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.
As California’s cannabis industry saw the price per pound crash in recent years in both the legal and traditional markets, Wood Wide High Craft has used its love of the game and awesome pot to push on as one of Mendocino County’s few success stories.
I first linked up with Wood Wide’s co-founder Michael Strupp at Northern Nights Music Festival in Humboldt County last year. The festival was the first ever to have legal onsite sales and then in 2022 became the first to have a dispensary at every stage. Even with all the weed in the heart of the redwoods, Wood Wide’s flowers held up with the weekend’s best. This was especially the case for their Biscotti, which is among the top renditions of the strain in the state.
Strupp and fellow co-founder Ryan Birchard are as much of an Emerald Triangle origin story as it gets. The pair started growing cannabis in the hills when they were 15. After they graduated high school they left the county to spread their wings.
“So after [kindergarten] through [12th grade] I go off to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and get a degree in systematic biology and then Ryan went off to do some schooling too. We ended up back in Mendocino around 2006,” Strupp told High Times.
While Strupp left the area, he was never far from the game. He worked in the wine industry near northern Santa Barbara, but was also moving product from back home. Kids from Mendo are pretty popular everywhere in that regard because it was very hard for outsiders to get direct access to the hill back then.
As soon as he returned to Mendocino County, he had the chance to go in on a 12-lighter grow where he was the third partner. He was the one doing a lot of the garden’s grunt tasks as they worked to grow the heat.
We asked Strupp how much knowledge a Mendo kid could pick up over the years by just being in Mendo? When it’s time to take the skills inside, how fast do those years of outside growing skills transition?
“I had a lot of people’s minds that I could pick and we kind of knew just what plants liked,” he said. “I had a really good baseline of what it was like, but honestly, I moved back and all my friends that had stayed had been doing it for a while. So I instantly was able to go to my friends for our rooms and collectively pick off like 30 years of knowledge because they’d all been doing it for five or six years while I’d been gone.”
Mendo is also the kind of small community where some of your friends might be 20 years older than you. So even outside of that group of people his own age give or take five or six years, he had others with decades of experience to pull knowledge from.
Strupp felt like despite all that excellent weed in Mendo in the 2000s, the spotlight tended to land north on Humboldt much of the time. We asked Strupp how much he felt that strains like Mendo Purps and Zkittlez started to change the conversation. He noted the biggest factor in starting to get the county more recognition was the passage of Proposition 215 in 1996.
“Growing up people would come like, ‘Oh, Mendocino, Emerald Triangle’ and no one wanted to talk about weed because you got in such trouble for it,” he said.
People moving to Mendo to take part in the cannabis industry was also a huge factor in getting the level of chatter up. Strupp noted that they were a lot more willing to talk about cannabis than the old timers that had lived by the code of not sticking their heads up from the pack.
Strupp said everyone had their own little groups, too. Strupp’s grow, being from the coast, was a very different scene than growers in cities such as Laytonville, Ukiah, or Covelo. While small, those towns are all hubs for the cannabis grown in the hills surrounding them and have been for decades.
Strupp chugged along in that 12-lighter for a couple of years, but eventually suggested to Birchard that they should go in on something together.
“I was like, ‘Dude you should come and see this. I know what I’m doing is pretty good. It’s crushing. We’re having a really good time,” Strupp said. “So we met Ryan’s neighbor and we all went on a bike ride together and smoked a big doobie on the big long dirt mountain bike ride. And he was like, ‘We should grow together.’ We’re like, ‘Whoa! OK.’”
Strupp noted the loose loan rules that led to the financial crisis of 2008 played out in their favor, as they had no problem securing funding. They found a property next to another friend that was already growing in one of the shadier neighborhoods in Fort Bragg.
“It had a little closet hut in it that we turned into a nine-lighter right away,” Strupp said. “We basically took everything that we made from there and put it all back into the house and all back into the property, kind of really built that all up.”
The duo would split with their third partner and eventually go in on a 25-lighter. They wanted commercial power, so they got a permit.
“So we kind of had a mutual benefit agreement but we didn’t really quite understand what that meant,” Strupp said. “We felt like we had some stuff. We were selling some stuff to some clubs. We felt like we had some plausible deniability. We had a way to defend ourselves. We’re like ‘OK, we’re covering our bases a bit here.’ But we really weren’t, we really hadn’t thought that far in advance about like, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna turn this into a cultivation permit and do something with it.’”
That next level of permitting changed after Proposition 64 took effect in 2018. Despite the horror story of what happened with the Mendocino permitting process, Wood Wide was able to secure the fourth annual permit in the state and first in Mendocino County. The vast majority of California operators are operating on provisional licenses to this day and have yet to secure an annual permit.
But when Mendocino County issued the permit, there was a sunset clause. The county said the lot the facility was on was too small. They decided to let them operate for three years while they built out the business and found another building. Next they were able to convince the supervisors to give them an extra two years after it took two years to build out the grow. That pushed the sunset clause to June 2022. NIMBYs (an acronym referring to “not in my backyard,” or those who express opposition to businesses that they find undesirable) were also a factor in not being able to do something about changing the sunset clause.
The new facility has 72 lights. We asked what it was like building against the clock.
“Stressful, it wasn’t as bad in 2017, 2018, 2019 because we own the property and we actually were kind of making some money and it was pretty good,” Strupp said. “When we were building in 2021, the market had dropped out and we were borrowing money to build our new facility. It’s one thing in 2020 selling $2,500 pounds and then another thing in 2021 selling $1,200 pounds.”
Another big factor in their permitting process going smoother than the rest of Mendo was the lack of an environmental impact. Everything happened within the confines of the building. We asked if the outdoor gardeners in their area ever expressed jealousy over how smooth the permitting process went for them.
“No, our county was super supportive and amazed,” Strupp said. “All of our other farmers, yeah there are some people who aren’t very happy when they find out we’re indoor but it allows me to live on the coast, and work on the coast.”
Strupp is excited for his peers as there appears to be reforms on the horizon in Mendo to help struggling outdoor farmers, which includes forgiveness on tax interest.
“I think [tax interest forgiveness is] awesome. But as an indoor farm we’re in the top 1% to 3% of taxpayers in our county and have been from day one,” Strupp said, noting that they are certainly thrilled for everyone else but it won’t really impact the way Wood Wide is doing things.
After all the hoops and hurdles over the years were covered, we asked Strupp when he realized that his cannabis was above average. He replied that he knew right away, but said in the moment that he knew it was one of those things where everyone thinks that they grow the best weed. But it certainly moved. Eventually, he knew they needed a brand as opposed to helping other people build theirs with the quality of the pot.
So where did the name Wood Wide come from?
“Ryan and I are sitting around, we’re trying to think of like, how do we want to be? We’d always been into hunting mushrooms as children and living out here on the coasts and woods, and super big supporters of Paul Stamets,” Strupp said. “And then just seeing how you know that the whole ‘wood wide web’ was just coming to light just seeing how the mycelial network connected all the plants on the face of the earth basically, and how they’re able to communicate and share nutrients who just feel for each other and just sense each other. That was kind of groovy to us.”
Expect to see Wood Wide High Craft all over California in the years ahead as the brand continues to grow.
This article was originally published in the June 2023 issue of High Times Magazine.
In Northern California’s Trinity County—inland from Humboldt and more rugged—a recent brutal police raid on cannabis farmers at a local homestead provides an all too vivid example of what the stakes are when the legal sector fails small operators.
Racist Raids in Trinity County?
On May 2, Trinity sheriff’s deputies executed a search warrant in the Trinity Pines community near the town of Hayfork. The Sheriff’s Office said over 16,000 plants were seized in the operation, along with 7,500 pounds of processed marijuana and various firearms. But at the homestead of grower Nhia Yang, deputies fatally shot the family’s dog—almost immediately upon showing up at the gate and as Yang’s hands were in the air. Video of the shooting went viral online, and the incident won coverage from the Los Angeles Times.
According to a statement from the Sheriff’s Office, “Yang was arrested for illegal marijuana cultivation, possession of marijuana for sale and resisting arrest.”
The statement also said “Trinity County Environmental Inspectors removed several containers of illegal pesticides from nearly all of the sites visited”—without making clear if this included Yang’s.
Some Trinity county residents are calling for Sheriff Tim Saxon to resign over the incident. The bitterest irony is that the cannabis at the property was being grown under state license. Yang, the family patriarch, was the property owner and father of the license holder.
The homestead had previously had a county permit, but this wasn’t renewed due to a lawsuit brought by a local citizen’s group that has aggressively taken on cannabis cultivation in the county, the Trinity Action Association (TAA).
