Growing Pains

By Matt Leingang

Editors Note: This story includes discussions of drug use and may contain foul language. While it has been edited through Associated Press Guidelines, some readers may find this offensive. This story was submitted to The Advocate through Chris Walker’s Digital Storytelling class, it is part of a ten-part series of stories examining Minnesota’s legalization of Marijuana. Each story investigates the background and implications that come with the legalization. The series, which began on April 28th, will run until May 5th.

Photo illustration by Abby Makay

A cautious buzz meandered through the ancient woodlands of northern California, up from the dense thicket and onto winding forest service roads. The report of a shotgun echoed across the canyon, an indication of the nature of the outlaws toiling in the hills. Where once laborers flocked in droves at the prospect of gold, their contemporary counterparts have traversed the backcountry in pursuit of green.

 The legalization of cannabis for recreational use in the state in 2016 had many decades-long farmers thrilled at the promise of converting their formerly illicit operations into legitimate businesses. In the six years since the legislation was approved, optimism slowly waned as the reality of the free enterprise system burdened the nascent industry.

A whirl of bureaucratic missteps and failures would stifle many of these once bullish growers. Larger firms backed by venture capitalists currently define the commercial landscape of legal operations. Of the 8,338 licenses for cultivation, 10 firms combine for 1,862 (22%) of them, according to a LA Times analysis of California state data.

The cost incurred by small growers to comply with state and local regulations is astronomical, as many of them operate with low overhead due to sustained operations honed over decades. Coupled with the recent influx of marijuana into the market by larger firms, many smaller ones have gone under. Many growers have opted out of the legal market, choosing instead to remain underground, though they continually face unprecedented difficulties.

Kelly and her partner Adams maintained their own off-grid farm in Lake County, north of the San Francisco Bay Area, from 2014 to 2021. A full outdoor season lasts from March to November. Constant trips up from the Bay early in the season segue into living on the property full time starting in September. The three-month harvest necessitates grueling 12-hour days to complete and has no shortage of maddening moments-ranging from thwarting roaming wildlife to mitigating personal injuries and ailments of the body and mind.

 The nine-month long season to produce one outdoor crop is also being undercut with the advent of the light deprivation technique. By controlling the hours of light the plants receive, they can be tricked into thinking the shorter light periods of autumn are beginning, thus speeding up the flowering process. This in turn allows multiple crops to be harvested per year, directly contributing to the flood of the market. Larger firms use fully-automated light deprivation systems with costs easily reaching into the tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars depending on the scale of the operation.

Beyond monetary constraints and competition in an exponentially expanding industry, guerilla farmers who seek legal status must go through a strenuous licensure process.

“The legalization process is completely dysfunctional,” Adams said. “And if even you can manage to scrape it [the money] up, you’re subjected to all this weird sh- that is so disorganized that it often doesn’t work out in anybody’s benefit except the people that get to split your money for the permits.”

Adams is referring to the state and local agencies that seemingly collude with lobbyists to award licensures. It’s but one example of political corruption in the burgeoning industry that has come under fire recently. Allegations involving a “pay-to-play” bribery scandal have led to plea agreements and political resignations, with more accusations on the horizon.

In addition to the political and economic shortcomings of legalization, an environmental toll is being taken. The regulation of chemicals used in the cultivation process is an administrative oversight. In the absence of such directives, and in an effort to maximize output, a variety of ecological atrocities are committed.

“One of the main things they were worried about when the legal stuff started happening is making sure people weren’t ruining groundwater systems,” Kelly said. ““They’re dumping all kinds of nasty stuff in the water.”

She relayed a story about an inspector tasked to examine such occurrences at a legal startup. The surveyor inquired about the presence of rattlesnakes on the property. The inhabitants confirmed that the snakes did indeed frequent the farm. The inspector, ostensibly shaken, told them they were “all good” and verified he would sign off on the requisite documents. He got in his car and left without further discussion or incident.

A paradigm shift is underway from growers who’ve long considered themselves stewards of the earth (and act accordingly in their farming practices), to the modern example of marijuana industrialization abetted by plutocracy. This is as stark a contrast as the once lush old-growth forests that have succumbed to the pitfalls of climate change, leaving an arid, dry and fire-prone region in its wake.

“Last year, one of the big weed companies started a fire in Redwood Valley because they were using a lawnmower in July,” Kelly said.

“In the already drought-stricken California wilderness,” Adams added. “There’s not much in the way of safety foresight because the money they’re expecting is what they care about.”

As the transformation continues, the couple fear that communities beyond the locality will be affected by the loss of capital from their trade. Within their network, people were able to funnel their profits from illegal growing operations into community-based initiatives.

“People traveled out here [to work] and went back to other cities and made alternate realities possible,” Adams said. “It opened up time, so that you were out from under the heel of the landlord…getting things off the ground that would otherwise take forever to raise funds for.”

In the end, it was the downward trend in income that forced the couple to walk away from the vocation. They headed north with their loot and purchased an eight-acre plot on the Olympic peninsula in western Washington. With the agricultural knowledge gained from the nearly decade spent in the Golden State boondocks, they hope to start an organic farming campaign that functions to feed underprivileged members of their new community.

California had lofty aspirations of becoming a national example of how a once criminal undertaking could be rehabilitated. Instead, it yielded to the perils of the free market, an increasingly American trope that’s become synonymous with the modern age. Having experienced the abundance of setbacks, along with jurisprudence that functions to aid the already wealthy, growers are leaving their steadings en masse. They’re divesting from the trade and investing in communities, harkening back to a simpler and more renegade style of living that once characterized the venture.

“The weed thing is a perfect example of how the system swoops down and destroys anything that makes sense and starts ruining people to suck profit,” Adams said. “It’s not like anything was perfect in ‘weed world’ before that, but there was a culture that had grown up over the decades of people who looked out for each other and were artisan producers of fine cannabis.”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.