Legalization Regulation From the Ground Up: Humboldt County Is Turning Its Black Market Green


Humboldt County is the ideal location for drug policy reform; the problem is that there are too many solutions and a rapidly approaching deadline. The legalization of recreational cannabis use in California is like a train speeding down the tracks to a bridge that hasn’t been built. The bridge could take many forms but the architect’s creativity may be limited to what has been done before–instead of what could be done better. In 2016 California voters will have the unique opportunity to do something better and turn a black market green, both economically and environmentally.

California Cannabis Voice Humboldt (CCVH) is working to pass an ecologically sustainable land use ordinance for Humboldt County that would provide a path to legitimacy for Humboldt County Cannabis Farmers. The work of CCVH and that of other local interest groups seeks to preserve the expert horticulture and grassroots organic living of a region known as the “Emerald Triangle” by both cannabis connoisseurs and the Office of the National Drug Control Policy. Humboldt has a multitude of constituencies (including law enforcement, entrepreneurs, cannabis users, generational growers and local citizens not involved in the industry) who do not want twenty-five percent of the local economy to crash. The one thing all parties can agree on is that cannabis legalization in California will have a disproportionate impact on Humboldt County, a position supported by Jennifer Budwig’s landmark 2011 University of Washington study.

Humboldt County relies on the illegal marijuana industry for 25% of its economy. This does not mean that everyone in the region is involved in illegal activities, but everyone who is involved in the illegal industry participates in other legal industries like grocery shopping, eating out, buying fertilizer, tools, property, and using gas. Budwig estimates that the public services like fire, police and schools are entirely supported by the “round trip dollar” economic boost produced by the legal activities of people involved in the marijuana industry.

This type of heavy reliance on a cash crop is not new for rural America, but encouraging “bottom up” planning is. In January, 2011, then-newly-elected Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper initiated one of the most aggressive “bottom up” economic development planning strategies ever devised in the United States. The strategy was outlined in his Executive Order, which provided that:

             “In order to grow Colorado’s economy, it is vital to engage Coloradans across the state in developing a comprehensive and collaborative approach to economic development. This new approach is designed to identify the needs, priorities, vision, strengths, and weaknesses of each of the state’s counties, and incorporate them into 64 economic development plans, tailored to each county. These plans will roll up into fourteen regional plans that will comprise a comprehensive, statewide economic development plan.”


Two years later when recreational marijuana was legalized in Colorado, each county/city regulated its respective cannabis market, and the cannabis industry created thousands of jobs. It is important to take pause to imagine the future of Humboldt, on the brink of the biggest economic shift of its primary cash crop and the potential gains of the California economy, in deciding how best regulate recreational use. In theory, California could create 58 tailored plans based on the needs, priorities, vision, strengths, and weaknesses of each of the counties.

Humboldt CCVH is advocating protecting small marijuana growers in order to preserve the little guy. At a recent county board of supervisors meeting CCVH packed the house with standing applause when Mr. Bruner encouraged the board to “help the small farmer to understand he doesn’t have anything to be ashamed of. She doesn’t have anything she shouldn’t be proud of.” In support of the proposed ordinance, Bruner, the business manager at the Wonderland Nursery in Garberville,  said that the ordinance and eventual legalization of recreational marijuana could work financial wonders on the county’s economy and tourism industry while preserving its small farms and local businesses.  Bruner cautioned that past legalization in other states have appealed to larger corporate farms and environmentally unsustainable growing practices, and that a continuation of past practices would limit the ability for a county like Humboldt to reap the rewards of what has become its trademark crop.

This is the situation now with medical marijuana, failed retailers and growers have returned to the illegal market because of the legal complications that came from the lack of clear regulatory boundaries or guidelines in the Compassionate Use Act.  CCVH and other advocacy groups want to improve upon medical marijuana regulation and get ahead of recreational cannabis regulatory issues to preserve their way of life, encourage legal activity and help struggling local economies.

In 2016 California voters have a unique opportunity to help Humboldt County turn its black market green. In order to do that we need comprehensive policy reform based on the wealth of knowledge and experience of those living behind the Redwood Curtain. The next blog will take a deeper look into the proposed legislation by CCVH and other proposed solutions from the ground up.

Keri Gross for Drug Law and Policy – Follow us on Twitter @DrugLawPolicy

3 responses to “Legalization Regulation From the Ground Up: Humboldt County Is Turning Its Black Market Green

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