The County and TAA reached a settlement in the suit in August 2019, under which the validity of local permits was suspended until a site-specific review for each one was conducted in conformity with CEQA. This is despite the fact that the 2017 MAUCRSA allowed a window of until 2021 before CEQA hit in for California growers.
In 2021, the TAA went back to court, charging that the county violated the settlement agreement by issuing provisional licenses. That September, a state judge in Redding (the nearest city in neighboring Shasta County) ruled for the TAA, putting all new permits and renewals on hold. The county started issuing new licenses with CEQA review starting in the spring of 2022, but by then, there was a backlog some 400 deep that still hasn’t been cleared out.
Lisa Wright is chief executive at Flowra, a firm based in Trinity’s county seat of Weaverville that helps growers with permitting and licensing. She is outraged at the brutal raid at the Yang homestead. “I guess Trinity County has re-criminalized cannabis cultivation for licensed growers,” she says.
Wright says structures at the homestead were damaged in the raid and that no interpreter was brought in—despite the fact that Yang, a member of the Hmong ethnic group from Laos, speaks limited English.
“When did we leave the USA?” Wright asks rhetorically. “When did Trinity County secede? I think we’re still innocent until proven guilty here—yet they destroy someone’s property and bury the evidence and terrorize this man who barely speaks English.”
She also perceives a racist and xenophobic element in the county crackdown, which has seen increasing numbers of raids over the past years. “There’s a growing immigrant population involved in cannabis cultivation here—East European and Hmong. They’ve been targeted in the raids, roughed up, thrown to the ground, told to go back where they come from.”
She notes with alarm that under a multi-county task force, deputies from Siskiyou County have been brought in for the raids—including that at the Yang homestead. Siskiyou, bordering Trinity on the north, has a large Hmong community—and has seen protests in usually sleepy county seat Yreka in recent years over charges of ethnically targeted enforcement.
The Trinity Pines area has a large concentration of Hmong growers and Wright finds it disconcerting that Siskiyou deputies are participating in raids there.
Trinity, like Humboldt, enacted a county ordinance allowing commercial cultivation permits way back in 2016 before Proposition 64 even passed. But now, the pro-cannabis forces appear to be in retreat before a backlash. Since the November 2022 elections, two seats out of the five on the Board of Supervisors are held by TAA-backed candidates—including Jill Cox, chair of the board.
And Wright sees their influence as indicative of a flaw in the state’s cannabis law. “Prop 64 gave too much control to local jurisdictions,” she says.
Seeking Consensus Solutions
Ross Gordon of the HCGA is also policy chair of the Origins Council, the statewide advocacy organization for legacy growers. In that capacity, he’s working to promote policy solutions for “small cannabis farmers using regenerative practices.”
One is a bill currently pending in Sacramento, AB 1111, that would allow farmers to sell directly to consumers on a green market model. Another is the Small & Homestead Independent Producers (SHIP) Act which would allow growers to ship directly to consumers in any state where it’s legal on a wine-club model—contingent on federal legalization.
The OC is working with the newly formed National Craft Cannabis Coalition to prepare for this eventuality. “Whatever federal legalization looks like, it has to include provisions for the small farmer,” Gordon says. He again points to the “tremendous division between new large-scale cultivators in Central and Southern California, and the Emerald Triangle, where you still have predominantly small farmers.”
There are some 1,500 licensed cannabis farmers in the three counties of the Triangle, Gordon says. Yet just one outfit in Ventura County, Glass House Brands, has 5.5 million square feet, or 126 acres—not even counting a secondary facility in Santa Barbara. “By contrast, all permitted cannabis in Mendocino County combined is 110 acres, distributed over 475 independent farms,” Gordon notes.
The OC’s Coleman sees other ways in which California’s cannabis law is putting small growers at a disadvantage. Under MAUCRSA, the cannabis industry is categorized under “Business & Professions” rather than “Agriculture,” with the relevant provisions of the state code applying on that basis. This means that carve-outs in some laws and regulations for agriculture under California’s Right-to-Farm Law don’t apply to cannabis.
“Farming can be stinky,” Coleman says. “The RTF Law limits nuisance complaints for farms. But the ‘Business & Professions’ classification gets around that. There’s more opportunities for control. We’re still operating under an iteration of prohibition.”
Gordon emphasizes that what’s at stake in the Emerald Triangle is survival not only of an economic sector but of what has become a traditional way of life.
“We still have more small independent cannabis farms than you find in any other region in the US,” he says. “It’s a really strong part of our culture.”
California’s immediate post-legalization cannabis boom has now gone bust, with small growers hit the hardest. And those who remain in the illicit sector to avoid a perceived bureaucratic burden face continued police repression. In other words, it’s the worst of both worlds.
Is the Industry Facing Extinction?
In an all too symbolic development, the Garcia Hand Picked brand, launched by the family of late Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia in 2020, closed operations in California at the start of this year.
One recent report estimated the California cannabis industry’s collective debt at over $600 million. Meanwhile, a new state code shifts the burden for paying cannabis excise taxes from distributors to retailers—the most vulnerable sector, and obviously a critical one. Media reports hype an imminent “extinction event” for the cannabis biz in the state that pioneered that industry in the 1990s.
Amid all this, the criminal element is targeting the industry as easy pickings. According to a review of state data in April, losses of products or proceeds due to burglaries, armed robberies and other “wastage” more than doubled in California between 2021 and 2022. Retailers, cultivators and distributors filed 329 loss reports in 2022, compared with 147 the prior year. In the first three months of 2023, the state documented 85 loss reports.
Meanwhile, last October, the Department of Cannabis Control (DCC) teamed up with other state agencies, including Fish & Wildlife (CDFW) and the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, to form a new Unified Cannabis Enforcement Taskforce (UCETF).
“We cannot allow harmful, illicit cannabis operations to lay waste to the environment or threaten our communities,” Mark Ghilarducci, then-Homeland Security Advisor to Gov. Gavin Newsom, said. “We are bringing together the combined law enforcement resources of our state, local and federal agencies in a coordinated enforcement action against these bad actors and criminal organizations.”
In late May, the UCETF announced that it had seized over $52 million in unlicensed cannabis and cannabis products in the first quarter of 2023.
Why do elements of the old prohibitionist dystopia survive even as a new post-legalization dystopia unfolds in the form of a glutted market? These are related phenomena, as restrictions on the legal sector incentivize unlicensed cultivation. Prices may be lower on the illicit market, but there’s no taxation or regulation and no stricture on out-of-state sales—unless you get caught, of course.
Economies of scale on the agribusiness model are better positioned to ride out the glut (which they share a disproportionate blame in), while it is small growers—the legacy producers—who most feel the pinch. And especially in places like Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity—the three counties that makeup Northern California’s legendary Emerald Triangle.
Hard Times in Humboldt County
Natalynne DeLapp is a former director of the Humboldt County Growers Alliance (HCGA), which was formed after the passage of Proposition 64, California’s 2016 legalization initiative. With a degree in environmental science from Cal Poly Humboldt, she worked with the county in a partnership to develop the first cannabis land-use ordinance, approved by Board of Supervisors in February 2016.
“The intent of 64 was to protect small farmers from large-scale operators,” she tells Cannabis Now. “Voters thought there would be no farms greater than one acre until after 2023. However, in implementation, they allowed license stacking. There were 100-acre farms across the state from day one, January 1, 2018.”
That was the day the Medicinal & Adult-Use Cannabis Regulatory Safety Act (MAUCRSA) took effect, providing a legal framework for the state’s day-lighted industry. MAUCRSA did limit the number of one-acre grow licenses to one per person or entity—but also allowed an individual to apply for multiple licenses for smaller plots, basically making nonsense of the one-acre limit.
The new state regulations that took effect this January phase out that unenforced restriction and, in fact, allow consolidation of “multiple cultivation licenses” into a single “large or medium cultivation license.”
But grow operations need county permits as well as state licenses—a double regulatory whammy.
“Now membership of the HCGA is 150 licensed cannabis operators, down from 275 by the end of 2021,” DeLapp continues. “That’s when the market collapsed for wholesale prices due to overproduction. The state has allowed up to five times more to be cultivated than our state market can consume.”
There were 15,000 grow sites (medical or illicit) in Humboldt in 2015, DeLapp says. “After Prop 64, some 2,400 signed up to comply with MAUCRSA and the county land-use ordinance. Now, there are fewer than 800 legal farms in the county, and the sheriff estimates there are fewer than 1,500 illegal grow sites.” Overall, she says there’s been an 85% reduction in cannabis operations.
DeLapp blames regulatory overreach for much of this contraction. “The barriers for entry are too high to overcome for many,” she says. “The cost of bringing lands into compliance with environmental regulations was more than they could bear. Many people fell out of the system or moved away. The hills are quieter. Businesses are failing.”
