GARBERVILLE, Calif. — Laura Costa’s son and husband moved quickly with pruning shears as they harvested the family’s fall marijuana crop, racing along with several workers to cut the plants and drop them in plastic bins ahead of an impending storm.
The farm, hidden along a winding mountain road in a remote redwood forest, is just one of many illegal “grows” that make up Northern California’s famous Emerald Triangle, a marijuana-producing mecca at the intersection of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties.
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California voters will decide Nov. 8 whether to legalize marijuana for recreational use — an issue that has sown deep division here among longtime growers. The Costas and many fellow pot farmers have yearned for the legitimacy and respectability that could be bestowed by legalization. But they also fear Proposition 64 will bring costly regulations and taxes and could put them out of business if corporate interests and big farms take over.
“It will end traditional marijuana farming like this,” said Laura Costa, sitting in the middle of one of four 40-plant gardens, puffing on a glass pipe. “It will end our way of life.”
That way of life is visible throughout the region. Four-wheel-drive vehicles hauling propane for farm generators roll up and down the dirt roads, dropping off workers and supplies. In Eureka, the largest nearby city, indoor growing operations abound in warehouses and garages.
Young people from around the world flock here for work, many arriving without job offers. They come with camping gear and cardboard signs announcing their desire to help harvest.
Police complain there are more people than jobs, exacerbating a homeless problem. Eureka Police Chief Andy Mills also worries about the danger of drugged drivers.
To Mendocino County grower Tim Blake, Proposition 64 is 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 deep-pocketed investors.
He endorses the provision that wipes clean many criminal convictions and stops the prosecution of many 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, the state in general and Northern California in particular 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 while giving a tour of his farm.
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.”
Allen helped craft the 62-page measure and said the association is responsible for the prohibition against marijuana farms larger than an acre during the first five years of legalization. He said “that should be enough time” for small farmers to come out of the shadows, get licensed and get on making a living legally.
There is no evidence that Wall Street corporations are eyeing California if Proposition 64 takes effect on Jan. 1, 2018. The two biggest U.S. tobacco companies — Altria and R.J. Reynolds — say they have no plans to jump into the marijuana market.
Nonetheless, Costa and others said, it’s only a matter of time before other brands such as those named for singer Willie Nelson and comedians Cheech and Chong move in, upending a tight-knit community accustomed to doing business on its own terms.
Christine Miller is concerned about the impact on her 250-plant farm in Benbow. “It’s going to cost me way more to operate,” she said. “I can’t afford it.”
For the first time, Miller said, she has retained a lawyer and an accountant to help wade through the potential regulatory issues and taxes.
At harvest time, most farms follow the same general routine: Workers cut bud-bearing branches from plants that can reach as high as 16 feet. Most are 6 to 8 feet.
The branches are then hung in a dark shed or barn for about a week until the buds are dried. That’s when trimmers are called in to separate the valuable buds from the rest of the plant and make them ready for market.
A conservative, back-of-the-envelope estimate is that each marijuana plant yields 1 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 pound at wholesale. Many farmers use a middleman to transport and distribute the drug to retailers, whether licensed medical dispensaries or corner dealers.
The drug often changes hands several times, getting marked up repeatedly, before it’s consumed. What’s more, alternative ways of getting high are becoming increasingly popular. 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 use and consumption, proponents argue.
“You’re going to see cannabis grow at levels people can’t even fathom,” Blake said.