A North Coast pro­posal is aimed at en­sur­ing that mar­i­juana grow­ers are reg­u­lated like any other sec­tor

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Lee Rom­ney

WIL­LOW CREEK, Calif. — The park­ing lot at the golf course be­gan fill­ing by evening — a pro­ces­sion of raised trucks coated in back­coun­try dust, an aging red Honda with a “For­ever Stoked” bumper sticker.

But the 150 or so vis­i­tors hadn’t come to this Hum­boldt County hill town to play a round. They were mar­i­juana grow­ers, seek­ing to learn how to do the right thing for wa­ter­sheds in­creas­ingly strained by the state’s epic drought.

Pam­phlets on best prac­tices to achieve sus­tain­abil- ity in the “green rush” and primers on reg­is­ter­ing wa­ter rights cov­ered a ta­ble in­side the bar.

The event was or­ga­nized by Cal­i­for­nia Cannabis Voice Hum­boldt, the 600mem­ber af­fil­i­ate of a statewide po­lit­i­cal ac­tion com­mit­tee formed last year. The theme: step­ping out of the shad­ows to get reg­u­lated.

“I’ve lived my whole life an out­law, and I’m not go­ing to die an out­law,” Pa­trick Mur­phy, a bearded, 38-yearold cul­ti­va­tor who serves as the group’s co-direc­tor of com­mu­nity out­reach, told the crowd. “I’m go­ing to die a farmer, a proud farmer, a far-

mer of cannabis.”

The cel­e­bra­tory pig roast last month, where grow­ers and non-grow­ers min­gled with lo­cal politi­cians, comes as a trans­for­ma­tion of sorts sweeps cannabis coun­try.

Mar­i­juana cul­ti­va­tion is il­le­gal un­der fed­eral law and only nar­rowly per­mit­ted un­der state med­i­cal mar­i­juana law. With as many as 30,000 grow sites in the state’s north­ern coun­ties, se­lec­tive crim­i­nal en­force­ment has long taken place, and that is not ex­pected to change.

But state reg­u­la­tors and lo­cal of­fi­cials in the Emer­ald Tri­an­gle ac­knowl­edge that the old way of do­ing things — which of­ten paired en­vi­ron­men­tal in­spec­tion with crim­i­nal en­force­ment — has not yielded good re­sults. In­still­ing fear in grow­ers, they say, has done lit­tle to en­cour­age them to fol­low sound en­vi­ron­men­tal prac­tices.

The con­cerns in­clude silt runoff from poorly main­tained roads and stream cross­ings, im­proper use of fer­til­iz­ers and pes­ti­cides, il­le­gal wa­ter di­ver­sions and in­ad­e­quate wa­ter stor­age.

The new ap­proach comes as drought threat­ens the en­dan­gered Coho salmon and steel­head trout, law­mak­ers weigh a flurry of pro­pos­als to reg­u­late med­i­cal mar­i­juana, and the ques­tion of le­gal­iz­ing recre­ational pot use is ex­pected to make it onto the Novem­ber 2016 bal­lot.

The North Coast Re­gional Wa­ter Qual­ity Con­trol Board is poised to adopt a pro­gram that would re­quire all mar­i­juana cul­ti­va­tors to reg­is­ter, pay a fee, fol­low strict en­vi­ron­men­tal guide­lines and seek ap­pro­pri­ate per­mits from the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Fish and Wildlife.

Prompted by Gov. Jerry Brown, it is be­lieved to be the first ef­fort of its kind in the na­tion aimed at en­sur­ing that mar­i­juana grow­ers on pri­vate land are treated like any other sec­tor by en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tors, re­gard­less of the le­gal­ity of their crop.

The goal is to bring grow­ers into the fold with col­lab­o­ra­tion and in­cen­tives and not rely solely on en­force­ment once the dam­age is done.

Many Hum­boldt County grow­ers surely will refuse to com­ply. Some are out­siders from as far afield as Bul­garia who care lit­tle for the en­vi­ron­ment or their neigh­bors. Oth­ers have lived through decades of crim­i­nal busts and erad­i­ca­tion cam­paigns and hold fast to their sus­pi­cions of gov­ern­ment.

But a sur­pris­ing num­ber of grow­ers are com­ing aboard, fil­ing for per­mits with state wa­ter and fish and wildlife agen­cies — and an­tic­i­pat­ing a day when the black-mar­ket dol­lars that now flood the county will be le­git­i­mate.

