Legal Cannabis Has Ushered In Big Changes for Humboldt County

The end of marijuana prohibition is changing the face of California’s Emerald Triangle — and not necessarily for the better.

The New Yorker recently delved into the effect of legalization on the culture and economy of Humboldt County, which is increasingly dominated by larger cannabis companies that can afford to deal with the costs and regulations of commercial marijuana.

Regulation demands a different set of skills. Instead of burning records, farmers must now practice accounting. Instead of loading their crop into duffel bags and sending it out of state, they have to learn branding and marketing. Legalization brings with it the costs of taxes, permitting, compliance, and new competitors. It has also occasioned a rapid drop in price. Now Humboldt County is experiencing not only an economic crisis but also an existential one. What happens to a group of people whose anti-government ethos was sustained by an illegal plant that is now the most regulated crop in California?

Things began changing for Humboldt as far back as 2009 when the federal government stopped using resources to prosecute people in compliance with state marijuana laws. Medical marijuana cultivation exploded, workers and immigrants began flocking to the region for work, and fallout like environmental degradation ensued.

“The state had the onus to manage the medical system, and they refused to set up any kind of regulatory system, any kind of licensing system, any kind of ownership system,” Sheldon Norberg, author and member of the California Growers Association, told the New Yorker.

Now, the pendulum has swung in the other direction. Heavy regulation has burdened the industry and put many mom and pop growers out of business. Policies they were promised to maintain the integrity of small business — such as a cap on large-scale farms — quickly fell by the wayside.

Prices started dropping, from more than two thousand dollars a pound, three years ago, to sixteen hundred dollars a pound, in 2017, to less than a thousand dollars a pound, last year. In Humboldt, farmers had spent their savings coming up to code, only to end up with licensed and legal weed that they could no longer off-load, now that the market was oversupplied.

And so, many longtime farmers are exiting cannabis. They're leaving behind an industry that, in many ways, is unrecognizable from that which existed just 10 years ago — a system now rife with state-created winners and losers. Jail time is no longer a big concern, but the same can’t be said for crushing regulation and displacement.


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