Marijuana's 'Reckoning' in Humboldt County

For decades, Humboldt County has been known as the epicenter of weed. The county’s 12,500 growers produce enough cannabis each year to supply California’s entire legal market. Legalization was welcomed by many in this corner of the Emerald Triangle where Proposition 64 passed by overwhelming margins. But the brave, new world of legal pot has also opened up a Pandora’s box of questions, uncertainties, and regulatory nightmares

Humboldt County, traditionally shorthand for outlaw culture and the great dope it produces, is facing a harsh reckoning. Every trait that made this strip along California’s wild northwest coast the best place in the world to grow pot is now working against its future as a producer in the state’s $7 billion-a-year marijuana market.

A massive industry never before regulated is being tamed by laws and taxation, characteristically extensive in this state. Nowhere is this process upending a culture and economy more than here in Humboldt, where tens of thousands of people who have been breaking the law for years are being asked to hire accountants, tax lawyers and declare themselves to a government they have famously distrusted.

“We’re at that moment in the movie ‘Thelma and Louise’ when they have driven the car off the cliff,” said Scott Greacen, a longtime Humboldt resident and environmentalist who is both a supporter and critic of the marijuana trade. “We’re just waiting for the impact.”

Only 1 in 10 cultivators in Humboldt County will be able to navigate the mental and financial agility course that precedes licensing. And even then, the process is slow. Less than 1% of California’s 69,000 growers have received cultivation permits so far. An excess of supply and Humboldt’s remote landscape -- the very terrain that made it so perfect for the illicit drug trade -- only complicate matters further. So the outlaws continue to be outlaws, growing and operating in the shadows as they have since the dawn of time.

For the cultivators who are trying to become legit, or who have become legit already, that’s a worry that cannot be understated. They’ve spent a fortune on building their businesses legally, and they fear the repercussions of having to compete with unregulated players on the market.

“I don’t expect the black market to go away,” said one business owner. “But I do expect not to have to compete with it in the regulated retail channel. In a world where all trade is in the black market, my skills means nothing.”