Illegal marijuana accounts for a quarter of Humboldt County’s economy — at least. Legal pot is coming to California whether we agree with it or not. Plan now or fail.
While Proposition 19, the Golden State’s last attempt at legalizing marijuana, only garnered 46.5 percent of the vote in 2010, times have changed. Since 2012, the movement to end marijuana prohibition has scored victories in Colorado and Washington state, with more recent wins this month legalizing cannabis for personal use in Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C. A measure this November to legalize marijuana for medical use in Florida failed to secure the supermajority required for its passage, but only by under 3 percent of the vote. Movements are underway in Arizona, Massachusetts, Missouri, Maine, Nevada — and yes, California — to put the question to voters by 2016.
The momentum is clear. Time is on pot’s side. What’s this mean for Humboldt County?
While some folks paint a rosy picture of Humboldt’s future as the Napa of marijuana country, according to a report on travel spending commissioned by the California Travel & Tourism Commission and the Governor’s Office of Business Development, we’ve got a long way to go. Between 1992 and 2012, for example, Napa County saw total direct travel spending rise from $358 million to $1 billion. In the same time period, Humboldt County saw total direct travel spending rise 40 percent — to a grand total of $339 million.
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If Humboldt County plans on embracing its future as a cannabis destination, let alone preserving its role as a major marijuana production center, it has to get serious about improving its transportation infrastructure. We’re too remote to offer ourselves as a premier tourism destination on one airline alone.
As for marketing Humboldt weed in a post-legalization world, there may indeed be a market of cannabis connoisseurs, but will it be large and discriminating enough to support at least a quarter of our economy? How many of you who enjoy a good glass of sparkling wine on New Year’s or Sunday brunch actually insist on the stuff from Champagne, France?
If you do want to place a bet on the success of branding Humboldt weed, be realistic.
If you don’t — if you oppose the legalization that’s knocking on California’s doorstep, or if you welcome the demise of Humboldt’s Green Rush — what have you got to replace it? A survey done earlier this year by the Humboldt Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research showed that one in six Humboldt State students surveyed had worked in the marijuana industry. Institute co-director and HSU economics professor Erick Eschker estimates a similar percentage of Humboldt County’s overall population works in the marijuana industry as well.
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Consider those numbers in tandem with Jennifer Budwig’s landmark 2011 University of Washington study, which concluded that marijuana money accounted for roughly 26 percent of the county’s entire $1.6 billion economy.
As Budwig wrote in 2011, “There is a high probability marijuana will be legalized at some point and there most likely will be an economic fallout to this county because of it.”
The good news is that some folks are trying to plan ahead.
It’s been about a year since 1st District Humboldt County Supervisor and board president Rex Bohn acknowledged the facts on the ground in Humboldt County in statements to both the Sacramento Bee and to this newspaper. Since that time, both the Board of Supervisors and the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board have stepped up to address, respectively, neighborhood nuisances caused by the excessive cultivation of medical marijuana in unincorporated areas and water quality issues and pollution caused by marijuana growing in creeks across the North Coast — steps on the long march away from prohibition and toward regulation.
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Still more promising work is being done by California Cannabis Voice Humboldt. The organization is currently gathering input from cannabis farmers, environmentalists, county officials, bankers and other stakeholders in an effort to formulate a marijuana ordinance to bring before the Board of Supervisors, which would provide local growers with legal guidance for permitting and license requirements.
While much work remains to be done, it’s encouraging to see that both our elected officials and county stakeholders seem to be taking the issue seriously. Humboldt County’s already weathered massive changes to its once-mighty lumber industry. We cannot afford, in all senses of the word, to be bystanders as legalization looms over our economy. When it comes to the end of cannabis prohibition, the train is leaving the station. Better to hop on board and find a good seat than to stand unmoving on the tracks as the future rolls over us.