California voters will decide November 8, with the Proposition 64 ballot initiative, whether to legalize marijuana for recreational use — an issue that has sown deep division among longtime growers.
The Costa family and many other pot farmers have yearned for the legitimacy and respectability that growers of legal crops enjoy.
But they also fear Proposition 64 will bring big changes, including costly regulations and taxes, lower prices and the risk that corporate interests could put smaller operations out of business.
In this photo, recently harvested marijuana buds dry at the Costa farm near Garberville, California, October 12, 2016.
“It will end traditional marijuana farming like this,” said Costa, 56, “It will end our way of life.”
That way of life is visible throughout the region. Four-wheel-drive vehicles often disappear down dirt roads to drop off workers and supplies. Indoor grows abound in business-park warehouses in Eureka, the region’s largest city with a population of about 28,000, and in the garages of private homes in nearby affluent neighborhoods.
The Costa family farm is just one of many illegal “grows” that make up Northern California’s famous Emerald Triangle, at the intersection of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties.
Aaron Gonzalez follows a path to harvest marijuana from grower Laura Costa’s farm near Garberville, California, October 12, 2016.
Northern California’s marijuana industry has its roots in the mid-1980s, when the region became a quasi-military zone after President Ronald Reagan declared the war on drugs in 1982.
The next year, the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting — or CAMP — launched to wipe out illegal cannabis production in Northern California, where growers flocked because of its remoteness and temperate climate. The task force was composed of federal, state and local law enforcement officials, who erected roadblocks and often conducted door-to-door searches.
U2 spy planes and satellite images were used to locate illegal farms. Black helicopters dropped camouflaged drug agents armed with automatic rifles into the fields to chop down the crop.
A tag identifies the type of marijuana plant on the medical marijuana farm of Swami Chaitanya and his wife, Nikki Lastreto near Laytonville, October 13, 2016. The couple supports the passage of Proposition 64.
The region soon surpassed Thailand as the United States’ top marijuana supplier, but the CAMP operation drove the industry deeper underground. Skittish farmers formed tightly knit circles that relied on trusted distributors to get their crop to dealers and, ultimately, consumers.
“We trusted one another and relied on handshakes,” says Swami Chaitanya, 73, a longtime grower in remote Mendocino County, about an hour south of Costa’s farm. “Yes, rip-offs occurred. But it was dealt with internally.”
Swami Chaitanya looks out the window while smoking a “grower’s joint” marijuana cigarette at his home near Laytonville, October 13, 2015. In marijuana circles, Chaitanya is a celebrity not only for the quality of his organically grown pot, but for his long beard, flowing white robes and passionate advocacy for the industry.
Chaitanya and his wife, Nikki Lastreto, grow “Swami Select” medical marijuana. He knows there will be competition from large farms with passage, but he believes discriminating consumers will pay a premium for Northern California marijuana.
Nikki Lastreto trims “little buds” from last season’s harvest at her home near Laytonville, October 13, 2016.
Nikki Lastreto trims “little buds” from last season’s harvest at her home near Laytonville, October 13, 2015. Lastreto’s husband, Swami Chaitanya, says the 62-page ballot measure “is not perfect” but can be amended, and he rejects arguments that California should wait for a more grower-friendly law.
“If we wait, we will fall behind,” Chaitanya said.
The Connecticut native and Wesleyan University graduate began growing marijuana shortly after arriving in San Francisco in 1969, during the so-called summer of love. He recalled growing a dozen plants hidden in the gardened terraces of San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill. He bought his Mendocino property 13 years ago.
Young people from around the world flock here for work, many arriving without job offers. They hang out in Arcata’s town square or along the main drag of Garberville, sitting on their camping gear, smoking weed and hoping a farmer picks them up for a job.
“We heard it was fun,” said Rachel Perez, 22, who traveled from Spain with three companions seeking work as trimmers in Garberville, October 12, 2016. They remained optimistic despite going without offers for two days.
Marijuana products, including pre-rolled cigarettes and buds are displayed at the medical marijuana dispensary owned by Tim Blake near Laytonville, October 13, 2016.
Police complain that the seasonal nature of the farming means that many job-seekers go without work, exacerbating homelessness. They also worry about the risk of people driving under the influence of marijuana.
Law enforcement officials are urging voters to reject the measure, but it is leading in polls. Supporters have raised $23 million, compared with $1.6 million by opponents.
Anthony Viator, center, and other workers harvest marijuana plants on grower Laura Costa’s farm near Garberville, October 12, 2016.
Marijuana dries at the medical marijuana farm of Tim Blake, near Laytonville, California, October 13, 2016. Blake supports the passage of Proposition 64, saying it’s the next big step for an industry emerging from the shadows.
When California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996, he said, it ushered in a less-restrictive era in which businesses could start to operate in the open and even attract investors.
The provision also would wipe clean many criminal convictions and stop the prosecution of other marijuana-related crimes.
“It’s time to end criminalization,” Blake said. “There is a lot of fear among farmers, small farmers in general,” about losing their livelihood and “the way things have been. But they’ve already lost that aspect.”
If the proposition fails, Blake argues, California would be in danger of losing its position as the nation’s top-producing marijuana region. Four other states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational pot, and four more states have questions on the November ballot.
“We can’t afford to fall further behind,” he said, giving a tour of his farm.
Tim Blake checks the aroma of a jar of medical marijuana at his dispensary near Laytonville, October 13, 2015.
Farmers are so divided that the California Growers Association, which represents 450 farmers and 350 supporting businesses, voted to remain neutral.
“Nobody, not even the supporters, think this is a home run,” association president Hezekiah Allen said. “A lot of people think California can do better.”
There is no evidence that Wall Street corporations are eyeing California if Proposition 64 takes effect on Jan. 1, 2018. U.S. tobacco companies say they have no plans to jump into the marijuana game.
Nonetheless, Costa and others say it’s only a matter of time before other brands move in, upending a tight-knit community accustomed to doing business on its own terms.
Anthony Viator hangs harvested marijuana buds for drying on grower Laura Costa’s farm near Garberville, October 12, 2015.
Christine Miller sits among some of the 250 marijuana plants on her farm near Benbow, California, October 12, 2016. Miller is concerned about the increase cost to operate her 250-plant farm if California voters approve Proposition 64. She has retained a lawyer and an accountant to help wade through the potential regulatory issues and taxes that might affect her farm.
A conservative, back-of-the-envelope estimate is that each marijuana plant yields a pound of bud. But skilled farmers can usually coax three times that and sometimes more. One pound of Northern California marijuana fetches anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 wholesale. Many farmers use a middleman to transport and distribute the drug to retailers, whether licensed medical dispensaries or corner dealers.
Pre-rolled marijuana cigarettes buds are displayed at the medical marijuana dispensary owned by Tim Blake near Laytonville, California, October 13, 2015.
Users are buying more marijuana-laced baked goods and candy and highly concentrated forms of cannabis called “dab.”
Proposition 64 aims to regulate — and tax — that entire supply chain. Legalizing recreational use will legitimize the drug, leading to even more consumption, proponents argue.
“You’re going to see cannabis grow at levels people can’t even fathom,” Blake said. “It’s going to bring all that business back to California.”
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