In a historic shift that reverses years of either opposing or ignoring attempts to end marijuana prohibition, pot farmers in California's legendary Emerald Triangle growing region have started mobilizing for the drug to be legalized statewide for recreational use in 2016.
In the past, growers in the Emerald Triangle — a swath of Northern California that includes Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity counties — have resisted or abstained from legalization efforts, mainly for economic reasons. Wholesale marijuana prices have been falling for years, hurting a local economy that is closely linked to the multi-billion dollar underground industry. Until now, the conventional wisdom among the Triangle's growers has been that legalization would push prices even lower and ruin their business.
While marijuana has been legal for medicinal use in California since 1996, the drug remains illegal federally. A younger generation in the Triangle, including many growers who took over farms that belonged to their parents, wants to stop operating on the black market.
"A lot of farmers who are in their 30s are outspoken now," Amanda Reiman, manager of marijuana law and policy at the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), told VICE News. "They have memories of being chased by choppers growing up, and have a lot of trauma. Nothing is worse than what [they've] experienced during prohibition, and legalization is an opportunity to change that. It's a scary leap, but [they're] now going to have to take it."
Four states — Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska — and Washington DC have now legalized recreational marijuana, and the drug has continued to gain widespread acceptance in American society. Growers in the Emerald Triangle have seen the writing on the wall.
"We have come off the mountain, we have come out of the closet," Luke Bruner, cofounder of the California Cannabis Voice Humboldt (CCVH) told VICE News. "We were hiding because of the unjust discrimination. But now we want a voice at the table."
'We want to ensure the smaller farmers have a place in the game.'
The Triangle's growers are critical stakeholders in any bid to legalize recreational pot in California in 2016. The CCHV estimates that 25,000 farms in the region contribute a substantial portion of the 1 million pounds of pot reportedly consumed each year by Californians. Exact figures on the scale of the Triangle's annual weed harvest are unavailable, but vast quantities are likely being shipped out of state.
Through trade associations such as the Emerald Growers Alliance and political action committees like Bruner's CCVH, farmers are aiming to protect their interests. They want a seat at the table during discussions about the industry's regulatory, sustainability, and environmental concerns.
California's current medical marijuana framework, last amended in 2004, does not regulate the production, distribution, or sale of the drug, which has resulted in a motley collection of municipal laws that range from ultra-conservative to non-existent. There are currently few restrictions on the size of a farm in Humboldt County, but growers in neighboring Mendocino are limited to just 25 plants. Marijuana cultivation is effectively illegal in some counties. Reiman called the hodgepodge of laws a "two decades-long, statewide pilot legalization program."
"We all know in California it's easy to get the [state-required] doctor's recommendation," she said.
The challenge for any 2016 ballot initiative is transforming the existing black market into a state-regulated and licensed industry. Reiman told VICE News the DPA will "take the lead on the campaign and drafting" of the proposal, gathering input from dispensaries, farmers, environmentalists, and other interest groups.
"We're going to be working with groups across the state to ensure all the stakeholders are at the table," she said. "We want to make sure there's one unified voice coming to the voters in 2016. We need to present something that voters will vote for, and something that's actually implementable."
Despite the haze of legal uncertainty, it's clear that California is in the midst of a green rush, and that legalization only stands to accelerate investment activity. A relatively new wave of marijuana startups backed by venture capitalists will likely vie for a seat at the negotiating table as the 2016 initiative is drafted, though some in the industry are wary of their involvement.
"It's inevitable that big farmers will get involved," Michael Steinmetz, founder of Flow Kana, a boutique marijuana brand that touts the sustainability of its product, told VICE News. "Those big fields will be able to produce an high volume of low quality cannabis. But we want to ensure the smaller farmers have a place in the game, because we believe in the importance of high quality, clean and safe cannabis."
Law enforcement groups will likely be the leading opponents of any 2016 pot legalization campaign. While individual officers have differing opinions on the benefits and consequences of legal weed, the Police Chiefs Association, which lobbies Sacramento, the state's capital, resisted prior attempts to legalize, pushing instead for more comprehensive statewide guidelines for medical marijuana.
Out-of-state groups with ideological objections to marijuana legalization could also start pumping cash into an anti-pot campaign. Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson donated $4 million to a political action committee that helped defeat a medical marijuana legalization initiative in Florida in 2014.
Matt Kumin, a lawyer that handles a number of cannabis cases told VICE News that California is surrounded by marijuana-friendly states and unlikely to face a legal challenge similar to the lawsuit filed by Nebraska and Oklahoma over alleged spillover from Colorado's legal pot marketplace.
The federal government could also choose to intervene, though the Obama administration has largely taken a laissez-faire approach to recreational pot in other states.
"There are technical areas of the law the federal government could seek to use," Kumin said. "But if they did the feds would be stuck enforcing drug laws on their own."
Follow Max Cherney on Twitter: @chernandburn