In her view, this goes to the root of the state’s legalization regimen. “Prop 64 was written behind closed doors, and California has become a what-not-to-do for other states. They gave local control to every permitting jurisdiction, they baked in over-regulation and over-taxation. And it can’t be changed by legislation—only by another voter initiative. So, while 60% voted for legalization, 68% of jurisdictions across state don’t provide access for people to purchase safe, legal and tested cannabis products at all.”
DeLapp does see some improvement with the new county ordinance passed in 2017, which she says “found the right balance.”
“Humboldt County still has more licensed farms than any other jurisdiction in the state. Those who remain really want to be here and really want to be cannabis operators.” By way of contrast, she points out that Santa Barbara County has the same amount of square footage under cultivation—but it’s held by just 60 operators.
Now Humboldt and the entire region are feeling economic pain due to the flawed regimen, she says.
“Sales taxes and property values throughout the Emerald Triangle, the famed cannabis cultivation area for the United States, are in decline. This is due to the diminishment of cannabis cultivation—not only the crackdown on illegal operations but the suffering of legal operations. This means reduced revenues for schools and so on. And this isn’t happening in other areas of the state that aren’t so dependent on cannabis.”
Whither Humboldt County Cannabis Initiative?
Arousing strong feelings on either side is a pending Humboldt initiative that proponents say will “protect the County’s residents and natural resources from harm caused by large-scale cannabis cultivation.” Detractors say it will increase the burden on small growers, and actually represents backsliding toward prohibition.
Supporters of the Humboldt Cannabis Reform Initiative (HCRI) collected over 7,000 signatures—well above the 5,200 needed to get it on the ballot. It will go before voters in March 2024.
March 7 saw heated exchanges at a Board of Supervisors hearing in county seat Eureka, with detractors bashing the HCRI as “anti-cannabis” and “anti-community,” the work of “economic terrorists” and, most sneeringly, “the Karen Initiative.” That same day, the county Planning Department released its “Analysis & Recommendations” on the initiative, warning that if passed, it would have “dire consequences for the cannabis industry in Humboldt County.”
Also in March, the HCGA issued an open letter to the HCRI proponents, expressing “our strong opposition” to the initiative. The letter charged that “the policy proposed—whether intentionally or not—would not support either small farms or environmental sustainability in Humboldt County, and in fact would cause significant harm to both.”
An HCGA Policy Analysis of the initiative states that while existing county cannabis ordinances “were developed through public process by Humboldt’s Board of Supervisors,” the HCRI “was not circulated for public comment, review or discussion prior to its introduction, and having been introduced, now cannot be altered prior to appearing on any future ballot.”
The initiative’s provisions prominently include seeming common-sense measures, like limiting new cultivation permits or expanding existing ones to 10,000 square feet and capping the number of permits and acreage per watershed at near the current total number. It would also put the brakes on permit-stacking, barring “multiple cultivation permits per person/corporation or per parcel.”
Yet the newly launched No HCRI website asserts that the initiative “would have devastating effects on cannabis farmers of all sizes in Humboldt, including the very smallest in the county.”
DeLapp emphasizes HCGA’s view that the initiative is inherently undemocratic. “The HCRI was written by a small group of people behind closed doors and drafted by a San Francisco attorney, with zero public input. It puts brand new language in the county’s General Plan, which was created over the years by a public process. And that new language can’t be changed by the county government, only another voter initiative. If there’s even one poison pill in it, it will poison the well.”
And critics see several such poison pills. They say the initiative’s section CC-P5, which limits each parcel to one permit, and various provisions restricting “expanded use” of permitted plots, are so worded that they could effectively prevent farmers from functioning.
HCGA’s policy director Ross Gordon notes that the text of the initiative defines “expansion” as an “increase in number or size of any structure used in connection with cultivation.” Gordon states: “That could mean a new drying shed, a new nursery room or clone room, putting in a solar facility or water storage to become more environmentally sustainable. Farmers don’t want to outsource clone production or trimming; that’s how you maintain good quality product. This would be restricting the ability of small farmers to survive.”
The county Planning Department analysis agrees with him. It states that “[t]he flexibility provided by the [existing cannabis ordinance] in the number of permits was designed to allow farmers to have different types of permits to diversify their source of income.” Whereas the provision in the initiative “is unclear and can be interpreted in different ways,” potentially to “include nursery, propagation, drying and trimming.”
DeLapp sees the actual motives behind the initiative as a “NIMBY” (not in my backyard) mentality among local landowners—and even a surviving anti-cannabis stigma. “Prohibitionism is still alive and well even in Humboldt County,” she says. “People want to smoke weed, but don’t want the production in their neighborhood. Or ‘neighbor-woods,’ as we say.”
She also sees an element of racism at work, saying she has heard ugly epithets used against a would-be Asian grower.
Riley Morrison of Emerald Queen Farms in Willow Creek is one grower who fears the worst if the initiative passes.
This was advertised as something that would support the small farmers, but in reality, it’s so restrictive that it chokes us out,” he says. “It doesn’t allow us to grow, evolve and adapt as a small business. We were excluded as stakeholders. No aspect of this initiative works for growers of any size in Humboldt County.”
“Our biggest fear is being non-conforming after we’ve spent so much time and effort complying with county regs,” he adds. “This could jeopardize our livelihoods as owner-operators. We just want to grow and evolve under the law that was created through a public process. This initiative takes that away.”
HCGA policy director Gordon is even more forthright. “The HCRI is the single biggest threat to cannabis cultivation in Humboldt County. It’s not an attempt to help small farmers. It will make compliance by small farmers unviable. If you can’t create a viable regulatory framework, you’re reinstating prohibition. The goal of this initiative is to strangle the cannabis industry in Humboldt County.”
He points to other provisions he considers onerous. For instance, under section CC-P8, any farm over 3,000 square feet requires a “discretionary process,” meaning public hearings, as opposed to a permit being issued “by right” on any land zoned agricultural. Under the current county code, the requirement for such a process only kicks in at 10,000 square feet.
Another is section CC-P13, which requires all new or expanded farms to be on a verified “Category 4” road, or a higher standard—wide enough for vehicles to pass and with culverts for drainage. “This would impact most legacy farmers in the county, who are in remote rural areas,” Gordon says.
Paradoxically, he even thinks the initiative could serve the opposite of its stated intention. “This could be the dream of large corporate cultivators because it cuts out the competition by squeezing out small growers in Humboldt County.”
“If their aim was really to keep corporate cultivation out of Humboldt County, this initiative could have been written on a postcard—no new cultivation over 10,000 square feet. It’s the other 38 pages that are the problem.”
“If this Humboldt initiative passes, a handful of people will have threatened the entire existing system at a time when Northern California’s economy is collapsing,” she says. “We’ve extracted what we’re gonna extract from logging, fishing is shut down, and COVID hit us hard. Pardon my French, but it’s no time to f*ck around. It’s dangerous for the entire community. We’re hanging by a thread.”
A key proponent of the HCRI is Elizabeth Watson. Her activist bona fides are certainly intact. With a degree in social ecology from Rutgers University, she served as a “third-party neutral” brokering dialogue during what is locally known as the “timber wars”—when radical environmentalists faced off with the logging companies in both Humboldt and Mendocino counties in the 1990s.
In her view, irrational land use in the cannabis sector is a holdover from prohibition—and needs to be corrected. “There’s a coastal plain that’s suitable for agriculture, but Humboldt is basically good for growing trees,” she says. “With prohibition, everyone was growing in the woods. It started with carving a little plot out of the woods. But on a large scale, it’s pretty damaging.”
She points out that a 10,000 square-foot cap is already in place in Mendocino, whereas Humboldt has grows of nine acres, or nearly 40,000 square feet. Expansions must be approved by the Planning Commission, and the fees go up with the size—but there’s no total cap of square footage.
As for the provision concerning Category 4 roads, she says that existing county code already calls for grow sites to be on such roads—the initiative would only require a certified engineer’s verification.
“A lot of growers are on old logging roads that aren’t even mapped,” Watson says. “Yet they’re bringing in diesel tanker trucks to run generators for lights and electricity at grow sites. If one of them wipes out, we could have diesel all over the woods.”
Watson elaborates on the ecological imperatives she sees behind her effort: “I live on a coho-bearing stream that now goes dry every summer because there are three grows above me, using lots of water and digging new wells. Wells are going dry all over the hills. We’re trying to make cannabis growing appropriate to the environment.”
