You might say that the cannabis industry is going through growing pains.
Over the past three months I have visited an unpermitted, unregulated cannabis farm and have talked on several occasions with the farmer who has cultivated cannabis commercially since the 1980s. He has been arrested several times, but has never been found guilty or sentenced to jail. He has had a very good lawyer.
Every time I have visited the grower, who I will call “Farmer,” he has said, “I have not yet been busted.” He doesn’t expect to be arrested but he thinks about the possibility of a raid and an arrest every day. He goes to sleep thinking about a raid and he wakes up in the morning thinking about a raid. Every time a helicopter flies overhead he also thinks of a raid.
That near-constant anxiety comes with the territory. The crop that Farmer is growing is not easily accessible; it’s on a steep incline on a remote property. Those factors, he tells me, might preclude a raid and an arrest.
What has been striking to me the several times I’ve visited Farmer isn’t his crop, but his visitors who come from all around the U.S. to buy Sonoma County cannabis on the black market. They come with suitcases filled with cash. They buy hundreds of pounds and they transport it back to the South and the Midwest. None of the traffickers I have met have been arrested.
They have successfully transported cannabis to Mississippi, Alabama, Michigan and Indiana where the price per pound is four and five times what it is here. Farmer sells pounds of his cannabis for $500, less if it’s in bulk.
I asked one middle-aged woman who was buying pounds from Farmer if she herself was transporting it to the Midwest. She said, “No way, not me. The marijuana is transported in big RVs where it’s carefully hidden, and the people driving the vehicles are middle-aged white people who look like Trump supporters.”
I worry that Farmer will be arrested. I have suggested to him that he find another occupation in a legal industry. He told me, “Growing marijuana is all I’ve been doing for 40 years. It’s all I know how to do.”
There are dozens and dozens of cannabis cultivators like him in Sonoma County who have been on the black market for years and who could use occupational training for new and different jobs. Now, many of them are in poverty.
Last month I was interviewed by a wine connoisseur who teaches at Sonoma State University and who asked me why, if California legalized cannabis three years ago this November, there is still a black market. My answer to her was, “President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but as a nation we are still aiming to make civil rights a reality for all.” It will take decades to make cannabis fully legal. After all, it’s still illegal by federal law.
The 421 Group in Sebastopol offers a variety of services to individuals and companies aiming to get out of the black market and enter the legal cannabiz. The 421 Group has experienced some growing pains, but it’s doing quite nicely now.
About 50 or so boisterous folks — none of whom seemed stoned — attended the 421 birthday party on Aug. 23 and talked a lot about hemp, a hot topic now. Hemp looks and smells like cannabis, but has almost no THC, the psychoactive ingredient in the plant. Most of the people in the crowd were connected to the cannabis industry: attorneys Joe Rogoway and Omar Figueroa; and Nancy Birnbaum, the publisher of the North Bay edition of Sensi, a lifestyle magazine that offers news and information about cannabis.
Ex-Santa Rosa mayor Chris Coursey — who is running for a seat on the Board of Supervisors — attended the fete, as did former supervisor Ernie Carpenter. Clearly, local politicians aren’t afraid to appear at cannabis-related events and rub shoulders, publicly, with growers, manufacturers and medical marijuana patients.
No one consumed cannabis in the office during the party. Those who felt the urge went outside.
I came away from the party convinced that Sebastopol’s future is tied to legal cannabis. So does cannabis industry consultant Joanna Cedar, who told me, “A plant is a plant is a plant, whether it’s called hemp or cannabis. THC and CBD are both going to be extracted and sold, hopefully, on an open market that provides genuine access to safe products.”
That future can't come soon enough for Cedar, Rogoway, Figueroa and the team at 421.
Jonah Raskin is the author of Dark Day, Dark Night: A Marijuana Murder Mystery.