Guest Opinion: Local Bans Feed California’s Illicit Production Problem

Published on February 14, 2018 · Last updated July 28, 2020
Business in cannabis
Editor’s note: This op-ed originally ran in the Red Bluff Daily News, the daily newspaper in Tehama County, California.

There’s always an elephant in the room during discussions about Northern California cannabis regulation: an 11-million-pound elephant, to be more precise. That’s the size of California’s annual marijuana export crop, which constitutes more than four-fifths of the state’s total production, according to a study released by the California Department of Food and Agriculture last year.

Up and down Northern California, boards of supervisors and city councils are wrangling over whether to adopt new rules, with almost all of them opting for cannabis bans.

In other parts of the state, businesses are working overtime to get up and running within the new cannabis regulatory system. Some of the friendliest cannabis jurisdictions are unlikely places to grow anything, such as Desert Hot Springs, where the herb is grown in energy-intensive warehouses under artificial light.

Meanwhile, many rural Northern California communities are sharply divided on the question of regulation. Up and down the valley and in the foothills, boards of supervisors and city councils are wrangling over whether to adopt new rules at all, with almost all of them opting for bans, at least temporarily.

The few Northstate towns that have embraced some commercial activity have restricted it to retail sales and limited warehouse-style cultivation and processing. Of the two area localities that have shown the most interest in regulating, neither Shasta Lake City nor the City of Mt. Shasta allows commercial outdoor growing, which has long been the dominant mode in our area.

Using Old, Disproven Arguments

Arguments against regulation often center on concerns about youth access, violent crime, and environmental destruction. While there’s broad agreement that we must minimize such potential negative impacts, it’s usually an unstated assumption that what’s being decided is whether or not to let cannabis into the community.

From that mistaken assumption, it seems to follow that refusing to regulate commercial cannabis will protect kids, reduce crime, and keep the environment clean.

In fact, banning commercial cannabis is about the most harmful possible policy for the Northstate’s communities. It seems reasonable only when we ignore the elephant in the room.

Bans Keep the Illicit Market Alive

Failing to provide a pathway to licensure for existing producers will guarantee that the Northstate is home to a black market worth more than a billion dollars. That’s because the Sacramento Valley and the foothills ringing it—not the North Coast—produce the largest share of California’s marijuana crop: 4.85 million pounds in 2016.

The towns and counties banning cannabis also grow the most of it: The Sacramento Valley and the foothills ringing it produced 4.8 million pounds in 2016.

Much if not most of this marijuana was produced by a diverse array of growers operating under the umbrella of Proposition 215—as many as 60,000 mostly small-scale cannabis farms across the state, according to the California Growers’ Association—and not by the so-called “cartel” operations trespassing in National Forest and private timberland.

Until this year, at least part of that crop was sold lawfully under the state’s medical cannabis laws, but owing to widespread commercial bans, the entire outdoor harvest from our part of the state is barred from the new market. Existing producers face a Hobson’s choice between loss of livelihood and black market activity, with all its attendant dangers.

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To the extent that local producers are instead forced out of business, we can expect to see a corresponding strain on our social safety net, a loss of retail tax revenues in our local businesses as purchasing power declines, and increasing mistrust of law enforcement in rural communities targeted in this war on marijuana.

Not All Farmers Will Thrive in Legal Era

To be sure, there are no easy solutions at this point. Nobody expects all of California’s 60,000 cannabis producers to survive the transition to the new market. And until federal law changes to permit interstate commerce, our state’s export output is destined to draw the ire of the federal government.

But pushing easy solutions has been the dominant approach, as our elected officials have mistaken the new laws’ emphasis on “local control” for a magical power to make cannabis go away. What it actually means is that we have the solemn responsibility to develop an approach that takes into account local circumstances.

It’s not that we’re ignorant of the relevant dynamics. Northstate ordinances banning cannabis commerce regularly note that the area’s “unique geographic and climatic conditions… are favorable to marijuana cultivation. Marijuana growers can achieve a high per-plant yield because of the county’s favorable growing conditions.” That’s a quote from Ordinance 2040, passed by the Tehama County Board of Supervisors last year.

When coupled with state-required testing, taxes, and other regulatory fees, which add several hundred dollars per pound to the wholesale cost of cannabis, the much lower overhead of outdoor cultivation versus artificial light (which accounts for 80% of indoor production costs) creates a strong incentive for unlicensed production to continue.

So what’s the problem? Why don’t our local ordinances consider the negative impacts of pushing producers onto the black market, where the only gardens regulated are the ones that are busted? Why can’t we turn our existing cannabis production into a responsibly managed asset instead of treating it as a problem needing endless resources to deal with?

It’s because we pretend not to see the 11-million-pound elephant in the room.

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Matthew Meyer
Matthew Meyer
Matthew Meyer was born in Mendocino County and grew up in Chico. He holds a PhD in anthropology from the University of Virginia, with a specialization in the cultural aspects of psychoactive plant use. He and his family live in the Northern California town of Manton.
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