She says that many grows are now in designated timber production zones (TPZs). “There isn’t a lot of topsoil up there, it’s inappropriate to growing anything other than trees. They’re hauling in soil in trucks, then it gets dumped when it’s spent and gets into the streams and we find pearlite in our salmon.”
And she emphasizes that the initiative would only affect new permits. “The only thing that will affect people who are now licensed is their ability to expand. If you have a licensed grow under 10,000 square feet, you can go up to that. But if you’re already at 10,000 square feet, you can’t expand. They can move to Santa Barbara or to Lake County, which is just down the road from us, where there are 100-acre operations. Under our initiative, it’s going to be one cultivation permit per person and one per property.”
She also points to provisions that encourage outdoor cultivation and discourage energy-intensive indoor. “If this passes, there will be no new inside grows, although the old ones will be grandfathered in no matter how much light they use. For new ones, lights can only be used for propagation, and then limited to six watts per plant.” Propagation typically lasts six weeks.
Contrary to the portrayal of seeking to limit multiple activities on a single parcel, she says: “We encourage vertical integration—processing, a B&B for tourism, retail sale on the property. The initiative is silent on anything other than cultivation. Some people are letting the HCGA do their thinking for them, and they’d be surprised if they actually read the text.”
Another HCRI co-sponsor is Mark Thurmond, a professor at the UC Davis veterinary school, now retired to Humboldt County, where he grew up.
Thurmond sees the requirement for public hearings on new permits of 3,000 square feet or more as a matter of transparency and democracy. “Growers get around public hearings by stacking smaller permits. Eventually, you have quite a large operation underway that’s never gone through a hearing. So the public doesn’t have a say. The county hasn’t allowed us to voice our opinion on how this is going to impact public health and welfare, and the environment.”
Thurmond also says a creek on his property now dries up in the summer for the first time over recent years, which he believes is due to new grows upstream. “Yes, there’s a drought. But the county isn’t checking to see if growers have put in wells, legally or not, that are affecting the aquifer.”
He raises similar concerns in defense of the provision concerning road quality. “In order to protect creeks and fish-spawning areas, we need to know that we’re dealing with roads that aren’t gong to erode and cave in. We also need decent roads to deal with fire suppression—which is more and more of a concern, as we have more fires every year.”
He also points to the official response to the critical Planning Department analysis that was written up for the HCRI proponents by attorney Kevin Bundy. Among various “errors” in the analysis that Bundy’s letter delineates, it states: “The Initiative does not require any existing cultivators to upgrade their roads to Category 4 standards. The Initiative makes only one road-related change: when a permit applicant claims a road meets Category 4 standards, the applicant must provide a licensed engineer’s report to back up that claim. The Initiative does not change anything else in the existing ordinance governing road standards or applicable exceptions.”
Watson also feels the initiative proponents are being scapegoated. “The dream of meeting the county budget with cannabis taxes has collapsed. Hundreds of growers aren’t planting this year. It’s really hitting young people who came from back east for the green rush and paid big prices for their land. They’re getting hit hard, and they need someone to be upset about, and we’re very convenient.”
As for the charges of an undemocratic process, she retorts: “This is California; we have an initiative process. And this represents not just the people who drafted this—it’s the 7,558 who signed. And that was just from four seniors going out to every public event last summer; it wasn’t hard to get people to sign it. We don’t want to elect new supervisors in five years and have them turn this around, we want them to have them to go back to the people.”
“This initiative will protect us from another green rush,” she sums up. “When the feds legalize, it’s gonna make us very unattractive to the Marlboro man or Budweiser. It protects the little guy.”
OG Hippie Growers Speak
Robert Sutherland, a Southern Humboldt grower and longtime environmental activist, speaks for the Humboldt-Mendocino Marijuana Advocacy Project (HuMMAP). This group plugs itself as a body of the counties’ OG growers—the original hippie pioneers who came in with the back-to-the-land wave of the late ‘60s and ‘70s.
“HuMMAP was the first pro-marijuana group to form here in Humboldt County, back in the ‘90s,” Sutherland says, emphasizing the group’s ecological ethic. “We’re in favor of growing it in the sun, organic and small-scale.”
Representing some 65 growers, HuMMAP is admittedly smaller than the HCGA, but Sutherland portrays it as more grassroots as well as of greater provenance. “Nobody pays dues in our group, and nobody gets a salary,” he says.
HuMMAP reached a settlement with Humboldt County in 2016 after bringing suit charging that the new county cultivation ordinance violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)—for instance, allowing noise pollution from generators, and grows too close to spotted-owl habitat. Under the settlement, the county agreed to conduct an environmental impact review for any further changes to the ordinance.
And HUMMAP voted last year to support the Initiative. Sutherland is harshly critical of the existing county policy.
“The Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission had dollar signs in their eyes,” he says. “They were under the spell of the money when they drafted the marijuana ordinances. They don’t have their eye on the ball for the future of our county. That’s what the initiative is about.”
Sutherland fears that a decline in standards as old-school methods are abandoned could kill the proverbial goose. “There’s no meaningful future for a marijuana industry in Humboldt County if our reputation, which was built on quality product, becomes one of mass-produced junk. We have always stood for the quality of the marijuana.”
And he frankly views the HCGA as complicit. “Groups such as HCGA pretend to represent everyone, and they have plenty of small growers in their group, who I honor,” he says. “But they’re actually advocating for the big growers. The small ones are there for window dressing in my opinion.”
Sutherland admits the initiative is controversial. “It isn’t perfect. But I’m behind it,” he says. “The only way we’re going be able to maintain our reputation is by honoring those same ecological values and cleaning up the industry here.”
Nestled in a thickly forested area in rugged Northern California, sustainable cannabis is being nurtured. Talking Trees Farms is a legacy farm based in Humboldt County that emphasizes cultivating cannabis using exclusively organic methods and inputs. This means no chemical pesticides, no exceptions.
Thanks to this scrutiny over soil health and inputs, the results are astounding, evident in the brand’s flower as well as renowned bubble hash and solventless extract offerings.
Talking Trees became a brand in 2013 when California’s Prop. 215 era was thriving. Years of expertise led to the brand eventually forming a name for itself as a farm built on a connection to the surrounding environment. The farm puts a significant emphasis on going the extra mile in sustainable practices from cultivation to packaging. Talking Trees does its part to conserve water for a state experiencing severe drought, although that wasn’t the case in 2023 when winter brought catastrophic flood conditions across California. Utilizing the uptick in rainwater, which wasn’t as severe in Humboldt County as in other areas, is ideal for having a smaller impact on the environment, says Talking Trees founder Craig Nejedly.
“I catch rain off the top of the building I have on the property, and then that funnels into a pond, and that’s over three-quarters of an acre big,” Nejedly says. “It catches rain in the winter, stores water, and then we use that to water the garden in the spring and summer and fall.”
The Talking Trees grow also doesn’t drain water from surrounding natural rivers, streams, and creeks, which would spoil the natural habitat. In Humboldt County, six wild rivers run through the county and provide essential habitats for fish and wildlife.
Taking action to prevent damaging the environment helps improve the reputation of the cannabis industry. The cannabis from Talking Trees is cultivated using organic materials in all farming practices.
“Even after harvest, when it comes to packaging our flower, we package everything in home-compostable, biodegradable packaging,” Nejedly says.
Talking Trees Pheno Hunt
It’s difficult to find a strain that isn’t already old news in Northern California, where many seasoned cannabis veterans have grown for generations. At Talking Trees, the team frequently sorts through many cultivars.
“We’re always on the hunt for new cultivars, so we’re always popping seed, pheno hunting, and just trying to search out new and interesting stuff,” Nejedly says. “Our goal is not to grow what everybody else is growing but to grow strains or females that are unique to Talking Trees. Right now, we have some pretty cool stuff we’re searching out that we have.
“One of our in-house strains that we’ve bred is the Plandyland, which is Candyland and Pink Lemonade. And then we have a Lemon Royale phenotype from Swamp Boys Seeds that’s really special. And I always love all the Zkittlez crosses. We have the regular Zkittlez—kind of the classic Zkittlez—and a cross of Zkittlez with the Pink Lemonade. We call that Peasy Lemonade, and it’s pretty flavorful. And then Rainbow Belts, which is very similar to Zkittlez and is great for live rosin and extract stuff.”
The cultivation team at Talking Trees is working on a few new strains set to be released soon.
“We’re working on some Dark Rainbow crosses,” Talking Trees Cultivation Manager Matt Weston says. “I found an interesting male from Archive Seed Bank. I’ve got that and all of our winter stuff. We’ve got a cross of our Lemon Royale, our Menage, and our Mac N Cheese. I’m looking forward to developing that and seeing where that takes us.”