It’s a day, Mur­phy imag- ined for the gath­ered crowd, when bou­tique Hum­boldt County bud branded as “fish-friendly” will make it to mar­ket — and schools and gov­ern­ment pro­grams will be f lush with tax rev­enues from the newly legal sales.

Come le­gal­iza­tion, he added, that might just keep big money in­ter­ests from squeez­ing out thou­sands of Hum­boldt pot farm­ers known for the qual­ity prod­uct they have long pro­duced.

“It’s time for us to show the rest of the com­mu­nity who we are,” Mur­phy said. “We’re your friends, we’re your neigh­bors and, given the chance, we can be the best con­tribut­ing mem­bers of this com­mu­nity.”

A co­or­di­nated deal

The drought has added ur­gency to the reg­u­la­tory push.

Re­search by the state Fish and Wildlife Depart­ment re­leased in March found that de­mand by mar­i­juana-grow­ing op­er­a­tions, es­ti­mated in gal­lons needed per plant, had over­whelmed avail­able wa­ter sup­plies in three of four wa­ter­sheds in Hum­boldt County. Streams had run dry, plac­ing cer­tain threat­ened fish and amphibians at risk.

“We al­ready are ex­ceed­ing the ca­pac­ity of our fish­eries and a big, big piece of that is drought,” said Scott Grea­cen, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the non­profit Friends of the Eel River. “But it’s only in drought that you see what the lim­its of the wa­ter­shed are. We’re there. Big time.”

Com­plaints about grows be­gan to surge five years ago, said Matt St. John, ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of the North Coast wa­ter board. In­spec­tions along with de­mands for cor­rec­tive ac­tion and penal­ties fol­lowed. Fish and Wildlife was do­ing the same. But the prob­lem de­manded a broader, co­or­di­nated so­lu­tion.

Brown took in­ter­est, and a pi­lot project was born, go­ing into ef­fect last sum­mer. The Leg­is­la­ture has funded it through June 2017, though the Mar­i­juana Wa­ter­shed Pro­tec­tion Act writ­ten by As­sem­bly­man Jim Wood (DHealds­burg) would ex­pand it and make it per­ma­nent.

It calls on the agen­cies to work to­gether, ed­u­cate grow­ers and co­or­di­nate en­force­ment ac­tions that fo­cus on bring­ing cul­ti­va­tors into en­vi­ron­men­tal com­pli­ance.

The cen­ter­piece is the

sweep­ing reg­u­la­tory pro­gram now un­der con­sid­er­a­tion by the wa­ter board. A vote is sched­uled for Au­gust.

“I think we’re all aware that this is some­thing com­pletely dif­fer­ent than any­thing we have ever done be­fore,” board mem­ber Wil­liam Massey said at a re­cent meet­ing. “We don’t care if it’s pot or pineap­ples [be­ing grown]. It’s what it does to wa­ter qual­ity.”

In ad­di­tion to reg­is­ter­ing and meet­ing wa­ter-qual­ity stan­dards, grow­ers would have to store enough wa­ter in the win­ter to last from May 15 through Oct. 31, when they would be barred from tap­ping streams.

The Fish and Wildlife Depart­ment, mean­while, al­ready has seen a jump in re­quests for per­mits as they par­tic­i­pate in joint en­force­ment ac­tions with wa­ter board coun­ter­parts.

Of 14 sites vis­ited in Jan­uary in the Eel River wa­ter­shed’s Sproul Creek, which has run dry the last two years, 90% of those tar­geted have since ap­plied, said Scott Bauer, a se­nior en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­en­tist for the Fish and Wildlife Depart­ment.

“Last year we could count them on one hand,” Bauer said. “This year there are con­stant calls.”

Grow­ing com­pli­ance

Key to the pro­gram’s suc­cess are out­side wa­ter­shed ex­perts and civil en­gi­neers who are au­tho­rized to serve as in­ter­me­di­aries, craft­ing wa­ter re­source pro­tec­tion plans and car­ry­ing out needed mit­i­ga­tion.

In­clud­ing them, St. John said, puts more “eyes on the ground,” and far more grow­ers are likely to com­ply if they don’t have to in­vite gov­ern­ment in­spec­tors onto their land.

