Humboldt: A Case Study of a Cannabis County – Cannabis Wire

During the second day of the California Cannabis Control Summit, attendees got a glimpse under the hood of one of the most well-known regions in the world when it comes to cannabis: Humboldt County, part of the famed Emerald Triangle. 

Humboldt’s long history with cannabis posed many challenges, John Ford, director of the planning and building department for the County of Humboldt, told attendees. 

After California voters passed Proposition 64 in 2016, legalizing cannabis for adult use, Humboldt took an initial “incentive-based” approach to its sprawling unlicensed cannabis activity. In other words, people were encouraged to get permitted, and come “out of the so-called dark into the light,” Ford said. 

“As we got to the place where the applications started being accepted, literally, the floodgates opened,” he said, noting that they received 2,376 applications almost immediately.

“The thing that was amazing to me was to come to work, and I often get to work at 7 a.m.,  sometimes before, there were actually people standing in line at the door to get in,” he said. 

Ford echoed what regulators and officials during other summit panels have highlighted: sometimes, the regulatory department just can’t keep up with the flood. In some ways, this kind of regulatory hurdle is unique to cannabis, as markets go from illicit to legal. 

“There’s not enough consultants in this community to prepare that many applications, so we accepted the incomplete application,” Ford said. These applications often included, for example, just a “very crude site plan,” and the application fee, usually paid in cash. 

This created another regulatory headache, Ford said. 

“We found ourselves taking in so much cash that we actually had armed security here in the building and we were making three, four runs to the bank to deposit cash,” he said. 

“Overall, what’s happening now, is the industry is becoming normalized in Humboldt County, and people are getting permitted at the local level and are getting licensed at the state level. One of things that is really pleasing to see is Humboldt County leads the state in the number of licenses that have been issued,” Ford said. 

When it comes to lessons learned, Ford said there are too many to fit into one panel, but the one perhaps at the top has to do with leadership, and what happens when the local governing body supports the cannabis industry. While the majority of localities in California still have bans on legal cannabis activity, Humboldt, and its Board of Supervisors, are on the other side of that spectrum. Even with disagreements within the board on how to govern many aspects of the county, one area of agreement was on cannabis, Ford said. 

“On this very point, when it comes to cannabis, they were very cohesive. They spoke as one voice. There was no disagreement there. And for the director of a department, it made my job very easy to implement the policies, procedures, regulations, and adapt to changes that needed to be made, because I knew what the board wanted,” he said. “Their leadership was cohesive and it was visionary and enabled me and the department to really do something that was nearly impossible.” 

Ford said that while he had experience as a government planner, he had to learn that that didn’t really matter. 

“Everything that I’ve learned in all the years I’ve been working as a planner in government really could be thrown out the window. And I needed to understand that this was a new reality and things needed to be done differently,” he said. 

Ford also described the illegal cannabis cultivation that has been underway in the region for years, and how these growers had learned to work in the shadows, without regulation, and “they did not really care much for government intervention.” These growers destroyed “big swaths of forest” and degraded hillsides, he said. In addition to developing a more robust code enforcement program, regulators began to administer “very large penalties,” for example, to applicants who started growing before they received their permit, or expanded beyond the scope of their application. 

In the two and a half years that a code enforcement unit has been in existence in the region, they started the Humboldt Environmental Impact Reduction program, which uses satellite imagery to identify illicit cannabis grows, grading violations, and building violations. Cannabis cultivation fines can be steep. After an ordinance change, regulators can now fine unlicensed cultivators $10,000 per day. So far, the group has identified 972 of these sites. 

A final lesson: beware of charlatans, or those who take advantage of people. Ford described people who came into the area when they recognized a lack of expertise in terms of people who could help growers navigate the government process. 

“So, they offered their services, oftentimes requiring that people pay them $50,000 upfront just to start work on their application. And not only did they not get people through the process, they made it very expensive for people to try to get through the process. And that really resulted in many people giving up and becoming discouraged by the process,” Ford said. 

Ford also described two scenarios unique to Humboldt County. Part of an ordinance required that new cultivation occur on “prime agricultural soils,” or what the U.S. Department of Agriculture describes as “land that has the best combination of physical and chemical characteristics for producing food, feed, forage, fiber, and oilseed crops and is available for these uses.” What this meant in practice in Humboldt is that prime agricultural soils were found “in all kinds of places, oftentimes, and in small places up in the forest where you wouldn’t expect.” Soil scientists, Ford said, made a ton of money finding these soils for potential permitted cannabis growers. These soils were also often found close to communities. 

“We had people applying for cannabis cultivation and relocating cannabis cultivation down out of the hills and in the areas that we’re very close to community areas and very close to cities. That elicited a bit of a culture war and has been very controversial,” Ford said. 

Another ordinance sought to mitigate the impact that cannabis cultivation has on archeological and tribal areas, of which Humboldt has many, so the county decided on a 600 foot setback requirement from these areas. A tribe identified a “huge ceremonial site,” which resulted in 22 different existing cultivation sites “needing to be just moved out of there.” 

The final lesson that Ford shared? 

“It’s all about community and ultimately it’s all about the people who live in the community. Understanding their needs, understanding the fear, understanding their abilities, and trying to work to help the community get to where it wants to be.” 

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