Tall Trees Grow From Healthy Soil
Good flower depends on good soil, and a great deal of emphasis on soil quality takes place at Talking Trees.
“Our focus is on soil health, and we do our best to manage our soil health,” Weston says. “We reuse our soil. We amend it every year, and we test it every year. We try to do our best to make sure that the place that provides the home for our plants is healthy… We put a lot of effort into the earth and our soil, our cultivation medium. Just to make sure that we’re getting a biologically driven healthy plant that is as therapeutic and potent as possible.”
Soil health is a top priority, and Talking Trees’s current recipe has been carefully blended and developed over time.
“We started with your average potting soil to some degree, and then, depending on where we’re growing, like on the hill, in the greenhouses, we’ll blend that with a native soil and then just continually start feeding that soil or that potting soil that we bought,” Nejedly says. “And then basically never buy soil again, like getting soils like a one-time purchase and then from that point on or just feeding the soil, nourishing the soil [with] compost teas, adding biology, and end up building the soil.”
Compostable & Recyclable Packaging
When Talking Trees committed to compostable and recyclable packaging, it meant making some sacrifices such as abandoning the gold foil print the brand used to use. The first step towards compostable and recyclable packaging is to eliminate plastics.
“I try to avoid plastic as much as possible—that’s like the number one [thing] to avoid,” Nejedly says.
With the pre-roll packaging, Nejedly found a biodegradable solution at his organic grocery store and replicated the plant-based material. It took a lot of experimentation and trial and error to develop the packaging in a way that would work and also look presentable.
“And so now our pre-rolls—they come in a box, which is compostable or recyclable paper,” Nejedly says. “But we had to do away with our gold foil printing because that would take away the recyclability or the compostability of it. So we had to drop a little bit of the bling on our printing to make it more sustainable. But now we have 100% and sustainable pre-rolls.”
New Products in the Works
Talking Trees’s greenhouse-grown flower is sold as 0.6 gram pre-rolls, 1 gram pre-rolls, or in eighths. Loud Trees, the brand’s indoor-grown line, has similar stats.
Rainbow Drops, Orange Cookies, Zmasherz, Slurrimac, and Squeezits are a few strains you can find in the Talking Trees greenhouse-grown line. Talking Trees ice water-extracted bubble hash is made from cannabis grown in-house. That means the team has control over how that flower is stored. The localized production process gets down to how the ice is made using their own water.
Several more products are also in the works.
“We’re in the R&D about to launch and enter The Emerald Cup with a rosin hash-infused pre-roll,” Nejedly says.
Nejedly and Weston want to remind readers that the industry is built on the shoulders of small growers, including those found in the thick of the mountains in Northern California.
“Support the small farms,” Weston says. “Keeping the variety of life is why this is possible. And you know, supporting small farms does that. Only the small farms are going to do their best to bring different things every year and not just look for what feels the best.”
This article was originally published in the April 2023 issue of High Times Magazine.
It seems like lifetimes now that the craft cannabis farmers of California have been fighting to be heard and allowed to prosper. It’s been a tough road with State and local government forces who seem to not want us around, plus the simple fact that high taxes keep most consumers going to their “guy down the block” for weed. As they say, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. As such, we always manage as much as possible to toss some FUN into the mix.
It came to me in a flash a few years back: If Napa can do it, so can Mendocino. I was thinking about the famous Napa Valley Wine Auction, which began in 1981 with a group of vintners who wanted to gain notoriety while helping local causes. After 40 years, they raised millions of dollars for a variety of charities and Napa became known as one of the premier grape-growing regions in the world.
Several cultivators from award-winning farms in the region will be on hand at the auction to share knowledge about the benefits of sungrown cannabis. The MCFA will be held Saturday, June 17, from 5-10 pm at The Brambles near the hamlet of Philo in the magnificent Anderson Valley in the southern part of Mendocino County. The elegant venue is donated to the auction by Jim Roberts and Brian Atkinson, who also own the chic cannabis brand Bohemian Chemist. By now, you must be wondering if we plan to auction off cannabis! Well, after much thought and consultation with cannabis attorney Omar Figueroa, we came up with a plan. It’s simple, fun and everyone gets to enjoy some of the best cannabis on the planet.
The Mendocino Craft Farmers Auction is a private event, meaning that if you’d like to attend, you can write us with your request, and we’ll send you information on how to purchase tickets ($200). All earnings go through an official 501c3, and tickets are partially tax-deductible, according to your accountant.
Since it’s private, we don’t need the full entourage of government agencies, retail dispensaries and more on-site, as no cannabis sales will take place. Instead, guests place bids on the many fabulous offerings. Their generosity is matched by growers who want to share from their Private Reserve. In other words, you’ll get to take home some very special cannabis grown in a fine farmer’s personal garden. It’s a win-win for both the HIGH bidder, as well as the charities receiving the benefits.
Celebrate Beneath the Redwoods
The Mendocino Craft Farmers Auction is a magical time spent under the soaring redwoods. The evening starts with the silent auction. As guests mingle and enjoy local organic wines and hors d’oeuvres, they’ll no doubt be greeted by the “Joint Girl” with her tray of rolled-up libations. It’s also very amusing to peruse the silent and live auctions items on display and play the bidding game on treasures, including curated farm baskets and collectible arts; wellness experiences; hotel stays both near and far in exotic places like Lake Atitlan and Jamaica; local cannabis farm tours and so much more.
After the silent auction tables are closed, guests head towards the lovely open-air dining area, where a delicious meal prepared by Chef Dan Hagopian of the Valley of the Moon will be served. By now, everyone is feeling fantastic and a little community is being formed. Many of the guests who came last year are returning to see friends they made then—that’s a lot of what this event is all about. Making meaningful connections.
There’s something so special about dining under the stars and redwoods on a warm Mendocino evening. During dessert, the live auction will take place, conducted by the very entertaining auctioneer Johnny Bessolo. He’s a fast-talking man who knows just how to play with the crowd to get everyone excited.
By the close of the auction, guests are happy and ready to dance. This year the DJ is none other than Zack Darling—the incredible marketing mind and music maker. Farmers and city folks alike will kick up their heels in celebration.
Most people don’t have a clue about the wonders and benefits of growing cannabis in the Emerald Triangle, where the terroir is ideal in every way. Likewise, most people think of pot farmers as a bunch of stoned-out, lazy hippies in the hills. However, we are truly exceptional, first-class artisanal craftspeople who should be lauded as much as the finest vintner. The Mendocino Craft Farmers Auction is our way of raising consciousness about the high quality of the cannabis produced here and the incredible people who produce it.
We strive to be known as “the Napa of Cannabis” by showing that we can do it with style too. The time has come to place craft cannabis alongside fine wine and other HIGH-class comestibles.
If you’re looking to attend a coveted cannabis experience this summer in the heart of the Emerald Triangle, this is it. Come and discover the eclectic wonders of Mendocino County and find out why the Emerald Triangle is claimed to grow the very best cannabis while having fun and donating to very worthy causes. Tickets for the Mendocino Craft Farmers Auction on June 17 are available now from mendocinocfa.com.
If you’ve run packs from the Bay or done any clandestine dealings in Humboldt before 2018 it’s more than likely at one time or another those transactions took place in the parking lot of the Tip Top, the only strip club in the Emerald Triangle and unofficial community hub of The Hill—the nickname affectionately given to the lush mountains of NorCal where growing cannabis is prevalent.
The standalone building was a known destination for lonely farmers and trimmers alike, a veritable trading post pre-legalization, and a hidden treasure trove for dancers. Perched on a bluff off the 101 and Salmon Creek Road in Eureka, the big glass windows tell a clever story to unsuspecting passersby, but only the real ones know what’s actually gone down between those four walls.
The Early Days
When the Tip Top opened in 1997 the original owner, Tom, known to all as T. Great Razooly, was able to maneuver around zoning and licensing laws by designating the club as an RV sales office. According to veteran dancer Jasmine, “all the girls working there were technically RV salespeople and there was one little toy RV that sat on Tom’s desk.” Eventually granted a proper business license, the club changed hands in the early 2000’s—purchased by none other than a former dancer named Sassy.
Back then, clientele ranged from “rednecks to hippies, to hippie-rednecks”, dancer Miraya recalls. Born and raised in Humboldt, Miraya is the daughter and granddaughter of cannabis growers on her dad’s side and millworkers on her mom’s side. She saw the first major industrial shift—from logging to growing—in real time. “Growing up there was tension, loggers didn’t like weed growers, but they had no choice once the lumber and fishing industries died. If they wanted to stay in Humboldt they had to do something.”
She laughs, “I remember camo being the factor that brought them together. Camouflage clothing was the one thing they shared.”
