A corporate takeover of legal weed looms in California

Thousands of small-scale marijuana growers could be replaced by Big Ag.

 

Desdemona Dallas is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. A writer and photographer based in Brooklyn, New York, she learned about the cannabis industry while living in Nevada City, California, a hotspot for cultivating pot.


On Jan. 1, weed aficionados in California were finally able to do what they say they’ve always wanted — legally buy marijuana, no prescription required. But small farmers who had been selling on the black market were not uniformly delighted by the change.

For decades, the illegal weed industry has been a lucrative industry. Then came increasing legalization that created its own boom: In the United States, the total medical and recreational market for pot is expected to hit $2.6 billion in revenue this year, reports the Financial Times. Nine states have now legalized recreational sales, and 29 states have legalized medical marijuana. Colorado alone recorded nearly $4.5 billion in sales since recreational stores opened on Jan 1, 2014.

But many small farmers in California worry about this new world of legal pot. They’ve been the backbone of the industry through the drug-war years of heavy enforcement and heavy penalties, and they know all too well what it’s like to live as outlaws. They now fear that big agriculture will take over the industry that some of them pioneered and worked in for generations.

Under Proposition 64, also called the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, after Jan. 1, 2023, there will be no state cap in California on the size or production amount of marijuana farms. David Bienenstock, former editor of High Times Magazine, fears that this lack of a size limit invites consolidation by corporations with deep pockets. What he’d much rather see are “as many small, sustainable, eco-friendly farms as possible.”

A boutique marijuana farmer waters plants on land outside of Nevada City, California.
Desdemona Dallas

Right now, there are an estimated 50,000 cannabis farms in the state of California. These farms are run by everything from multi-generation families who have worked the same land for decades, to recently formed groups of tech-industry dropouts. It’s no secret that people have flocked to the California hills over the last decade to join what is being called the new California “green rush.”

The black market has allowed growers to earn an exorbitant amount of tax-free wages without ever having to build a business profile or work within legal systems. For many, one of the major draws of the marijuana-farming lifestyle has always been its freedom from government oversight and pesky regulations. But going legal now means paying licensing fees and taxes and wading through paperwork just like any other businessperson.

Jonathan Collier, a director of the Cal Growers Association, lives in Nevada County, home to over 4,000 marijuana farms. He’s lobbied hard to get black-market growers in his area to come out of the shadows and capitalize on being legal. He tells small pot farmers that they can do well if they decide to “position themselves in the artisanal market, establishing branding and higher-quality processes.”

But Collier said many successful marijuana farmers don’t want to go legal because they’ve got “millionaire blinders.” Rather than accept a reasonable income as a legal pot farmer, some want to stay in the background and just keep doing what they’re doing, under cover.

Many of the newly legal growers have joined cooperatives to help process and market their marijuana. The distribution cooperative Allegria, based in Nevada City, north of Sacramento, helps farmers bring their individualized product to consumers. Executive director Michelle Carroll makes this analogy, “People will pay more for craft beer. We go to farmers markets in San Francisco twice a month, and we get to deal face-to-face with the consumers (who) want the best product.”

Marijuana leaves are scattered on the floor where a black-market grower trims new plants.
Brooke Warren

Allegria, which has strict policies against the use of pesticides, has assembled a group of growers who sell direct to a distributor, who then focuses on branding and sales. This allows farmers to concentrate on quality control. “We feel like if we all work together, we will get to a better place,” Carroll said.

“Durban poison,” “strawberry cough,” and “super silver haze” — these are a few of the names buyers will find at dispensaries these days. At the moment, organic and non-organic marijuana seem fairly similar in quality. In some dispensaries, organic marijuana is sold for an even lower price than its non-organic counterpart. Most consumers I’ve talked to say they’re interested in smoking designer, high-end strains; they don’t particularly care about sourcing and growing practices. But this may change as big agriculture starts to move into the business.

As more states legalize the weed industry and corporate consolidation changes the market, only knowledgeable consumers will be able to keep small, boutique farms alive. That means the once-illegal folks on heritage farms have the chance to change the future of cannabis — if they can step out of the black-market they grew up in.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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