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Legal marijuana in other states hurts livelihood of California growers

While marijuana is associated with millions in tax revenue, it has not led to growth in the communities that first brought pot to popularity.
Marijuana legalization in California hurting livelihood of growers
Posted at 5:40 PM, Mar 18, 2024

Tax dollars have always been seen as one of the best parts of marijuana legalization. In a three-county region of Northern California known as the "Emerald Triangle," the opposite effect has happened as marijuana legalization has spread across the U.S., and it's threatening the livelihood of thousands of families.

Hayfork, California, was built on a sacred bond between land and people — but as evidenced by the empty storefronts in the small remote town, emotional intimacy does not always translate to economic prosperity.

Formed in the late 1960s during the free love movement, the three-county region of Trinity, Humboldt and Mendocino was built on the marijuana industry. Leading up to 2017, the state estimated that 80% of nation's illicit pot supply came from this region. But in 2018, Prop 64 took effect, making weed legal in California. Suddenly the cultivators that had built their lives there and supported the economy left as laws became stricter, and running a legitimate cannabis operation became far more expensive. In the span of a year, Trinity County, where Hayfork is located, went from thousands of marijuana farms to only 200. 

"It's excruciating. It's painful to watch hardworking families, and a crop with very complex history that is often misunderstood, you know, kind of have to bear the brunt of what is almost a continuation of the same old war on drugs," said Karla Avila, executive director or Trinity County Agriculture Alliance.

It left families like Karla Avila's, whose parents also own a marijuana farm, as the only ones to prop up the once-bustling economy. 

"There's a lot of trauma that comes to a community through this sort of militarized enforcement mindset around something that is part of your way of life," said Avila. "It requires a healing process. It's deeply rooted trauma that requires a community-wide healing process."

SEE MORE: Vice President Kamala Harris holds roundtable on marijuana policies

The thing about deeply-rooted trauma, though, is that it doesn't always present itself on the surface.

The very appropriately named Happy moved to work on Sol Spirit Farms in rural Trinity County almost 10 years ago. It's a small craft farm that focuses on organic growing and sunlight. 

With every new state that legalizes, it poses additional risks to those who call these mountains home as many cultivators will take the skills they learned here and move to more corporate marijuana companies in states with burgeoning markets. This also means fewer people looking to these smaller farms for pot. 

"When I first got here, there were all kinds of ... people coming to Emerald Triangle to work in the cannabis industry because it's world-renowned — and there's a 100 people on the street looking for jobs when I first came here. Now there are very few — very few," said Happy. 

That exodus has only further highlighted the squalor. In December of 2022, the number of people in Trinity County enrolled in food benefits was 31% higher than it was in 2021, and 71% higher than it was in 2019 according to state data.

Some people like Judi Nelson, who owns Sol Spirit Farms, think the only way to return the area to its former prosperity is federal legalization which they hope would allow them to ship their product across state lines.

"I am actually looking forward to that day where I can, you know, if you want to use the word 'compete' on a whole national market, because then my customer base can be expanded," said Nelson. 

This isn't what this area expected, and it certainly isn't what it had hoped for, but it's highlighted how something as progressive as marijuana can be regressive for those who started its growth.

"Unless federal legalization includes a pathway for small, craft producers, it's going to be difficult in the Emerald Triangle," said Avila. 

SEE MORE: 5 arrested over California desert killings in dispute over marijuana

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