We sat down with second district Supervisor Estelle Fennell to discuss the state of cannabis in the county and beyond. This is part two, part one can be read here.
ET: Do you ever worry about the negative economic impacts that may come from shutting down illegal grows?
EF: I see it as rebalancing. I remember the last time I talked with The Emerald Tribune, we discussed changing the course of a very large ship midstream. That’s what we’re doing right now.
It all depends on how you look at it. I have a positive and optimistic outlook. I think that once the state is issuing licenses, and the dispensaries can only buy and sell permitted cannabis, that the price of products will rise, and permitted farms will have an advantage over the black market.
As far as the economy goes, it’s amazing to see how many jobs have been created because of the legalization of cannabis. Every contractor in Humboldt County is busy. There’s a tremendous amount of activity happening, just tied to those people who are trying to get a permit.
I think that in the long run, we should stabilize and actually be healthier. That’s my goal. I know that it’s difficult for some people, who are maybe small, and think that is too expensive to get involved. One of the things that’s happened, both as a result of AUMA, and now as a result of a revamped ordinance, is that there’s allowance for smaller zoning clearance operations. I think that over time, people will begin to understand that it’s not as costly as it seems.
We’re trying to make it as user-friendly as possible. A lot of people are not used to dealing with the government. They’re not used to dealing with going into a permitting process.
“I’m not saying anything negative about those who haven’t started permitting, but I just love meeting people who have gone through the process. It’s so nice to hear them saying, “You know what, I’m glad I did this, I really am.””
This might be a bit of a controversial statement here, but when has that ever stopped me: some people thought that they had to go to consultants, because it was too complicated, and some consultants did not come through as well as they might have. They charged a lot of money, and they didn’t get to the finish line. I think that’s a concern. But as we flesh things out and the state fleshes things out, it’ll be a little easier. There are models that people can come up with.
I’ve heard one idea now from several people. It used to be, somebody who was growing medicinal marijuana would grow it, cure it, process it, bring it to market, and do all of those things.
The idea now is, people who are good at cultivating could cultivate, and people who are good at retail, or cooking, can do that arm of it. People can manufacture, and there can be cooperatives, and I think that that may wind up to be the model for some of the Mom and Pop’s.
Maybe there will be a central location where the processing happens. That will be good for the roads, and also for carpal tunnel syndrome. But the bottom line is that there are ways for people to find a niche. The industry will have many different facets.
We’re making a regulated world out of an unregulated world. Some people are not business people. Some people don’t understand that when you establish a small business, you don’t make much money the first couple of years.
That’s a very long answer to your concern. It is one that’s been bandied about by people in the community, that this is the end. I don’t think it has to be the end, but that it could be the beginning of a better model.
“One example was a vape pen called hmbldt. That name will be illegal, starting in January. It won’t be acceptable to use the name of Humboldt, or something that appears to imply the name.”
We do have a plan in mind. You have to be realistic about the elephant that has been in the room for a long time. There was a lot of cash in Humboldt County, and that cash supported a lot of businesses, without any acknowledgement of where it came from.
To turn that around and be successful, because of this change in the law, could be very healthy. I’d love it if we can get to a time when we don’t go on Google Earth and see a whole bunch of bald spots on the side of a mountain, because people went out there to cut down trees and grow illegally.
It seems really overwhelming when you look at the ordinance. You open up a page and it references section 55. You go to that section and it says you have to go to the appendix of the zoning ordinance. I get lost, and I’m used to reading this kind of stuff. How could anybody sitting out in the hills think this is going to be easy?
But it isn’t as complicated as it looks on paper. Depending on what you envision and what business model you would like to pursue, there will be a way to do it.
There’s been a number of advocacy groups that are really interested in helping their neighbors and their community to make it through this. I go to events, and people take me aside and tell me about their worries. I’m looking forward to when we pass this new ordinance, because it’ll open up opportunities for people that couldn’t do this before.
I’d love to see a time when a section of the housing in our rural areas was not taken up for indoor growing. We need housing. We need workforce housing. The plants should be out in the sun, and the people should be in the houses! So hopefully we will make that happen.
ET: Tell us about the Track and Trace pilot program.
EF: The state, in its wisdom, decided that they are going to do one model statewide. We participate in that, but Humboldt County and others around us decided that we needed our own Track and Trace program, too. The state uses software called Excella, and it’s easy for Humboldt County’s program, SICPA, to use the same data.
