Erika D. Smith

Keeping the pot market cornered in the Emerald Triangle

If authorities now suspect marijuana impairment in motorists, they have to rely on blood or urine tests that can take weeks for confirmation. But the Cannibuster, using saliva, will provide a reading for the level of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in a few minutes on a device that’s about the size of a smartphone.
If authorities now suspect marijuana impairment in motorists, they have to rely on blood or urine tests that can take weeks for confirmation. But the Cannibuster, using saliva, will provide a reading for the level of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in a few minutes on a device that’s about the size of a smartphone. AP

There was the bald guy with a gray, frayed ponytail. The woman in the tie-dye shirt. The guy with a hemp sombrero. The dude who smelled like he hadn’t showered in a week, and the guy who looked and smelled like he’d been smoking weed for about that long.

And then there was Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Normally looking too cool for school in a suit and tie, he was sweating in jeans and a sweatshirt last Friday at a packed playhouse in Garberville.

Newsom, long supportive of legalizing marijuana in California, wanted to come to the heart of cannabis country to hold the latest in his series of public forums on the hotly debated topic. He wanted to get the real story.

He and others with the Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy weren’t disappointed.

Dozens of people from the Emerald Triangle of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties showed up, many of them loggers turned farmers determined to protect their livelihood.

Indeed, the county’s livelihood. At least one study has found marijuana accounts for one-fourth of Humboldt County’s economy. Which, if you think about it, clarifies why the Hemp Connection shop takes up prime real estate in downtown Garberville.

If people in California think legalizing pot is still up for debate, they probably don’t live in the Emerald Triangle. Even with legislation to regulate medical marijuana slogging its way through the Assembly this week, they aren’t worried.

Indeed, to the tie-dye-wearing, pickup truck-driving folks in redwood country, it’s not a matter of if marijuana will become legal for recreational use, but when. And the only thing more important than when is how.

How can California regulate pot in such a way that small farmers can keep their hard-earned share of the market in the face of new competition?

How can middle-class farmers in the Emerald Triangle compete with lobbyists throwing around money in Sacramento?

How will water rights figure into all of this?

And how can they convince lawmakers to stop using the word “marijuana”? Because, you know, there’s “marijuana and cannabis. Those are two words with two very distinctive meanings. Marijuana is a derogatory term based in racism.”

Didn’t know that? Yeah, me neither.

A guy named Stephen Gieder, who was wearing a “Keep Humboldt Green” T-shirt, told Newsom and the rest of us Humboldt County outsiders that. Something about law enforcement agents choosing a sinister-sounding word for cannibis to pursue the war on drugs, which, of course, was mostly waged on blacks and Latinos.

Judging by the applause from cannabis farmers, I’m guessing there’s some truth to his assertions. But I’ll admit most of the debate about pot and the legalization of it is new to me.

That’s because I spent the last decade of my life in Indiana, a Midwestern state where, just days after I moved to California to start work at The Sacramento Bee, legal experts were warning residents not to smoke weed while on vacation this summer. If so, the experts told one of my former colleagues, residents could face arrest or lose their jobs.

Meanwhile, my neighbor in my downtown Sacramento apartment building blazes up on a daily basis. I think I’ve seen as many people smoking weed here as I have drinking alcohol.

But I take comfort in knowing that despite the seeming ubiquity of a drug that’s still technically illegal, there are a lot of people in California who don’t know a lot about this issue and are very wary of it. That came out during the Blue Ribbon Commission’s earlier forums in Los Angeles and Oakland, and might again during a forum Wednesday in Fresno.

Even Newsom, who has been studying the hurdles to legalizing pot for years, says he learns something new almost every week. Last week, of course, was that the word “marijuana” is racist.

“You have to respect people’s anxiety in this,” he said.

That said, legalization does seem to be the only answer that makes sense for California at this point. The drug is everywhere here, and it’s not going anywhere. Why not regulate and tax it? Creating policies that work for people instead of against them is the challenge. The details will be everything.

Lawmakers should do what they can to protect small farmers who’ve invested their lives in the business. It’s a tremendous task and, in truth, one that might not be doable. But it’s worth a shot to avoid wrecking the lives of people like Jonathan Baker, a 25-year-old second-generation cannabis farmer who got up and spoke from his heart.

“Everyone who is here is here because we do not want big industry to be the only people doing this. … I want to urge you guys to make this accessible to people like me. I don’t have millions of dollars,” he said. “A lot of knowledge has been created up in these hills. We just don’t want to see our livelihood stolen from us.”

Nor should they.

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