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Preparing for the end of the marijuana boom

Local musician and KMUD talk show host Anna Hamilton took center stage at the Mateel Community Center on Tuesday night for the first public community discussion of the potential impacts of marijuana legalization on the community.

Hamilton was assisted by Charley Custer and Liz Davidson of CLMP and Hum CPR, local blogger and attorney Eric Kirk, California NORML representative Ellen Komp, and others who media were asked not to name or photograph when Hamilton laid down the ground rules for the evening. In addition to the Redwood Times, media present included KMUD, The Independent, Times-Standard, KHSU, The Associated Press and the South Fork High School Broadcast Journalism class.

Among those in the audience not minding being named were Supervisor Mark Lovelace, John Sappler of the County Office of Education, Ahn Fielding of College of the Redwoods, DA candidate Kathleen Bryson, Harbor Commissioner Mike Wilson, Rob Aberman representing DA candidate Paul Hagen, and Democracy Unlimited director David Cobb.

The forum was organized into “stakeholder” groups at separate conference tables. Hamilton called it a “classroom” format. People were asked to self-identify themselves as property owners, 215 permit holders, renters, workers, government, economic development, nonprofit organizations, business owners, the arts, and growers. The participants at each table were instructed to have a discussion and fill out a questionnaire.

Hamilton began with her own agenda, which she said, is “to establish that the economy of black market marijuana is the biggest economic force in our region” and affects every aspect of local society. She said her desired result was that the stakeholder groups form a coalition of “mutual interests” and devise strategies for survival after the collapse of the marijuana bubble economy, which she predicted would be the greatest catastrophe in the history of the area.

She also made the point that although there are “greedy growers,” marijuana cultivation has crossed all social and cultural lines.

Hamilton said she thought between 15,000 and 30,000 people in Humboldt County would be displaced by the legalization of marijuana.

”We need a regional economic impact analysis,” Hamilton said. How and who would conduct such an analysis was not addressed.

The price of pot was very much on the minds of many participants. The price has already dropped from its peak and is back down close to where it was when marijuana was first grown for sale in this area. In the discussions at the various tables, some people thought there ought to be “price supports” for marijuana farming that would keep incomes at the levels to which many growers have become accustomed. There was even some support for “buying” a legislator or two who would look out for the interests of pot farmers.

Some argued that the growers themselves should be allowed to set their price. Others noted that the old economic rule of supply and demand was determining the price. As the price has dropped, growers have increased the size of their crops, which in turn has led to more supply and even lower prices. Some suggested that could be solved by forming cooperatives or guilds where allocations were controlled to keep the price at a certain level.

Mendocino County was said to be ahead of the curve as growers in that area have already organized themselves into a trade group. The Mendocino Board of Supervisors is also thought to be ahead of the curve in its efforts to support price stability in the wake of legalization. Humboldt, on the other hand, was seen as falling behind the curve and in danger of being left behind.

There were advocates for developing value-added marijuana products from plants grown here and those who wanted a strategy that would “transition to an economy where the price of marijuana is not inflated.”

There were mixed feelings among the participants about the pending initiative to tax and regulate marijuana that will be on the June ballot versus the Ammiano bill (AB 2254 introduced by State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano of San Francisco). Ammiano’s bill is still under consideration in the California legislature. Several people wanted to see legal marijuana regulated under the wine industry model, complete with labels and tasting rooms. It was suggested that developing a legal industry along those lines would be good for the tourism industry. Others opposed that model and preferred regulation along the lines of the alcohol industry. A third option in some minds was a system based on the tobacco growing industry.

Komp said that the Ammiano bill was currently dormant but would be revived if the initiative passed in June, something which seems likely as a recent Field poll found it has 56% approval from voters. According to Komp’s handout on AB 2254, a Zogby poll found that 58% of voters believe that marijuana should be taxed and legally regulated like alcohol and cigarettes, which would be done under the Ammiano bill. Some of those opposing the Ammiano bill do so on the basis that it takes control away from the grower and introduces regulation for the heretofore outlaw industry. Komp said she thought the budget crisis was driving the California legislature’s interest in legalization. They are looking around for tax money to support government services that are now being cut.

”Branding” was a word used by many participants. When Hamilton called for “branding” Humboldt weed, she got strong applause. There were concerns expressed that outsiders might usurp the rights to the Humboldt brand if locals don’t move quickly to claim it. Cobb was enthusiastic about the branding idea and said there was a lot of interest in certification for being sweatshop-free, organic, grown in the sun and fair trade designations for marijuana. He thought a niche market could be developed for the “Humboldt brand.”

Many people were dismayed that the indoor marijuana growers have managed to brand their product as being better than outdoor marijuana, especially for 215 patients. Some suggested that a campaign of public education about the toxic substances used to grow marijuana indoors might restore the reputation of sun-grown pot as a superior product. Branding was seen as a way to keep the price as high as possible.

”If you’re growing it for money, you’re growing it for the wrong reason,” a lone voice of dissent said. “We’re all circles and we don’t fit in with the squares,” this individual added.

”Marijuana was the gift that came to use to live the lifestyle we wanted,” another participant said.

As the discussion was winding down, CR’s Ahn Field told this reporter that she had come on behalf of education and economic workforce development.

”There’s a lot of training needs, both for the workforce and the growers, identifying what skills might be needed for a shifting economy. You will have a lot of people who want to establish businesses that may be related to the legalization of marijuana. There are a lot of opportunities beyond a degree or certificate to building a business.”

Supervisor Lovelace said that he thought marijuana cultivation got its start in Humboldt because it could be hidden from view. Legalization would remove the need to hide it and in that case, he said he expected an “outmigration” of growers to locations in California’s agricultural region. He said that, from the discussions he’s had about legalization at the state level, the feeling is that it’s easier to have it legalized than to continue in the current situation.

”I’m here as a supervisor and consistent with my role on the Medical Marijuana sub-committee,” Lovelace said. “This is looking at legalization, which is a step further than what we are looking at with medical marijuana. We’re still playing catch-up with medical marijuana and 215 14 years later. This is an attempt to say that there are changes potentially coming down the line and let’s get ahead of them and be proactive on the issue.”

A representative of the Redwood Region Economic Development Council was also at the meeting. She said that with the prospect of legalization, that group is “ramping up” its general understanding of the impact legalization will have on the county’s economy.

Notably absent at this meeting was law enforcement, the other major player in the marijuana cultivation story. Law enforcement stands to lose a good portion of its budget if marijuana becomes legal. The impact on the courts that prosecute marijuana cases was also not mentioned or discussed. Someone did ask about the possibility of people already in jail for cultivating being released. No one was certain about that. Bryson indicated she could see that issue going any number of ways.

At its peak, about 150 people either participated to some extent in the discussion or stood on the fringes observing. Hamilton said there will be another such event and that the Mendocino growers groups and government representatives will be invited to that.

Another, similar meeting I attended in the early 1980s at Beginnings, was called in response to the onset of the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP). At that meeting, the participants were looking for ways to protect their crops from the CAMPers. After a long afternoon of discussion, a young Bonnie Blackberry suggested that legalization was the best way out for marijuana growing. Her idea won overwhelming support. Now that the time has apparently come when pot will be legal, some may be having second thoughts.

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