“There Was So Much Money”
The Tip Top earned its covert reputation as a hidden gem for easy money among the underground stripper community, but the customer demographic was a culture shock for dancers coming from urban places like San Diego, like Autumn, or Atlanta, like Honey. The latter came to Humboldt on a tip from a mutual friend in Vegas. According to Honey, “The clientele was weird. They were hippies and they were all kinda dirty. No one was ultra-attractive – they all looked like farmers. But I sat at the bar and every single guy in there asked me for a dance that first night. I decided to stay and made $4,200 in a couple days.”
Autumn started working at the Tip Top after coming up from San Diego to live with her boyfriend who worked at a property on Titlow Hill. “I’d been dancing for years, but had never seen money or customers like this. I was a little reluctant at first, but my boyfriend at the time kept telling me how much money he’d see thrown around there. I remember working on a weekday around Halloween and this guy, I’ll never forget him, his name was Blake. I think he had just done a big deal or something because he had stack after stack and was raining hundred dollar bills on me and Honey and some of the other girls. I made over $6,000 that night. Blake, if you’re out there, please know we still talk about you to this day.”
Honey corroborates the story, “That was one of my most fond memories at the Tip Top.”
While the majority of customers were farmers, not all farmers were of the hippie-redneck variety. There were pockets of Hmongs, a subset of indigenous Chinese, and a smattering of various eastern European outfits. According to Jasmine, one Bulgarian grower from SoHum, “threw $1,274 for a single song on my stage. It was my best stage set ever.” Cinnamon echoes a similar experience, “long story short I was very short on money this Tuesday night. Sure enough, one grower—classic dready with a trimmer girl on each arm—comes in and rains hundred dollar bills on me. I danced to Led Zeppelin’s ‘You Shook Me’ and this guy lost it. Paid my rent, car payment, and bills in one song”.
Do You Accept Weed?
It wasn’t just cash being thrown around; many dancers say they were tipped and paid in flower.
“Regular customers knew that I would take weed as payment. That was actually much better for us because people who deal in weed pay more. If they owe you $100 they’re going to give you half an ounce or an ounce. Back then, weed was much more valuable, we were paying about $100 for a quarter,” Miraya says. She reminisces about legacy strains like Trainwreck, GDP, White Widow, White Rhino, Orange Crush, and “later on, Purple Urkle. It became what everybody wanted, what everybody was looking for and [it] smelled so good when it was burning and growing. You could smell it from a mile away.”
Jasmine says she was tipped a pound on stage once, and Honey was given a half pound at a private party which she took home with her to Los Angeles on the Amtrak and sold piecemeal to her friends, netting her about $5,000. Autumn also said she was once tipped an entire pound, but after taking it home and attempting to wash it in hopes of making ice water hash to press into rosin, she realized it had already been run through a dry sift tumbler. “There were no trichomes on that bud. It was literal grass clippings”.
One of Honey’s regulars even helped finance the pole studio her and another dancer, Tiger Lily, started together. “I had a grower, he was my regular, and every time he came down from the hill he’d come see me. I told him we were starting a studio and when I told him the name, Body High, he was so happy it had to do with weed. I told him each pole was about $1,000 and it was going to have to come out of our pockets. He came and saw me every week for five weeks and gave me $1,000 every time”.
Lonely Hearts Club
While the Tip Top facilitated their fair share of debaucherous sprees like bachelor parties and birthdays, most customers came for one of two reasons: to suss out potential buyers or, more often, to enjoy a temporary respite from the loneliness of The Hill. “They were just chill, lonely growers,” Jasmine explains, “a lot of times we would get guys [who’d say], ‘I haven’t even seen a woman in months!’ And they had more money than they knew what to do with. I remember I’d do multiple-hour dances with this one grower who would come in and nap. We would literally just sleep back there.”
Isolation was one of the biggest occupational hazards for growers and trimmers sequestered in the hills. “The workers were desperate for attention. The bosses were a little more picky, but they all had an excess of money and would give [their] right arm just to see some boobs and have a real conversation with a girl,” says Autumn. “They mostly complained about work. We were like their little bikini-clad therapists.”
She continues, “I had this one regular and he would come in and we’d talk about music and just life in general the whole entire time. He’d bring me his newest strains to try. I never did any real dancing for him, but he paid me like I did.”
The End of an Era
The old saying “All good things must come to an end” sadly rings true for the glory days of the Tip Top and Humboldt as a whole. Miraya laments, “I was there during what you would call [the] peak of legacy weed culture. I left in 2014-2015, right when they were beginning to legalize in other states. Real weed culture completely face-planted and Humboldt was not the same anymore. Everything that was iconic and notorious happened before then.”
Between legalization and wildfires, the bygone days of grows run on blood, sweat, and tears are a distant memory. Ghosts of yesteryear haunt the once-flush region, and the state of the current cannabis market mirrors the success (or lack thereof) of the club. “All the young girls come to the pole studio and they’re like ‘we wanna be strippers! We wanna go to the Tip Top’ and I feel bad for them because it’s not even worth dancing there anymore. They’re happy with one or two hundred dollars, they think that’s a lot of money,” Honey says with sadness in her voice.
The growers faced similar challenges. She continues, “Out of all the growers I met in Humboldt, I only know of two who still have farms.”
“My customer, the one who is the reason Body High exists, lost his farm and is a bartender on the Plaza now. He bought a house, but that’s really the only thing he has to show for all those years of growing.”
A cannabis farm raid in the Emerald Triangle took a turn for the worst, leaving a dog dead, and people have questions.
Los Angeles Timesreports that outrage is growing as details about the incident unfold, given the farm held a license at the state level and was in the process of approval at the county level. As outrage grows, some locals are calling for the resignation of Trinity County Sheriff Tim Saxon.
A 36-second video clip shows a Cal Fire officer fatally shooting a dog in a chaotic attempt to control the situation. The video was uploaded by Kym Kemp, who regularly reports on the Emerald Triangle. An officer says in the video, “Hey, don’t touch the dog, he just got pepper sprayed.” Keep in mind that an unlicensed commercial cannabis operation in the county is supposed to be a $500 misdemeanor.
On May 1-2, 2023, police from the Trinity County Sheriff’s Office obtained a search warrant in the Hayfork and Trinity Pines area. Agents with the North State Major Crimes Investigation Team, Cal Fire, the Trinity County Environmental Health Department, and the Trinity County District Attorney’s Office Victim Advocate assisted in the operation.
SF Gatereports that pot farmer Nhia Pao Yang is not a native English speaker. But the officers shouted commands in English, so he walked towards them with his hands raised. One of the dogs on the site approached one of the officers, who shot the dog.
The police report describes the dogs as “aggressive,” using the word three times, claiming the dogs were trained to attack.
“During the service of the Search Warrant at Nhia Yang’s property, Investigators encountered Yang who had five aggressive dogs on the property,” the press release reads, which was posted on Facebook. “Nhia Yang, was non-compliant with Investigators and attempted to keep Investigators away from him by standing near one of the aggressive dogs. When Investigators moved to take Nhia Yang into custody, one of the aggressive dogs attempted to attack an Investigator, who defended himself by firing one shot at the dog. The injured dog was transported to a local veterinary clinic where it passed away. Nhia Yang of Hayfork, CA was arrested for illegal marijuana cultivation, possession of marijuana for sale and resisting arrest.”
Saxon said the dog was killed by a Cal Fire employee and that Cal Fire was conducting an investigation into the matter.
Yang was later charged with unlawful possession of cannabis, lack of dog licenses, rabies vaccinations, unreasonable tethering of an animal, allowing a dog to attack or injure someone, and resisting arrest.
California’s Dual Licensing Mess
According to Department of Cannabis Control (DCC) records, Yang’s family has a state license for their small family farm, and they were in the process of getting a license under Trinity County.
Proposition 64 created a dual licensing system that requires farms to obtain both state and local approvals to grow commercial cannabis. Los Angeles Times reports that thousands of farms in Trinity County remain unlicensed. License applicants in 2021 were required to start over, when locals convinced a judge to overturn the county’s cannabis license system because it did not include an environmental review.
The DCC then issued a letter reassuring farms that it would take no action against those who lost their local licenses because of the ruling.
Even the sheriff’s office admits that the dual licensing system isn’t currently working.
“What I wish for is that we would have a consistent policy throughout the state,” Trinity County Sheriff Tim Saxon told the Los Angeles Times. The dual licensing system, he said, is “placing many sheriffs in an uncomfortable situation, including myself.”
The vision behind the creation of the brand and dispensary known as Solful was to invent a dispensary model that didn’t really exist yet—a cannabis business that sells only sungrown flowers and partners only with cannabis brands that meet a strict set of production standards.
