The answer is not simple: County government is working full-speed to set up the regulatory structure necessary to administer the newly-legal industry, but the high-stakes process is very contentious, and the repercussions of any given move are hard to foresee. A coalition of long-term growers in the area recently threatened the county with litigation over the re-opening of a pre-existing grow permit application period, arguing that it was contrary to the plain meaning of the (very new) statute. The litigation is the latest round in the conflict between legacy growers (those with pre-existing medically sanctioned farms) and new growers.
Cannabis regulation and the headaches it engenders place a heavy burden on county officials. Humboldt County received 2,337 applications for 2017's medical marijuana business permits alone- this includes grows, dispensaries, processing facilities, and testing labs. These applications go through a relatively well-refined process that was created after Proposition 215 legalized medical marijuana in 1996. The process for granting recreational-use licenses goes through three separate state-level agencies, and is brand new. Among those expressing concern about the difficulty of setting up a regulatory structure for a high-stakes new industry is State Senator Mike McGuire, who foresees enormous difficulty in implementing these regulations consistently and predictably in such a short time.
For Humboldt growers who are already worried about their future in an industry they fear may be dominated by out-of-town venture capitalists, the difficulty of complying with a complex set of untested regulations compounds their fears. A regulatory scheme shifts risk to the smaller pool of 'outlaw' growers who can't or won't comply. Outsiders are sanguine about the prospect:
“Candidly, the future for many current growers isn’t bright,” said Joe Rogoway, a Santa Rosa attorney specializing in cannabis issues. “The new marketplace requires a degree of capitalization and sophistication that inevitably will leave people behind. It’s capitalism. There will be winners and losers.”The question is: Will Humboldt County lose? On the one hand, there is little incentive for business-savvy investors to make their play to enter the industry in the area, now that the remoteness of the area is no longer an asset in avoiding law enforcement. Shipping cannabis products from Humboldt is likely to be expensive and difficult compared to situating a cannabis business more centrally in the state. The much-vaunted excellence of the area's climate for cultivation is largely puffery, as cannabis is a robust weed that has been heavily altered through selective breeding to be tolerant to a wide range of climates, and is often cultivated indoors. Many local growers are (understandably) unequipped to become experts in this complex web of regulatory compliance. The transaction costs of the industry are about to skyrocket. With widespread cultivation and the application of sophisticated economies of scale, the Humboldt cash crop may see the bottom fall out, squeezing out local farmers.
On the other hand, the culture of Humboldt is tolerant of widespread marijuana cultivation. Local government is responsive to growers as stakeholders in county governance. Growers are a large local constituency who wield serious clout, and have significant institutional knowledge. A core of committed long term locals appear willing to get compliant. The county is also levying a local cultivation tax on growers, expected to yield approximately $7.3 million to be kept solely for county services. Provided the industry can survive the likely price effects of legalization, local services could be seriously bolstered by taxation. It does seem likely that a reduced cohort of the savviest local growers could weather the storm and ultimately thrive in the legal market.
Perhaps effects like the revenue expected to be collected by new taxes are the best reason to be optimistic. Humboldt County, despite its reliance on marijuana, is not populated solely by marijuana growers. The deleterious effects of illegal grows have taken a long toll on Humboldt. Migrant workers on illegal grows have been abused and exploited. Predatory growers, emboldened by a climate of outlaw impunity, sexually abuse their seasonal workers. Watersheds that comprise the runs of endangered steelhead salmon are drained and polluted. At the same time, the porous boundary between the illegal industry and the drug culture has produced a mental health crisis in the county that underfunded local services are struggling to keep up with.
Prop. 64 includes new protections for workers and for the environment. New streams of both local and state taxes are earmarked for improving drug rehabilitation services and other vital services. Bringing a wholly unregulated industry into the daylight is the move Humboldt County needed-- provided the bottom doesn't fall out on the commodity propping the whole project up. The next few years will likely produce huge upheaval in Humboldt-- only time will tell whether the county is relegated to a backwater as cannabis moves to more populous areas, or whether it can capitalize on its history and use tax revenues to improve county services.
Full disclosure: I worked for the Drug Policy Alliance during the 2016 push to get Prop. 64 passed.