illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world.”
But Sagan died in 1996 and I think it’s reasonable to ask if it’s the same drug it was then. As it gets stronger, does its potential for transcendence decline? Or has the culture we live in become more hostile to “serenity and insight”? Whatever the case, I’m certainly seeing less “sensitivity and fellowship” around me even though marijuana use has gone up. Has it become just one more tranquilizer in a society that already offers so many?
I also find it telling that the Establishment no longer seems to perceive marijuana as a threat to the status quo. Could it now, in fact, be helping to uphold it? Are revolutionary sentiments and actions being quelled by the increasingly potent preparations of this plant? Or is our society itself sliding further into apathy regardless?
I totally get why people living in the US these days might want to dull themselves to aspects of their lives. Social, economic and political conditions are rapidly deteriorating. The urge to escape can be strong. But I would posit that this medicine, in its ever more refined form, only provides superficial relief to symptoms – anxiety, anger, alienation – but does little to nothing to help address their root causes, which are cultural not personal.
I’m not interested in daily dependence on medication, whether its a plant product or a pharmaceutical. The plain truth is that we should not be happy, content or satisfied with how things are. As Jiddu Krishnamurti famously said: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Since that’s the case, let’s stop trying to adjust ourselves and let’s change society instead.
Our civilization is doing far more on this planet than making some of us feel depressed. The US war machine is hammering away on skulls everywhere unabated. Industry rips resources from the ground and dumps waste into the air, onto the ground and into the water. The sixth great extinction is underway, the permafrost is thawing, the oceans are acidifying. All this shit’s got to stop.
Individually and collectively, we need to be clear and direct as we engage life for what it is. We must face the global plight head-on and figure out what the fuck to do about it.We have to get healthy and be ready to fight the bastards as necessary.