Mendocino County in northern California has a population under 90,000, but is known worldwide. It is part of a region known as the Emerald Triangle, where cannabis has been grown for decades, long before voters in the state approved adult use legalization in 2016, and before they approved medical cannabis in 1996.
So when regulators and elected officials start talking about equity, it means something somewhat different in this rural context than in, say, Oakland or Los Angeles. While all three received grants from the $30 million awarded through the Cannabis Equity Grants Program for Local Jurisdictions this week, which Cannabis Wire covered, the former will be focused on bringing operators out of the shadows, for example, where they’ve hid from law enforcement raids and seizures for decades, and into compliance, while the latter will be focused more on job training and fee reductions, for example, for those affected by the disproportionate enforcement of cannabis laws in communities of color.
Cannabis Wire had an interview with Brent Schultz, the planning and building services director for the County of Mendocino, and Sarah Dukett, deputy chief executive officer for the county.
(This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.)
Alyson Martin, Cannabis Wire: How will Mendocino County use the $2,245,704.40 that the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development (GO-Biz) and the Bureau of Cannabis Control announced? What was the application process like?
Brent Shulz, Mendocino County: This funding will really help our applicants. We’ve got about 900 in the pipeline that we call our Phase I applicants, they’re all cultivators.
Sarah Dukett, Mendocino County: I would say what’s unique about our equity proposal and our equity assessment is, if you look at some of the programs that have got funding, they’re primarily in urban areas, some of them suburban.
And their equity is a little bit different. Up here, we’re primarily cultivation. Most people in our program are adversely hurt by the war on drugs. I mean, large scale raids and things like that, because we were supplying the cannabis to the urban areas. Us, and Humboldt County, are probably the two counties that are really focusing a lot more, I think, on cultivation than the other jurisdictions, just because they typically have more manufacturing, distribution, and retail. We do have some of those here, but the vast majority are these legacy cultivators that either were cultivating maybe in the 70s or 80s, or after medical cannabis became legal with Prop 215, but they’ve been primarily cultivating. And so that’s where I think the program is going to help the most. And that was the bulk of our application, was trying to focus on the farmers, and the farmers that were really hurt during the war on drugs in the 80s and 90s and early 2000s.
Alyson Martin, Cannabis Wire: California regulators are still trying to get illicit market cannabis cultivators to become legal. How does this funding apply to that issue, and in terms of bolstering legal operators?
Sarah Dukett, Mendocino County: Well, I think people came up here to grow cannabis for a reason: because it’s out of the way.
So, where these traditional legacy cultivation sites are, are not necessarily the easiest to comply with the strict environmental laws in the State of California. And then a lot of the properties that the cultivating industry bought were former logging operations, which have a lot of legacy environmental issues. And so if you’re going to become a legal cannabis grower in the state, you have to get your physical buildings up to code. I mean, you have people trimming in their garage or in their house. Well, now those people are agricultural employees and they need to be in a building that’s permitted, and that costs money. And then, you know, you may have been on a legacy timber site, but now that you’re in this, you need to replace your culverts.
And that’s really expensive. So, I think there’s a lot of barriers to entry that you just didn’t have to experience in the black market. And it costs a lot of money to do business in California and to get your properties up to par. And hopefully this program, through things like fee waivers or funding to help with regulatory compliance, or some of these capital improvements, will help.
Right now, cannabis grows here are ten thousand square feet or under. So that’s really tiny. That’s considered really small, like specialty small.
And you’re not going to be able to compete with people that are growing, you know, fifteen acres in Santa Barbara, in terms of being able to put the capital or the money into getting your permits and your licenses. So we’re hoping that through this program, with people that were adversely affected and are trying to get legal, that maybe this kind of helps them to actually get a license and have a place in California. I think one of the unintended consequences of Proposition 64, which legalized adult use cannabis in 2016, is that it really helps big corporate entities in cannabis, and a lot of these people that were doing this since Proposition 215, which legalized medical cannabis are being run out of business.
Alyson Martin, Cannabis Wire: Which stakeholders are you talking to in California when it comes to how best to use this funding? Who, specifically, and what are you discussing?
Sarah Dukett, Mendocino County: Things that work in urban counties won’t work here. And I think we have looked at some of the other jurisdictions to try to take a lot of things that they’ve done that’s worked, and we consider that and try to look at it through a little lens and perspective.
We used the California Center for Rural Policy out of Humboldt State—and they also have the Humboldt Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research—they helped us with our equity assessment. And they’re also helping other rural jurisdictions look at putting together this equity assessment. So I think there’s things to be learned from our urban and suburban partners, but it will look different on the ground in rural counties. And we have a very active association, Mendocino Cannabis Alliance (MCA), and I know Humboldt does as well.
So we have a very vocal and active cannabis industry here and they’ve partnered with us on day one with equity.
Alyson Martin, Cannabis Wire: What are some of the other priorities for the equity funds?
Brent Shulz, Mendocino County: What I like about it is, when there’s new programs like this from the state, and you are in on it early, there’s innovation that happens in those early grant processes.
It’s good for us to get this now, so we get in on the ground floor and we can work with the state and other folks, like Humboldt, in developing what works and what doesn’t. And working with MCA and Origins Council and the other groups that are real active here. And let’s develop something that really works for our cultivators that will actually, you know, get them in business, help them be successful, and continue on. You know, they’re all employing people. They’re all buying products and services in the county. There’s a multiplier effect on what they’re doing. They pay cannabis business taxes that go right in to provide government services. And so there’s so many positives to these kinds of programs. And so there’s a real opportunity here to fund government services, create jobs, and build an industry here.
Sarah Dukett, Mendocino County: I think two things come to mind. One, that the small farmer survives. That has been a real fear since Proposition 64 came into effect. That the farmer that you think about, that has their garden, tends to the garden, that that could die. That it’s just going to be mega grows, and that’s just the way it’s going to be in California.
So, maybe spending these funds to help them, you know, get their capital improvements or have the money to even get a state license, which is very pricey, get through our door or get through the state’s, that they have a chance to continue to be a small business.
It is a strange time, and I don’t think we really know what the COVID- 19 pandemic is going to do to our economy or the cannabis industry. And maybe this grant is a gift that’s coming to us at this time, that we’re going to need this to help these businesses because we don’t really know what the impacts are going to be long term on the cannabis industry.