I’m very proud of Humboldt for this. I really like SICPA, and I really like the model that we came up with. It’s very helpful to the county, and it’s also helpful to the cultivator.
I’m even happier now than when we first made that decision. SICPA is a known entity, they know what it’s like in Humboldt County, they’ve already worked with cultivators on this model. Their model makes it possible to also strengthen the Humboldt brand.
Humboldt County products will feature a special stamp with a QR code. You can take your phone and scan it to learn where the product came from. If the grower allows it, you can see what the garden looks like, what the family looks like, what the end product looks like, what it was like to grow that plant.
Law enforcement officers can quickly verify who’s permitted, and who has a right to be taking what product to market. From the retailer’s perspective, they can see that it actually did come from Humboldt County, and display it appropriately.
We’re right now in the process of coming up with the Humboldt stamp. There will be a small fee for doing the State and County systems, but I think it will be well worth the money.
When legalization began rolling out around a year ago, there were some outfits that popped up out of nowhere, calling themselves Humboldt products. Thanks to Senator McGuire and Assemblyman Wood working with the state legislature, now there’s a provision in state law that prohibits that. You can’t take the name of a county and put it on your product, unless you’re actually growing in that county.
One example was a vape pen called hmbldt. That name will be illegal, starting in January. It won’t be acceptable to use the name of Humboldt, or something that appears to imply the name. It would be the same for Mendocino with MNDCN, or Trinity with TRNTY.
We are beginning to see a lot of manufacturing and processing and packaging at a local level. Product is being pre-packaged down to the joints and the cigarettes and other products, and the more broken down the products are, the greater their value in the long run. It’s called a value-added product.
If somebody has a pound of marijuana and it’s not broken up into different products, like lotions or cookies, then the only thing that gets the stamp is that pound. If it’s broken up into quarters or cigarettes, each one of those gets a stamp.
If that pound goes outside of Humboldt County and is then broken up, those value-added products won’t get the Humboldt stamp. So that is an incentive for people to locate their manufacturing businesses, their processing and packaging and distribution businesses, in Humboldt County. That’s another important part of Track and Trace.
We have had overwhelming support from the industry for actually going that extra step with SICPA. When they did the pilot program, products that had the Humboldt branding got priority placement in the dispensaries down south.
Humboldt is recognized as a brand, and so this gives people the ability to take advantage of that before it goes away. Obviously the industry will do more branding, but the counties stamp is branding in and of itself.
ET: What should cannabis growers in the second district keep in mind?
EF: I think cannabis growers in the second district and Humboldt in general should keep in mind that we are really working on making this a system that works for everybody. If we pull together, I think we can achieve what seems like a huge task. I actually see change happening faster than I expected it to. It just takes a little bit.
There’s quite a number of people who have stepped up and put themselves on the line, and have become the examples of the way to do it. I’m not saying anything negative about those who haven’t started permitting, but I just love meeting people who have gone through the process. It’s so nice to hear them saying, “You know what, I’m glad I did this, I really am.”
I was kind of holding my breath there, because it’s tough. People felt ignored, they felt discriminated against, they felt all that stuff for years. So I knew it was going to be a challenge for some people to step up, and so I’m so proud of the ones who have. Some of them are very conscious people. Across the board, rednecks and hippies, they’re all doing it.
The other day, the Director said that of the 2,300 applications that came in, 1,800 have completed their applications. That’s enormous, because completing your application means dealing with the Fish and Wildlife Service, Cal Fire, Water Quality Control, the Tribes, and so many other entities, as well as the Planning Department and the Agricultural Commissioner.
To think that so many people have made it all the way to having a complete application is very impressive. I think we owe a big thanks to the people who have gone through all that process, and a very big thanks also to our Planning Director, who had the vision to bring on extra people to handle this historic change.
When I first got involved in Humboldt County government, the complaint was that you couldn’t get a permit through, and we’re not even talking about cannabis. Now they’re just churning through stacks and stacks every day. It’s become way more efficient. It’s like a gift in disguise to the Planning Department, to become more streamlined and better operating.
What’s been a model for very long time in California, and I would say across the nation, is that the more populated areas got most of the attention. The issues that were important to rural areas, such as Fish and Wildlife, didn’t get as much attention from the legislature. There wasn’t as much attention to those issues. Now it’s statewide, and in every single county there are issues that need to be addressed, and they need to be addressed now. So it’s good for rural counties to have more of a say at the State level, and we’re feeling it. I think we could do a lot of good.
Supervisor Fennell can be reached at her county email at firstname.lastname@example.org.