Before shaking hands with the political establishment, most small-town chambers of commerce will dress to impress. To meet California's most electric politician last Friday, the entrepreneurs and workers in the heartland of the country's fastest-growing industry donned Carhartt work jeans and wide-brimmed sun hats, in some cases still dirty from the morning's work in the family cannabis patch — their version of “business casual.”
That was fine with Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. For his daylong visit to Garberville in remote southern Humboldt County, he was dressed down, too, having swapped his suit with trademark open-collar shirt for a pullover, jeans, and sneakers. He'd just come from a tour of a marijuana garden himself, and was now ready to present an unprecedented opportunity to the crowd of 200 farmers, hash-makers, and edibles bakers stuffed into a small community theater: to listen to what they had to say about legalizing marijuana, the basis for the local economy.
All of this direct engagement with once and current outlaw farmers was unthinkable 20 years ago; it's simple retail politics today. Newsom was joined in the visit to Garberville by U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman (the “official” host of the proceedings, who was quickly and hopelessly eclipsed) whose district, stretching from Marin County to the Oregon border, includes tens of thousands of marijuana farms, big and small, legal and illegal.
Huffman recognizes that he needs these people's votes to stay in office — and Newsom, the state's highest-profile supporter of legalized recreational cannabis, is counting on their support to help him succeed Gov. Jerry Brown in 2018.
This is why he's positioning himself as the marijuana industry's advocate, angling to be the “voice” for cannabis farmers in the buildup to next year's expected legalization ballot initiative, he told the Eureka Times-Standard.
What that voice will say is yet to be determined. Newsom chairs a 21-member American Civil Liberties Union panel. In less than two months, that panel will issue “recommendations” on how to best move forward with legalizing marijuana in California. Garberville's meeting follows public meetings in Los Angeles and Oakland; there was a fourth meeting in Fresno earlier in the week.
The ACLU recommendations may end up on the ballot in 2016. They also might not. There might not be any ballot initiative at all, a growing possibility that is oftentimes neglected in the stampede to cash in on the state's latest “green rush.”
It's at least clear that attitudes in the Emerald Triangle, the nickname given to California's pot-producing counties, have shifted sharply. There's a half-serious separatist movement in this area. And on the flag of the “state of Jefferson” are two X's to represent a “double-cross” by distant politicians who take in tax revenue and provide little in return. But when Luke Brunner, a well-known local activist with the advocacy organization California Cannabis Voice asked the crowd, “Who here wants to pay their taxes?,” all the people in the room raised their hands.
Five years ago, when the state had the shot to be the first in the country to allow recreational cannabis for adults, bumper stickers reading “Keep cannabis illegal” were popular here. There were fears that legalized marijuana — a pound could fetch $2,500 on the medical market — would lead to a price crash and end the best economic times here since logging was king. So cannabis was kept illegal, and prices crashed anyway, to $1,100 a pound or less. Nobody wants to see that, not even local law enforcement. The problem is that nobody in power — not Humboldt County Sheriff Mike Downey, and not Huffman or Newsom — wants to preserve the once-hallowed status quo. “It's not working,” Newsom said. “It's untenable.”
In the meantime, nobody in power in California has done much to make things easier. “We have a Legislature that does not want to engage this issue,” Downey said.
Just how far apart lawmakers are from their cannabis-producing constituents became clear when the meeting's first conflict broke out — over what word to use for the cash crop.
Newsom and Assemblyman Jim Wood, the local representative in Sacramento, took heat for using the word “marijuana” — which, some attendees reminded the VIPs, has its roots in 1930s anti-Mexican reefer madness. Wood said he'd try to remember to use “cannabis,” but offered his own caveat: In Sacramento, where the rules on recreational marijuana must somehow be crafted, nobody knows what “cannabis” is, let alone what to do about it.
Fights are already brewing. There's legislation in Sacramento that may finally put a state agency in charge of California's mostly unregulated billion-dollar medical marijuana industry. That agency is Alcoholic Beverage Control. But putting the booze police in charge of weed is a “repugnant” deal-breaker for most growers, as third-generation Mendocino farmer Casey O'Neill put it.
For a moment, the confusion and uncertainty took a back seat to Newsom's undeniable star power. In Newsom's presence, men listened, attentively and jealously — one VIP half-joked that having to follow Gavin was like “following Moses” — and women “swooned,” as the popular Lost Coast Outpost put it. He was here, he said, because, “You don't know anything until you've been to Humboldt.” Wild applause ensued.
Later, holding court with reporters from across the state, Newsom was more reticent. There's no timetable on drafting legalization ballot language. There's not even certainty as to who will write it — or if it happens at all in 2016. There are just questions — and one tall politician, surrounded by admirers in Carhartts, smelling faintly of terpenes.