Ballot Initiative Could Crush Cannabis Cultivation in Humboldt

Small farmers in California’s famed Emerald Triangle are uniting to defeat a ballot initiative that could devastate what remains of the cannabis industry in Humboldt County. The proposal known as the Humboldt Cannabis Reform Initiative (HCRI) is a 38-page document that, if passed, would establish an effective ban on any changes to existing farms of all sizes within the county’s incorporated areas.

“HCRI has been written to effectively discourage existing permit holders from modifying their permits in any way,” the Humboldt County Planning Department explains in a report analyzing the initiative. “This includes adding infrastructure intended for environmental protections or modification of activities or site configuration to adapt to the evolving industry. These restrictions affect the smallest of farms permitted in Humboldt County to the largest cultivation sites.” 

As written in the initiative—set to appear on the ballot as Measure A—“expansion” is defined as “an increase in the number and size of any structures used in connection with cultivation.” 

Cannabis advocacy groups in Humboldt argue the language around “expansion” would “remove incentives for environmental stewardship.” Waying in on the varying impacts if the initiative were to pass, the county’s planning department states it “will have dire consequences to the cannabis industry in Humboldt County.”

“The existing Humboldt County cannabis regulations are intended to encourage a well-regulated cannabis industry in Humboldt County, but the HCRI could have the opposite effect by making compliance so difficult that the legal market is rendered not viable in Humboldt County,” the county’s analysis states.

The planning department report on the potential impacts of the initiative outlines that the largest farms in Humboldt County range between 7 and 8 acres and states that there are currently four farms at this size. 

“For comparison, in Lake County there are farms in excess of 60 acres and in Santa Barbara and San Bernardino Counties there are farms in excess of 100 acres,” the county report states. “In a statewide market context, Humboldt County does not have large-scale farms.”

Another element of the initiative seeks to cap the allowed cultivation area for cannabis farmers at 10,000 square feet.

“Capping cultivation area at 10,000 square feet will result in all existing permits over that cultivation area becoming legal non-conforming, which means the site cannot be modified,” the county’s analysis explains. “Labeling anything over 10,000 square feet as a large-scale cannabis cultivation when other parts of the state are being approved for cultivation sizes over 100 acres is arbitrary.” 

The initiative is set to be on the March 2024 ballot and small farmers in Humboldt County are working to get the word out that if it passes it will amend the general plan, meaning that the cannabis provisions could only be changed by a vote of the people.

“Our family farm has multiple environmental certifications, but the HCRI would amend the general plan to define my farm as ‘environmentally destructive’ because my farm is larger than a quarter acre,” Dylan Mattole of Mattole Valley Sungrown said in informational materials assembled by the “No on HCRI” campaign spearheaded by the Humboldt County Growers Alliance

At a recent meeting of small farmers against the campaign held in Garberville, Mattole noted that, if passed, the initiative “will be the nail in the coffin” of the cannabis industry in Humboldt County.

“This is not light, it’s offensive, we’re on the defense,” Mattole said at the meeting held in a shuttered restaurant along the small town’s main street. “Our problem has a massive effect on the economy for the whole county.”

The initiative was written by Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger, a law firm which also represented Calaveras Residents Against Commercial Marijuana (an anti-cannabis group that tried multiple times to get a complete ban on cannabis cultivation in Calaveras County) as well as Save Our Sonoma Neighborhoods (an anti-cannabis organization that has sought to ban cannabis in Sonoma County). 

Small farmers against the Humboldt County initiative argue that the wording of the HCRI is designed to appear like it is protecting small farms when, in fact, it would do the exact opposite.

“It is likely that the public does not understand what this initiative would do and signed the petition thinking that ‘large scale’ cannabis farms should not be in Humboldt County without recognizing that most of the so-called ‘large-scale farms’ that would be outlawed if the HCRI passed are the very farms that have existed in Humboldt County for decades,” the county’s analysis of the initiative states. 

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