Deep in the lush mountains and valleys of California's Emerald Triangle, marijuana farmers have been making a decent living, albeit illegal, off the land for at least four generations. The medical cannabis boom, which began in 1996 with the passage of Prop 215, made them even richer. So when it came time to consider a law that would tax and regulate their skunk-scented crops, the growers of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties decided it just wasn't right for them.
"They're country people," says Bret Bogue, who owns Apothecary Genetics, a marijuana breeding and seed company. "They don't know how to pay taxes."
The denizens of the Emerald Triangle spoke loud and clear on Tuesday when they voted against Prop 19 by a 55-45 margin. The measure would have legalized marijuana for commercial sales, regulating what is currently an untaxed black market. Prop 19 lost statewide 54-46, with only 11 of the state's 58 counties backing it.
Bogue contends that Prop 19 "would have destroyed Northern California. It would have suffered tremendously."
One of the stipulations of Prop 19 was that every Californian would've been able to cultivate a 5x5-foot garden-room for about 10 fully grown plants. "Mom and pop operations cannot live on a 5x5," Bogue says. "They're the unsung people in the trenches who get the medicine to the people. The reward is worth the risk. They saw the reward totally diminishing to the point that they would not even exist."
Kyle Kushman doesn't see it that way. He's a legal medical grower who lives in Mendocino County and plays by the rules, which allows for up to 99 plants, indoors or outdoors. "There are different types of growers," explains Kushman, who's pioneered a technique he calls Veganics. "You have the outdoor generational farmers in Humboldt and Trinity. You have illegal indoor growers. And you have growers like me who are trying to follow the law."
A pot grower at heart, Kushman left his lofty position as High Times cultivation reporter in 2005 and moved to Willets, where he's been breeding luscious strains named Strawberry Cough and Blackberry Kushman ever since. Kushman's carved out a piece of the pie for himself, without getting greedy.
"I'm heartbroken and deflated," he says about Prop 19's failure. "The people here are so small-minded. They're afraid of change. I have the right to grow a 10x10 for myself. They thought Prop 19 would take that away."
To the contrary, Prop 19 would not have changed any of the existing laws that protect medical-cannabis cultivators. "I have the right to grow for 40 people," Kushman adds. "That wasn't going to change. It was a small progression. All of that fear prevented these people from thinking into the future. They just don't get it."
Bogue blames Prop 19 proponents for not consulting the NoCal growers before writing the initiative. "They needed to include the backbone," he says. "They voted 'no' because they didn't take the people into consideration. It starts from the ground up. You have to be able to walk in their shoes."
Among the pot farmers' concerns were being forced out of business by mega-grow operations (Oakland had already licensed four and Berkeley voters approved six more on Election Day) and the declining wholesale price of marijuana, which has dropped from $4,000 per pound to $1,500 over the last decade.
"If they had dealt with Northern California," Bogue insists, "Prop 19 would've passed."
Prop 19 proponent Chris Conrad begs to differ.
"If growers are against legalization, they can't be part of the legalization process and now it's up to them to show good faith support or be left out of the process," says Conrad, who publishes West Coast Leaf. "That's just political reality. The growers basically shot themselves in the foot. Prop 19 offered them a legal customer base, a statewide regulatory framework and a local voice to protect their interests. The next campaign is more likely to pitch a more restrictive approach to bring more conservative voters like Asians and housewives, who want heavy-handed controls, and will consider whether growers deserve any consideration at all. Those folks are unreliable at best, traitors to the cause at worst, and possibly a useful target to pit public opinion against as a foil for a winning campaign without a legal cultivation component.
"The growers lost a lot of potential influence on the process by showing a lack of political savvy," Conrad continues. "They'll possibly be grouped in with the narcs as being fundamentally opposed to legalization and not worth courting as an ally. So, they will need to come to the table with some proposals on how they would create a legal market for cannabis while protecting their interests, or they will be left out of the next round of decisions."
Though Conrad claims that since the Emerald Triangle cast just 64,000 votes out of nearly 7.5 million statewide (3.4 million voted for Prop 19) and that "the problem is that other segments of the population are not on board," Prop 19 organizers should listen to Bogue and others who felt disenfranchised.
With plans already being drawn up for another tax & regulate initiative for 2012, Bogue says he doesn't want to "bash Richard Lee," the Oaksterdam University magnate who bankrolled Prop 19. "I just want him to talk to the people. He didn't talk to them at all."
Then, and perhaps only then, will marijuana legalization in California stand a chance of becoming a reality.