Over the past five years, Solful has developed into a one-of-a-kind brand that has won numerous accolades for its unique dispensary values. Solful has received the “Best Cannabis Dispensary” award from The Press Democrat’s Readers’ Choice Awards since 2019—a testament to its ongoing dedication to quality. In February, Solful was also named in Leafly’s “Cannabis buyer’s guide to outstanding outdoor flower of 2021” as the best in the state of California. In April, Solful’s CEO and co-founder Eli Melrod was included in the North Bay Business Journal’s Forty Under 40 list.
High Times spoke with Melrod about Solful’s origin, the quality of sungrown cannabis, and the brand’s dedication to supporting local cannabis growers in the Emerald Triangle.
Here Comes the Sol
Melrod was first introduced to cannabis after he learned of his father’s pancreatic cancer diagnosis 20 years ago. Although his father was only given six months to live, medical cannabis helped treat his nausea and increase his appetite, allowing him to endure chemotherapy.
Melrod grew up in San Francisco, eventually attending a high school in the Haight-Ashbury District, made famous for its historic role in the development of cannabis culture starting in the 1960s, and later traveled to the East Coast for school. But by 2015, Melrod returned to Sonoma County, where his dad had relocated following his battle with cancer. He started working in a cannabis testing lab, which connected him to many local cultivators, manufacturers, and dispensary owners, but he noticed the current state of traditional dispensaries was less than ideal.
“In particular, back in 2015, every dispensary that I went into felt sort of like a head shop or like something really clinical,” he says.
Furthermore, he realized that few of these dispensaries celebrated sungrown, craft cannabis from the Emerald Triangle. Acting on this insight, Melrod met with a friend of his father’s, entrepreneur Peter Dickstein, to seek business advice. Eventually, Melrod and Dickstein partnered as co-founders, and Solful was born.
“I still feel like, I can’t really believe this is my life and my job because it was really a dream to build this dispensary vision that did everything I really thought a dispensary should do,” Melrod says.
Quality is Key
Melrod’s vision to reinvent the traditional dispensary model was inspired by a commitment to supporting Northern California cultivators. Solful works with and buys directly from cannabis farms that grow 100% outdoors.
“In this day and age, it’s really rare for retailers to actually work directly with small heritage farmers in Northern California,” Melrod says. “In fact, I think we might be one of the only retailers in our entire region that does that, where we buy direct.”
“If you come into Solful, you’re not just gonna find a bunch of like Wedding Cake Gelato that was grown indoors. You’re gonna find all kinds of really unique strains,” Melrod says. “[Strains] that are rich in THCV, [strains] that are rich in rare terpenes like ocimene, you know, just this huge diversity and this real celebration of the craft heritage farmer in Northern California.”
“So we have exacting standards of what we will and won’t allow in every category,” Melrod explains. “So in our edibles, we don’t allow any sort of artificial food coloring or flavorings or sweeteners, anything like that. In vapes, we always don’t allow any sort of additives. So we don’t allow any, you know, glycerin or glycols, or any of that stuff. We have specific exacting standards in every category to make sure that our products are safe and effective.”
Solful is so confident in the satisfaction and quality of these products that it offers a “happiness guarantee” return policy.
“You can literally buy an eighth of pot at Solful, and if you hate it, you can come back, and we’ll make it right. We have a full exchange policy,” Melrod says. “I can guarantee you if you try full-term organic outdoor that’s testing at like 4.5% terpenes it is gonna be better than anything you’ve ever tried in your life. That was my experience. I grew up buying indoor cannabis thinking that was top shelf or whatever and like, point blank, you will never be able to replicate the sun, you will never achieve the like spectrum of terpenes, cannabinoids, and other compounds you will get from living soil full-term cannabis.”
Solful currently has two dispensaries, located in Sebastopol and Santa Rosa, California, with another location set to open in San Francisco before the end of 2022.
The Emerald Triangle is my favorite place on Earth. It’s a mecca of luscious green redwood forests teeming with psychedelic mushrooms and dark green ferns that spread all the way to the ocean shoreline with no crowds, no traffic, and some of the finest cannabis in the world. I crash-landed there when I was a young man and spent the better part of a decade drifting from farm to farm, attending school occasionally, and eating [really really really good] acid with hill people of yesteryear.
Some of them were penniless vagabonds who owned, in totality, one pair of overalls and two pairs of Chikamasa scissors. Some of them were real-life millionaires who had barrels of cash buried all around their properties. Some of them were immigrants, from every country all around the world. My roommate at the time used to love having sex with foreigners and musicians and foreign musicians so she’d invite entire groups of them to stay at our apartment, rent-free I might add. I remember one night I came home late, super drunk and tripped over a Bulgarian man sleeping on my living room floor who very politely offered me some ketamine as an apology for tripping me but that did not make up for finding his other two companions asleep in my bed.
I had so many good times in that apartment. I met so many random beautiful people who all came through Arcata to spend their hard-earned money when they got off “the hill” at the end of harvest season. The money was still decent for the trimmers and cultivators back then. Almost everyone I knew worked three or four months nonstop out of the year and spent the rest of the year in either Hawaii, Tulum or Costa Rica. All the businesses in the small rural towns littering the triangle thrived with cash infusions from their owners’ respective grow ops, not to mention the trimmers needed somewhere to drink after a hard day’s work.
Those fuckers partied like no one else I’ve ever met. I once attended a 200-person full-moon rave party in the absolute middle of nowhere on top of an actual mountain. When I say the middle of nowhere I mean we were 45 minutes up a dirt road that originated from a death trap two-lane highway two hours away from anything resembling a city. To this day I’ve never experienced anything quite that fun. I fried on LSD and MDMA all night long until morning came and everyone howled at the blood-red rising sun at the top of their lungs. A nearby wook offered me a “chip shot” and I wasn’t sure what that even meant when I agreed but he poured a shot of Fireball into one of those tortilla chips shaped like little bowls for dipping into beans. He assured me it tasted great only to cackle hysterically when he saw the look of disgust on my face when I realized it was a cruel ploy to get people to chew shitty liquor. He also gave me a line of ketamine as an apology.
I could tell another 100 stories like that but modern attention spans and statutes of limitations being what they are, I’ll just assure everybody that you’ve never been to a more wonderfully weird place than the Emerald Triangle. To this day it’s almost entirely populated by weirdos, hippie freaks, hill wooks and gun-toting weed growers. All of the above are generally some of the kindest and most generous folk you’ll ever come across. That said, I’m not here to tell stories of sunshine and shroom rainbows. There are enough legends about the triangle floating around that all sound the same. I don’t need to add to them. There’s another side to the triangle that doesn’t get talked about as often, a darker more sinister side that lurks behind the towering redwood trees, miles and miles away from anyone who would ever say a word about it.
I’ve worked in a lot of different areas around the triangle, mostly in Trinity and Humboldt County. I worked one or two farms in Mendocino but I didn’t get down that way as much. The bulk of jobs I worked were in Southern Humboldt County, which is essentially a dense jungle of redwood trees littered with a few small towns here and there (and we’re using the word “town” super loosely here because sometimes that word refers to a singular building). One job in particular I worked was essentially one or two hills over from “Murder Mountain” which is not the most dangerous area of the triangle in my opinion but it’s also kind of a moot point because you don’t earn a name like Murder Mountain without racking up a few…murders. There are definitely plenty of good people living up there too but I have heard that some of the more wild inhabitants of the area smoke these cartridges made of a hellish mixture of meth and live resin called “Twax” pens. I’ve never tried one but they come in different flavors and I’ve heard blueberry is a pretty dank option as far as meth cartridges go.
I won’t say exactly where I was or even the nearest town for reasons that will become clear but for all intents and purposes I was even more in the middle of nowhere than ever before. I accepted an invitation to go trim on a farm roughly 3-5 hours from civilization up a dirt road blocked by river floods half the damn time, not to mention any street signs that might indicate where we were headed were rendered unreadable by bullet holes. I was young, I was super naive and I had been kicked out of school for not showing up so I had nothing better to do than convince my girlfriend at the time to load up her 1989 baby blue Ford Econoline camper van with propane and propane accessories and go trim until we developed arthritis.
For a while, it was all fun and games out there. We showed up on the back end of Fall and it was breathtaking. We woke up underneath 100-foot redwood trees every day and opened the van doors to an ocean of clouds beneath us while we fried bacon and smoked big blunts of fresh OG. We trimmed all day with folks from every walk of life you can imagine. Everybody swapped stories until it was time to go back to the cabin and drink to keep warm. We played cards, ate mushrooms, I even got my Playstation up there for a while until I killed the van battery and had to stop.
