How Legalization Is Already Hurting California’s Small Pot Farmers
Could new regulations mean the end of the mom-and-pop grows that created cannabis culture?
Brian Chaplin was dining in town when he received a text from one of his pot trimmers: “We just got fucking robbed 911.” Chaplin shoveled down one final bite of his apple crisp and rushed back to the small cottage homestead – a few chicken coops, a vegetable garden, a rustic house and a 2,500-square foot cannabis greenhouse – nestled among silver oaks and Jeffrey pines in the rolling hills of Grass Valley, California.
Several men in tactical gear, posing as authorities and armed with rifles, had ambushed the property, Chaplin tells Rolling Stone. The trimmer told him that the robbers pointed an AR15 at one of the trimmers and asked him to get down on the ground. Then they blindfolded and tied up four employees, he adds, and stole a $10,000 GreenBroz trim machine and nearly 100 pounds of bud.
As founder of Medicine Box, an organic small-batch cannabis brand, Chaplin had been growing the majority of this crop for the Caladrius Network, which provides free medical marijuana to catastrophically ill children.
Of course, Chaplin immediately called the cops. “That’s what any normal person would do when their home gets invaded,” he says. “I have nothing to hide.” But when the real sheriffs finished investigating the crime scene after the robbery, they sent back a narcotics task force with a search warrant. “That’s when the double fuck happened,” Chaplin says. They cleaned out the greenhouse and the remaining bud in the drying room. A search warrant is simply “good police work,” says Lieutenant Rob Bringolf with the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office — it serves to protect evidence that could be included in an investigation. “We have a home invasion robbery and what looked like a criminal marijuana operation,” says Bringolf. “We’re better off getting a search warrant so we don’t lose any evidence.”
Legality is more nuanced than it may seem in a state that legalized weed. And California’s mom-and-pop growers like Chaplin are up against a confluence of factors pushing them out of the industry: federal prohibition increasingly backed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, conflicting state and local regulations, big business competition, black market competition and a tricky relationship to the law enforcement they need for protection.
Since California passed Proposition 64 in November 2016, legalizing cannabis for adults 21 and older, policymakers have struggled through the unwieldy process of crafting regulations for the new adult use and medical cannabis market, which launched on January 1st. Late last November, they released emergency regulations, offering cannabis businesses temporary licensing until the regulations are worked out.
However, in order to get a state license, generally a cannabis business must first obtain a local license. The state officially has hundreds of localities, but not every one will set up cannabis regulations; in fact, a handful don’t want legal canna-businesses altogether. Like thousands of other cannabis cultivators, Chaplin lives where local law currently undercuts Prop 64’s intentions to create a statewide legal cannabis market.
Grass Valley occupies the western region of Nevada County, home to at least 4,000 cannabis farms. In June 2016, voters defeated a complete ban on cultivation. But what they got was hardly better: a 12-plant cap for land parcels between five and 10 acres. “You might as well say there’s a ban on cultivation,” says Chaplin. “It’s basically cutting out everyone, [because] no one is in compliance.” No one who wants to participate in the state’s legal marketplace has only 12 plants, he says.
Only large-scale farms – 25-acres or more – can have up to 25 plants, which makes it hard for the little guy to compete in the market. Sean Powers, director of Nevada County’s Community Development Agency, says the rationale behind the law was to lower the impact on neighboring properties. “As far as cannabis activity, odor is probably the biggest one,” he says. “Some folks really just don’t like it. Other folks have concerns with the size of the grow as far as property crime, or simply traffic.”
Though violating local cannabis law is only a civil violation, it’s subject to tens of thousands of dollars in fines. According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which oversees cannabis cultivation, unlicensed operations can be fined up to three times the amount of a license fee for each day they remain unlicensed. However, growers like Chaplin aren’t criminals outright, even though they’re in violation of civil code. Many have been operating for decades under Prop 215, which legalized medical marijuana in 1996, and under SB 420, the 2003 law which set up a nonprofit model for patients to provide patients with cannabis. And they still have some time to use their compliance with these older laws as a defense in court until those laws sunset in December.