HSU Researcher: Legalization Could Steer Marijuana Into ‘Corporate Agribusiness’

The prospect of full legalization has some people concerned that California’s marijuana industry could get taken over by powerful business interests, a Humboldt State University researcher says.

In a four-page paper titled “America’s Largest Cannabis Labor Market,” Fred Krissman, a research associate with HSU’s Anthropology Department and the Humboldt Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research, made clear that a fair number of folks in the so-called Emerald Triangle are worried about what the future might bring.

“The fear of many is that legalization could steer the marijuana industry away from its longtime status as an anomaly [in the agricultural field] and toward the corporate agribusiness model.”

Krissman pointed in particular to the possibility that caps currently in place that limit the size of marijuana grows “may be lifted as early as 2018. If this occurs, it is likely that corporate agribusiness will attempt to capture a crop pioneered by anti-corporate hippies.”

Such a development might put an end to Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties’ status as the center of the cannabis growing universe. “The regions of production could shift to the federally irrigated flatlands of the Central Valley or even the water-challenged southern California desert,” Krissman wrote.

Krissman, contacted last week via email, did not agree to an interview about his paper, which has been making the rounds of late in local marijuana circles.

Robert “Woods” Sutherland, a founding member of the Humboldt-Mendocino Marijuana Advocacy Project, agreed that full legalization would change things — but only to an extent.

“Will [marijuana] get big in the Central Valley? Yes. Will it take some business away [from Humboldt and Mendocino]? Yes. Will [the industry be] transferred entirely to the Central Valley? No.”

“I think the Humboldt home-grown model will remain. A mystique will endure,” he added.

Sutherland predicted that with full legalization the Emerald Triangle, like Napa and Sonoma when it comes to wine, would continue to be known for the quality of its product.

“If you’re talking about cheap pot commonly sold on the street now, that will leave here,” Sutherland said with a shrug.

A big reason he has confidence in the resiliency of the local marijuana industry has to do with the fact that the marijuana is deeply embedded in the region’s culture and economy.

“We have the infrastructure already in place. There are lots of soil stores, lots of trimmers, a good availability of clones, just lots of know-how.”

Another prominent cannabis activist said last week that he was impressed by Krissman’s paper.

“He did a great job,” commented Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association.

Allen, who lobbies on behalf of his organization in the halls of the State Legislature in Sacramento, agreed with Krissman about the importance of maintaining caps on the size of marijuana grows as a way to protect against a corporate takeover of the cannabis industry.

“That was one of the hardest things we fought for,” Allen said, referring to limits on cultivation size contained in the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act, a package of three bills signed into law by Gov. Brown last year. “It’s critical to put a cap on the number of acres” that can be cultivated.

Vigilance is also important. “Laws can change,” Allen remarked. “There’s a lot of big business [pressure]. It’s an everyday fight.”

One thing that resonated for Allen in Krissman’s study was a section where the author describes how cannabis workers in the Emerald Triangle tend do well financially.

“I’ve seen folks [in Southern Humboldt who aren’t in the cannabis industry] complaining that they can’t find workers. It’s because cannabis pays better,” Allen related.

He acknowledged that drawing comparisons with the particularly lucrative job of trimming is difficult since trimmers are paid by the piece. But he added: “We tell people that if they can’t do a pound in a ten-hour day — which translates to $20 an hour — they shouldn’t be trimming.”

Krissman offers a similar estimate, saying in his paper that “skilled trimmers earn $20-$30 per hour at a piece rate that varies from $150-$200 per trimmed pound of plant.”

“A trimmer may process up to two pounds daily, although likely in a ten to 14-hour stint. This level of effort is rewarded with $18,000 for five days a week during the three-month harvest season.”

Like Allen, Krissman said that the relatively high wages offered in the cannabis sector has raised the bar in terms of what people in the Emerald Triangle region expect to be paid generally.

“The ‘pot wage’ is local parlance for the relatively high minimum locals expect from any job,” Krissman explained. “The region’s marijuana industry is the elephant in the economy, providing a decent standard of living to tens of thousands of local families who spend much of their earnings within the region, leading to significant multiplier effects that support myriad other local businesses.”

As for growers, Krissman grouped them into three categories: “Micro-scale ‘mom-and-pop’ producers in gardens containing no more than a few hundred mature plants; thousands of still relatively small-scale ‘green-rush’ farmers with grows of up to a few thousand harvestable plants; and an unknown number of ‘trespass’ growers of various scales of production.”

These folks are also doing well financially, according to Krissman. “Mom and pop gardens are estimated to garner at least $100,000 annually, placing such growers in the region’s middle-class. A green-rusher’s income might be ten times greater, which provides upper-class status.”

“Such revenues may help explain the high wages and decent working conditions often reported,” he added.

Sutherland said that true mom-and-pop operations aren’t pulling in the kind of money Krissman is claiming.

“A small farmer who can hire a few people and maybe can produce a high quality product might be making $100,000. Mom and pops are smaller and can’t hire people.”

That’s not to say mom-and-pops are producing an inferior product. “The further you get from the mom-and-pop operation, the more you’re managing for risk rather than growing for quality,” Sutherland said.

Getting back to the study, Krissman said things are a bit bleak when it comes to working conditions for non-cannabis farm workers.

“The average farm workers in a legal crop earns almost $8 per hour, although piece-rates in the apple and orange industries actually average less than the federal minimum of $7.25, while annual wages are under $13,000 per year for individuals and $16,000 for families.”

“These income levels are well below the poverty line. As a result, the poorest cities in the state are rural farm worker communities with Latino majority populations,” Krissman added.

In terms of the legal crop farms themselves, the picture painted by Krissman is also not pretty. Explaining that following World War I small family farms in the U.S. were largely replaced by “factories in the fields with huge acreages,” he said that today “urban financiers control most legal crop industries.”

“In an effort to increase quarterly profits,” he added, “these farms are rife with commodity, fiscal and workplace safety and security violations. The impunity agribusiness owners enjoy is best exemplified by the continued recruitment of millions of illegal immigrant workers.”

In a bid to generate profits, “the corporate breed of cannabis growers might [also] adopt the immigrant labor recruitment model,” Krissman suggested, with the result being the creation of “endemic poverty in rural California.”

“Ultimately, family-based enterprises and American workers could be displaced from another industry controlled by a few powerful corporations that greatly increase income inequality wherever they take root,” Krissman summed up.

It’s scenarios like this that help explain why cannabis activists such as Allen feel that much is at stake these days, particularly with California voters set to decide in November whether to give the green light to full legalization.

It will be a “once in a civilization opportunity to restore the middle-class family farm as a viable economic unit,” Allen said.