As with most good things, the fun didn’t last very long. The winter came and it was harsher than expected. We were camping in the snow and rats kept wiggling their way into the communal fridge to eat our food. Meanwhile, one of the main employees was stealing all the good weed so we were trimming a bunch of powder mold and garbage, making piss-poor money and getting interrogated by the owners who were beginning to notice their returns dwindling. We never took anything other than some personal smoke but it’s still pretty scary being a million miles from anything and trying to convince a heavily armed hair-brained hill creature that you aren’t trying to rip him off.
We also started noticing odd shit around the mountain. Everyone had heard rumors about some of the neighboring properties and what they’d get up to. There were also rumors about the couple we worked for, but other than [both of them] fraternizing with the employees I don’t think they got up to much. They appeared to be good people at the end of the day. I can’t say the same for the neighbors though.
Now, admittedly, I used to take a lot of Xanax so I’m not exactly sure when this next part happened but I’m pretty sure it was around the same time I was living there in the van. Doesn’t matter. One day, we were heading to town for a supply run and the road down the mountain was super curvy so you had to go 15 mph the whole damn way down and pray the Eel River hadn’t flooded the road at the bottom or you’d have to go all the damn way back up. We were about halfway down the mountain listening to some scratched-up Ween CDs and smoking poorly-rolled Backwoods when we saw her.
A woman was walking barefoot on the road, with a glazed look in her eyes like she was not there at all. She looked and walked like a zombie and I can’t remember what she was wearing but I remember it wasn’t much and it was snowing outside so we tried to flag her down and see if she needed help. I’m not exaggerating when I say I shouted at her from five or six feet away and she didn’t even look at me. She just kept walking so we just kept driving. About a mile down the road a man in an honest-to-god tuxedo waved our car down and asked if we had seen the woman in question. We pointed sheepishly in the direction we had come from and he took off running without another word.
It dawned on us at that point what we had just witnessed and to this day I’m still not 100 percent sure but we had heard enough rumors about human trafficking operations in the area to have a pretty good idea that the woman had escaped from one of the houses we’d heard about, only to presumably be recaptured by the man in the tuxedo. When I say human trafficking I’m talking high-end sex slavery trade like some real-life Taken shit, only no one gets rescued by Liam Neeson. This is just what I’m assuming based on what I’ve been told by people who have spent their lives up there and that’s all I could think about the entire rest of the way down the mountain that day.
I tried to put the woman out of my head but a few months later we were having drinks at the bar in town and an adorable old man petting a cat bought me a couple whiskeys. He told me he believed in me and it really felt like he meant it. As we were leaving, a friend pulled me aside and said “Don’t talk to *****, ***** sells people.” Apparently, he was an actual lunatic who hired speed freaks to steal equipment from one farmer so he could sell it to another and such. The guy’s dead now anyway so fuck him. One of these days I’d like to find his grave so I can piss on it.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg in the triangle. There are members of every organized crime group in the world operating out there. There are properties that can only be reached by helicopter. There’s a goddamn Scientology headquarters made out of stone that has three zebras living in the front yard. It used to be four but one of them got shot in cold blood for reasons that were never publicly released. When I say some of those men and women living in complete solitude are richer than God himself I am not lying or exaggerating even a little bit. They have the power to do anything they want to and no one is there to tell them no.
Serial killers have been caught in the triangle and not just one. So many murders and missing persons cases go unreported or unsolved, especially on the Native American reservations. I’ve heard rumors of LSD labs, poppy fields, farms that operate using forced labor, farms that kill their workers at the end of the season, and not that this is all that sinister in comparison but farms that pay women twice the money to trim naked. There’s even a small town supposedly populated entirely by Nazi families who hid out there after the war, fucked, and made a bunch of little Nazi children who grow thousands of pounds of mids every year.
I’m not trying to paint an image of the triangle as this super dark and dangerous place, it’s just a place people go to be left alone and people opt to be left alone for a lot of different reasons, some sinister some not. The grim reality, however, is that most of the sinister activity I’m describing was financed or at the very least overshadowed by illegal cannabis farms at the end of the day.
Before anyone crucifies me for saying that, I’m bringing it up for a good reason. I’m not anti-black market, I actively root for the black market but I know deep down in my soul that the only way forward is the direction we’re already heading in. Legal weed ruined a lot of things for a lot of people and I want to acknowledge that before I continue advocating for it. A lot of good people lost their life savings because of legal weed. A lot of good people were murdered when the prices dropped and the bottom feeders started getting desperate. The triangle became a different place virtually overnight when Prop 64 passed and so began a long, painful process of death and extinction.
I say extinction because an entire way of life is indeed extinct. The trimmigrants don’t come to the triangle anymore because there are no jobs for them to work. The small businesses in the hill towns that thrived under prohibition have once again become struggling small businesses in rural America. In my last Weirdos piece, I chose to blame this on corporate Chads profiting off the hard work of the legacy market and I still do in a way. But for this piece I wanted to illustrate that as much as I lament the way legal cannabis was structured, as much as it makes me sick to my stomach to reduce a plant I love so much to numbers on a spreadsheet, if cannabis legalization prevented even one single person from getting trafficked into sexual slavery, that means we did the right thing.
Now I want to be clear. All the good people who just want to grow weed and be left alone without all the regulations and bullshit have a fair bone to pick and I respect their side of things when they refuse to play ball with the legal market but I also want to make the argument that as the spotlight on the triangle becomes brighter and as the obscene amounts of cash begin to dwindle, it gives us an opportunity to put actual resources behind law enforcement efforts to combat true evil lurking behind the redwood curtain. Up until now, no matter whose fault it is, law enforcement in that area has been inundated and entirely too preoccupied with chopping down plant canopies when the properties right next door are up to way sheistier shit.
As far as the rollout goes, no one can deny legal weed has been a mess. All the legacy growers got bent over the barrel and shown the 50 states (very heady reference). Everyone got fucked, it happened, I acknowledge that. But in twenty or thirty years, cannabis will be another boring-ass regulated and mature market and the triangle will have evolved into a much cooler version of Napa Valley. Whatever scum is left lurking in those hills won’t be able to operate with the level of impunity they have thus far and they will stand a much better chance of rotting in prison when law enforcement manages to get it through their heads that chasing their tails chopping down plants is nothing more than a silly distraction from crimes against humanity.
If I had concrete proof of any of this, I’d offer it but these are the rules of cribbage. Lord knows I’ve tried in my capacity as a journalist. I reported the woman to the sheriff years later and interviewed him asking if anything like this had been reported in the area and I got a whole bunch of non-answers and buck-passing. Essentially he told me nothing like that ever gets reported so they’d have no way of knowing. I also pestered the local FBI offices and human trafficking groups for months and never got a single response. All I know is there are far too many rumors and far too many bodies floating around those hills for the sheriff to tell me it’s all gravy. It’s not fucking Bigfoot, it’s human beings.
All of this being said, I would like to challenge two very distinct groups to two very distinct things.
To my fellow cannabis industry professionals: we, myself painfully included, need to stop being so nostalgic about the “good old days” because at the end of the day that comes from greed. I would love nothing more than to make money hand over fist again but in doing so, we were allowing a much greater evil to grow right under our noses. We cannot abide this any longer and we must intentionally move forward into the legal market together. We need a much more even playing field before that can happen, but our hearts need to remain in the right place here. We owe it to every nameless person buried in those hills to maintain a better perspective at the very least.
To the federal and local law enforcement agencies operating in the Emerald Triangle: you are doing a piss poor job and my proof of that is the poster at the Willow Creek rest stop filled with pictures of all the unsolved missing persons cases. My proof of that is the former Trinity County Sheriff walking off the job for months and still collecting a salary. My proof of that is the woman I saw that fateful day and everything I’ve heard and seen during my decade in and around the triangle. We need actual law enforcement presence that isn’t paid to look the other way. We need effective undercovers to go in with the sole intention of flushing out only the worst of the worst with orders to leave the people alone who are just growing pot and trying to make a living. Do your fucking jobs, because by all indications you’ve allowed egregious human rights violations to happen on American soil for decades, period.
I will always look back on the wonderfully wild times I had pre-legalization with a tender fondness that I know deep down will never fully go away. It was a special place because of what it was, and that’s what makes writing this so difficult because I know that the beautiful place I experienced had to die for progress to be made. As much as I know I’ll roll my eyes when I drive through Humboldt in twenty years and see all the stupid touristy weed shit, I’ll feel much better telling my kids there’s nothing to be afraid of anymore. I’m not sure I could honestly say that to them even today. We’re on the right track, but we need to keep going.