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"We're at the beginning of the end of Prohibition"

October 20, 2021 — With the repeal of the latest cannabis ordinance and deadlines looming, legacy growers are facing more uncertainty than ever. Growers have until the end of the month to submit their applications — again — through an online portal, and the end of the year to get licenses from the state. The moratorium on Phase III growers under the original cannabis ordinance, which has been reinstated, expires in March. And growers have been shelling out tens of thousands of dollars on environmental consultants and engineers to satisfy the state’s requirements, especially from Fish and Wildlife.

“It’s been a horrendous experience,” said Clifford Morford, a legacy grower who co-founded Heartrock Mountain Farm in Potter Valley with his son Daniel. They have been on the road to compliance for four years. Daniel is the optimistic one, though he compares the current historical moment to watching the Ranch Fire creep across the ridgelines to the edges of his farm, where fought it off with the help of friends and family. “I feel like something’s coming that’s going to change the face of the cannabis industry in California,” he reflected. He used another analogy to describe what he thinks the  moment calls for: “It’s the fourth quarter,” he said. “And we’ve gotta throw a Hail Mary, gotta send one deep, score a touchdown, do a two-point conversion, and then maybe do a side kick and a fumble recovery and a field goal.”

“I have less hope than Daniel does,” his father admitted.  “He says we’re gonna make it, and we might. I’m gonna do everything I can to make it happen. But I have a feeling that one day we’re gonna wake up, and oh, it’s over. And they won’t care, the powers that be. It’ll be easier to administer their program with five big farms in Salinas and a dozen down in Santa Barbara, and they’ll grow all the weed we need, and everybody will be happy, except those that want the experience of smoking our weed.”

The Morfords spent $12,000 to engineer two stream crossings in pursuit of a lake and streambed alteration permit (LSA) from Fish and Wildlife. That’s not quite half of what the LSA has cost them so far, since it includes work on a pond and some planning and replanning of culverts. Daniel says they’re still sitting on some product from last year, but not as much as some of their friends. They don’t even know what the price will be this year. As Daniel got up to let the dogs out, Cliff made a key distinction. “It’s easy to move it,” he noted. “It’s harder to get paid for it.”

Michael Katz is the Executive Director of the Mendocino Cannabis Alliance. He hears a lot of stories like the Morfords’, and his optimism, too, is tempered with uncertainty.  But he’s hanging a lot of hope on news from county Cannabis Program Manager Kristin Nevedal about a checklist that serves as the site-specific environmental review that growers need to get their state licenses. Previously, he reported, it seemed like 90% of the growers trying to get through the system using the checklist, called Appendix G, would not make it. That does not seem to be the case anymore, “and so while we don’t know exactly what that means,” he acknowledged, “we are still hopeful.”

Appendix G might not work for everyone who is trying to get legal under a county ordinance that does not have a discretionary permit process, which the state requires. There is also some confusion as to whether the deadline to submit applications is October 30th, or if applicants whose documents have not been reviewed by that date will be left out in the cold. 

The online portal hasn’t entirely eliminated the application headache. Katz reported that, “dozens and dozens of folks who are trying to go along with what’s being requested are finding that things are changing, things that are seemingly not related to certain requests are being asked for, and so this confusion has led to people having to re-submit their submissions, multiple times.”

Nevedal was not available for an interview. She is working on a grant application for the county to receive $18 million from the state to get the local cannabis program in shape. Katz thinks this money signals a good faith effort on the part of the state to help legacy growers in jurisdictions that are having a hard time reconciling their ordinances with Prop 64 and other state rules. Finally, Katz’ optimism, too, is tinged with an awareness of historical irony. “Capitalism is  not really designed to support small businesses,” he observed. “People are definitely viewing this time period as another extinction event among the community of small operators, who started the movement to create cannabis availability to everybody. Without the small farmers in California, there wouldn’t be a legal cannabis market rolling across the world right now.”

And small cannabis farmers will go to extraordinary lengths to keep doing the thing they love. Daniel Morford, who writes poetry and jokes and attends seminars on the consciousness of plants and people, reflected that, “probably the reason I’m more optimistic than my dad is he’s in the office doing the paperwork and I’m on the farm doing the farm work, so I’m up there in the mountains hearing nothing but wind through the trees, thinking to myself, I would torture people to work in an environment this peaceful.” 

He’s never been as happy for a season-ending rain as he is right now. It’s a historical event in history-changing times of drought, wildfire, and public policy. Katz, too, calls for historical perspective.

“We have to not give up,” he insisted. “We have to continue working. My hope is what drives me, and our hope as a community is that we understand the challenge of this time period. I mean, we’re at the beginning of the end of prohibition.”

                               Audio version of "We're at the beginning of the end of Prohibition"

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