Despite a strong showing in pre-election opinion polling, Proposition 19 was defeated by 53.5 percent of the vote last November. Pundits are still dissecting the exact cause of the measure's demise. But Prop 19's very appearance on the ballot, Mark Lovelace told me when we first met last fall, "was a point that, to me, made this situation much easier to talk about."
This January, Lovelace, a former environmental activist who cut his teeth fighting to save old-growth redwoods here, became chairman of the county board of supervisors. He is soft-spoken and slightly buttoned-down. He hardly qualifies as a cannabis crusader, but he's frank about the realities in this part of the world.
Humboldt County faces one of the classic conundrums of rural areas throughout the West. Its government services are subsidized by people in urban centers elsewhere in the state. Only 16 percent of the county government's revenue comes from local taxes; nearly 70 percent comes from the state and federal governments. That has put the county in a tight spot as those budgets have imploded over the past two years.
Right now, marijuana money shows up on the county's books only in roundabout ways -- primarily as sales tax when a grower buys groceries, or fertilizer, or a new truck, or ducks into the gas station for a Mountain Dew. "I don't think we need to have a firm number to know that it's an important part of our economy," Lovelace said. "And we also don't need to know that number to know that there are issues we need to regulate."
As such, the county is continuing to develop regulations specifically for medical marijuana. Those will likely require growers to comply with everything from product labeling to workers' compensation, and set up a structure for taxes and fees. Lovelace is the first to admit that such far-reaching oversight isn't always welcome.
"Being illegal has been a wonderful barrier to regulation," he laughed. "There are going to be a lot of people who are going to be pining for the good old days, when the only thing they had to worry about was getting busted."
But growers would benefit from the bargain, too. Humboldt is home to a thriving microbrew industry, and Lovelace is fond of pointing out that the government had helped breweries in their efforts to market their products to an outside world thirsty for craft beer with a good story behind it. With pot, the county could essentially give a Good Housekeeping Seal to local growers who follow good farming practices. "The folks that want to be good growers? Those are the people we want to work with," Lovelace said. "We'll be doing what we can to try to support them as an export product that's compatible with our values."
Government "support" of good growers would also include diverting even more of the law-enforcement muscle away from locals and onto the large-scale Mexican grows. "If they do it right," one prominent grower explained to me, "we can cut the cartels out."
Lovelace said as much himself. If recreational marijuana use was legalized, he pointed out, the massive Mexican pot ranches carved out of remote public lands and out-of-the-way private timber holdings "will be every bit as illegal as they are today. And all of a sudden, you have a legal industry that is saying, 'We want you to go after those guys, because that's our unfair competition.' "
People in California's marijuana business delicately refer to what they call a "lack of alignment" between state and federal policy. Today, a medical marijuana garden that is legal under state law can, under federal law, still be prosecuted as a major felony. And the gap between the state and federal worldviews is widening again, causing a distinct sense of unease that the feds may see the defeat of Proposition 19 as a mandate to finally bring the state to heel.
Indeed, this year federal officials have taken a more aggressive stance. The city of Oakland, never a place to tiptoe around a social issue, has been preparing to issue licenses for several indoor medical-marijuana farms, each bigger than a football field. In February, Melinda Haag, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California, wrote to Oakland's city attorney to remind him that the federal government still views marijuana as a Schedule I drug -- the bad kind. Haag warned that "we will enforce (the Controlled Substances Act) vigorously against individuals and organizations that participate in unlawful manufacturing and distribution activity involving marijuana, even" -- in a seeming reversal of the federal government's position -- "if such activities are permitted under state law."
The Department of Justice followed up that letter with a barrage of similar messages to Colorado, Montana, Arizona and Washington, and in March, federal agents raided several marijuana dispensaries in Montana. To make sure the point was clear, in June, Deputy Attorney General James Cole issued yet another memorandum, about the Justice Department's position nationwide, writing: "Persons who are in the business of cultivating, selling or distributing marijuana, and those who knowingly facilitate such activities, are in violation of the Controlled Substances Act, regardless of state law."
The Treasury Department, meanwhile, has begun dismantling the basic business infrastructure that medical marijuana dispensaries rely on. This spring, banks holding accounts for dispensaries received a wave of letters threatening to revoke their FDIC insurance, and big banks such as Wells Fargo have since been closing such accounts.
As Humboldt County officials slowly move forward with their medical marijuana regulations -- an effort that will likely take at least another year -- some wonder whether they should see the Justice Department's recent statements as a warning to hold off. When I talked with Lovelace again in July, he sounded exasperated. "Frankly, the federal position isn't doing anything to actually help us with the issue," he said. "I just don't think they get it."
Anna Hamilton, for her part, has become disillusioned with the slowness of the process, and with HUMMAP, the group she helped to start. In fact, when I spoke with her this summer, she had practically become a cheerleader for the rival Growers Association. "They're putting thousands of dollars into political campaigns up here," she said. "And HUMMAP, meanwhile, can't raise 40 bucks at a meeting with 60 people."
Indeed, the Growers do seem to be building steam. After Bonnie Neely, the county supervisor, lost her re-election bid last fall, they hired her as a consultant. Paul Gallegos, the district attorney, won his re-election campaign, but ended up $47,000 in debt; this July, the Growers co-sponsored a fund-raising dinner for him in Sacramento.
The road ahead is undeniably longer and more complicated than Max Del Real predicted. But Humboldt's growers are used to biding their time. They've been doing it for 40 years.
Robert Grant is keeping a close eye on the Growers Association's progress. After Proposition 19 was defeated, the Growers scaled down their proposed regulations to apply only to medical marijuana. But, Grant points out, their proposal is carefully written so that if -- or when -- recreational use is finally legalized, it can easily apply to a much bigger market.
"It's so seamless," he says, "it's beautiful."
This coverage is supported by contributors to the High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund.
High Country News Contributing Editor Matt Jenkins has written for the magazine since 2001. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Smithsonian and several other national publications.