Praj White, 42, is a civil en­gi­neer who grew up in Hum­boldt’s hills and watched the weed in­dus­try bloom with “hip­pie red­neck open farms,” bur­row un­der­ground dur­ing years of heavy en­force­ment, and now begin to “un­fold back into the day­light.”

The clients he vis­its have ranged from “fairly com­pli- ant,” he said, to new­com­ers who “rented a bull­dozer, found some area best suited to sun” and pro­ceeded to vi­o­late a host of stream and wildlife pro­tec­tion reg­u­la­tions.

On a re­cent day, White met an old-time grower in the Van Duzen wa­ter­shed. Two of his neigh­bors also showed up want­ing eval­u­a­tions and by mid­day “two other trucks came and joined us.”

Grea­cen wor­ried that the grow­ers will­ing to com­ply rep­re­sent “only a frac­tion of the real in­dus­try,” and that agen­cies will never raise the needed dol­lars through fees to prop­erly en­force the myr­iad sites.

The en­vi­ron­men­tal ad­vo­cate is propos­ing that the wa­ter board cap all but the small­est tier of grows by wa­ter­shed, com­pelling cul­ti­va­tors to work to­gether to “fix the stuff you have col­lec­tively wrecked” be­fore grant­ing ad­di­tional per­mits.

But White be­lieves that if a cer­ti­fied “salmon safe” prod­uct can be tracked from farm to a legal mar­ket­place, the good ac­tors will begin to turn in the bad.

More than two years ago, Mur­phy in­vited en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tors onto his land to line up per­mits for an op­er­a­tion that would defy stereo­types of grow­ers as “eco-ter­ror­ists” — one with roads that don’t crum­ble into streams and enough stored wa­ter to get through drought-stricken sum­mers.

The duo has since been work­ing to craft a county cannabis land use or­di­nance for parcels larger than five acres. In April, their group hosted State Board of Equal­iza­tion mem­bers Fiona Ma and Ge­orge Run­ner — who to­gether rep­re­sent 53 of Cal­i­for­nia’s 58 coun­ties — to talk tax­a­tion.

“We’re crav­ing not just reg­u­la­tion but above­ground benefits like crop in­sur­ance, legal routes of sale, tax ID num­bers,” Mur­phy said.

Out of the shad­ows

At the Wil­low Creek event, cul­ti­va­tors used to hid­ing be­hind locked gates chat­ted with wa­ter­shed ex­perts about how to build up their soil to pre­vent nu­tri­ent leach­ing, prop­erly store rain­wa­ter and pro­tect ju­ve­nile salmon.

“It’s fas­ci­nat­ing and ter­ri­fy­ing,” said Terra Joy Carver, 31, who heads the grower group’s women’s al­liance and un­til a few months ago had never told a stranger what she did for a living. “Yet Colorado and Wash­ing­ton are about to tell us how to do this, and take away our whole her­itage. If we don’t stand up for who we are, we will lose it, and it’s not just our liveli­hood, it’s our en­tire com­mu­nity.”

Carver has per­suaded 150 women to sign on and is or­ga­niz­ing train­ing on busi­ness plans, brand­ing and mar­ket­ing. In April, she helped build the Cal­i­for­nia Cannabis Voice Hum­boldt float for the Yes We Cann! pa­rade at Hum­boldt’s Can­nifest — in blaz­ing green.

It was, she said, “like our pride pa­rade.”

Lee Rom­ney Los An­ge­les Times

PA­TRICK MUR­PHY of Cal­i­for­nia Cannabis Voice Hum­boldt urged pot grow­ers to come out of the shad­ows at an event with reg­u­la­tors.

CIVIL EN­GI­NEER Praj White as­sesses a site in Hum­boldt County’s Eel River wa­ter­shed that is home to a mar­i­juana farm. Wa­ter­shed ex­perts and en­gi­neers serve as in­ter­me­di­aries be­tween the state and grow­ers.

Cal­i­for­nia De­par tment of Fish and Wildlife

AMONG EN­VI­RON­MEN­TAL REG­U­LA­TORS’ con­cerns sur­round­ing mar­i­juana op­er­a­tions are silt runoff from poorly main­tained roads and stream cross­ings such as this one in the South Fork Eel River wa­ter­shed.

Luis Sinco Los An­ge­les Times

BUCK­ETS hold­ing fer­til­izer, pes­ti­cides and rat poi­son sit in an en­camp­ment used by pot grow­ers. The new pro­gram would reg­u­late use of such prod­ucts.

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