By Donna Tam/The Times-Standard
For Southern Humboldt resident Kristin Nevedal, an avid gardener and a trained herbalist, marijuana is just another plant.
”It doesn't make sense to me that there's not access to it, and it doesn't make sense that you can't grow it in your backyard,” she said, adding that any herbal plant can be abused if taken improperly.
The key is education, Nevedal said.
As the medical marijuana industry grows and evolves, residents like Nevedal are bringing their beliefs and craft to the forefront through trade groups such as the Humboldt Growers Association.
Nevedal, who is vice present of the association, said the Southern Humboldt-based nonprofit hopes to ensure a future for medical marijuana growers with a legitimate and safe agricultural and medicinal industry model. The group's website lists environmental protection, job creation, public safety and patient wellness as its key issues.
”Humboldt County is a producing county, and wanting to hone that and trying to create some rights for farmers is really important to us,” she said.
After a year of lobbying local and state legislators, the Humboldt Growers Association is expanding. The nonprofit launched its membership drive earlier this month and has been tabling at events for exposure. Additionally, it's the sponsor of Dell'Arte's cannabis-themed musical -- “Mary Jane: the Musical” -- which opened Thursday night.
”We have learned a lot about county politics and public policy along the way and have gotten a lot of support and input from key stakeholders in the industry locally and statewide,” President Joey Burger wrote in an email to the Times-Standard. “It has taken time to get our organization up to speed, and we are now ready to expand our membership and, as a medical cannabis trade association, share our resources with the rest of the community. It is only through the support of our members and community that we can ensure Humboldt is a leader in this growing industry.”
The growth of the trade
The group formed in summer 2010 and quickly caught the attention of local officials, including then-4th District Supervisor Bonnie Neely. During her re-election campaign, Neely sponsored a workshop featuring the HGA to discuss the future of the marijuana industry in Humboldt. Legalization was a pivotal campaign issue for many politicians during the election, with Proposition 19 -- which would have legalized marijuana for recreational use -- on the ballot. Members of the group donated heavily to Neely's campaign and the campaign of District Attorney Paul Gallegos.
Since leaving office, Neely has appeared before the Humboldt County Planning Commission as a consultant for the group. She said she has been monitoring legislation at state and federal level and participating in HGA strategy sessions.
”I chose to work for them because the Humboldt Growers Association is made up of Humboldt County people with Humboldt County families who are making every effort to work with county government and make our community safer and stronger,” Neely wrote in an email to the Times-Standard. “Working with the HGA board is a pleasure.”
The group also attracted ire early on from other Humboldt pot farmers who thought HGA was a selective group of growers with large-scale operations.
Prior to the inception of HGA, a group of Southern Humboldt residents launched the Humboldt Medical Marijuana Advisory Panel. The group identified itself as a voice for small “mom and pop” growers, and some of its founders initiated the first countywide meetings on the marijuana industry.
Panel member Charlie Custer said the two groups formed with different objectives in mind, but the ultimate goals may be the same -- to help Humboldt farmers be recognized as producers of a safe product.
Custer said the small farmers actually are the backbone of the industry in Humboldt, not a handful of big growers.
”We want to make sure that those people aren't cut out of the legalization process as it moves forward,” he said. “I think HGA is sympathetic to these points, but it's not what motivated them to start HGA.”
The HGA has 10 members, and the recent membership drive launch has prompted inquiries for membership daily, according to HGA Outreach Coordinator Alison Sterling Nichols. She said those numbers should increase when an ordinance is in place that provides protections for growers.
”Obviously, Humboldt County has long been associated with high-quality cannabis, but still has a relatively small legal medical cannabis community,” she said. “The HGA is working to help get a county ordinance in place so that more people in Humboldt can become a part of this legal medical industry.”
Nevedal said the nonprofit wanted to make sure it established itself before opening up to general membership, which it is doing now.
”I know people were critical and concerned, and I completely understand that,” she said. “But I think it was really good for us to get our focus of intent down so that we can really have a good discussion.”
Nichols said that conversation is happening now, with members of HuMMAP meeting with HGA to work toward a common goal.
”This is something that everyone can benefit from,” she said. “We can all get on the same page and move forward together.”
Change in the Capitol
In the last year, the HGA has made a name for itself at the county level and state level, submitting input and crafting draft ordinances for Humboldt while also being a voice for growers and patients at the state capital through its lobbyist, Max Del Real, who advised HGA during its inception. He recently formed the Sacramento-based California Cannabis Business League. Burger is a board member.
Del Real said what sets HGA apart is its focus on economic development through the sale of safe, regulated medicine and better business practices.
”At the end of the day, you can't just scream about your medicine, you got to talk about the politicians and the policymakers here,” Del Real said.
Humboldt County Community Services Director Kirk Girard said the HGA's input has been very helpful to the county.
”They add some professionalism to the industry,” he said. “They have really good intentions, and so far they've been very perceptive and got a pretty good vision of how a legalized medical cannabis could operate, and they seem to have raised the bar from the dispensary end of the supply chain all the way back to the grower.”
Del Real, who helped get dispensary regulations passed in Sacramento before working with HGA, said he recognizes that cannabis is an industry worth billions of dollars and thinks the HGA was the first organization of its kind -- an organization that put Humboldt even further on the map.
”Pot and pot policy is a very muddy field wherever you go,” Del Real said. “Everyone's an expert, everyone knows someone, and then you get into Humboldt County and it's intensified by 100 degrees.”
He said the organization is working on creating legislation that will allow marijuana to be sold across state lines, likening the export opportunity to California cheeses -- a niche manufacturing and specialty foods market.
”If you want outdoor grown -- like California cheeses -- some of the best cannabis in the world, we can create a process legally where we can really move medicine across state lines,” he said. “That's just one of the many global issues that we're looking at.”
Burger said a focus on state and federal policy is vital to the burgeoning legal market.
”Humboldt's needs are obviously very different than the rest of California,” Burger wrote in his email. “We can assume that what is right for L.A. or San Jose is not acceptable for our community.”
Custer said HuMMAP's focus is more on ensuring that small farmers are incorporated into the regulations with a focus on organic, outdoor cannabis, but he can see why HGA's approach may be more palatable for regulators trying to get a grasp on the business.
”The big industrial growers want legitimacy, they want to be able to continue making very good money in perfect legality, and government is very open to their desires because they are the very easy, low-hanging fruit,” he said.
In order to ensure that the county has solid regulations in place to address the numerous issues involved with the industry -- the prevention of grow houses, ensuring the quality of medical marijuana, outdoor cultivation standards -- there needs to be input from lots of different sources, Girard said.
He said both groups have a lot of the same concerns and want to reach the same goals.
”All the people here in Humboldt are trying to provide a working model for this industry; they're all working toward the greater good,” Girard said.
Nevedal said it is fortunate that county officials are listening at all.
”We have officials that recognize but don't really know the industry, so while they see some value in it for patients and they see how it's supported the community, they don't necessarily understand it,” she said. “So I think one of the main roles the HGA can play is education. I think the more familiar people are with it, the more educated they are, the better choices they are going to make -- just like any thing else.”