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The Humboldt Medical Marijuana Advisory Panel is a community-based nonpartisan policy group created to foster comprehensive approaches to legal marijuana policy, integrating health, safety, economic, and regulatory issues in Humboldt County, California and the United States.

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Economics Of Legalization

By Charley Custer
Originally published in the Arcata Eye

Many Humboldters enjoy making up facts about marijuana, and I won’t spoil the fun with certainties on the subject. But we don’t have to guess how big the elephant is in our grow rooms. Researchers at HSU’s Schatz Energy Research Center have highlighted a growing divergence in Humboldt’s per capita energy use, which began rising from steady state averages after the passage of Proposition 215 in 1995.

In the 15 years since marijuana’s decriminalization ball got rolling, Humboldt’s per capita grid-tied electrical consumption has increased by 30 per cent, while state use held steady. The researchers suggest that this annual energy load—90 million kilowatt-hours in 2007— goes to grow lights for growing money, I mean marijuana.

How much money? You can read the next two paragraphs, or skip them and trust me: one thousand-watt grow light running on average 12 hours a day all year would draw 4,320 kilowatts of juice. Allowing for 18-hour periods within grow cycles, and down times, we can round this down to 4000 kilowatts. Divide 90 million kilowatts by 4000 and we have 22,500, which is the number of typical grow lights that would draw all that juice.

There are usually four to five grow cycles per year per light. Each cycle grows about a pound per light. If the average is a bit over four cycles per year, we can conclude that about 100,000 pounds of marijuana are produced under grid-powered grow lights in Humboldt County each year. At an average price of, say, $3000 a pound, those 50 tons of pot are worth $300 million dollars a year.

By contrast, the largest Humboldt county employment sector recognized by the U.S. Census Bureau is Health Care and Social Assistance, with a 2007 payroll of $222 million for 6875 employees. Next was retail trade, whose payroll of $172 million went to 7724 people. Forestry paid out $35 million to 465 people.

See where I’m going here? Subtracting $100 million for costs, urban grow scenes by themselves are the second largest employment sector in Humboldt County. They’re how so many of our kids stay in the county after leaving school. But wait, there’s more!

We can guesstimate that there’s as much diesel dope coming out of the countryside as comes from grow rooms and houses in town. And at least that much more sun bud grows outdoors in the hills. With the Schatz figure as a confirmed baseline, there’s no disputing that marijuana cultivation in Humboldt County is a billion-dollar business. It dwarfs all other employment sectors, even without the customary 2.5 multiplier used to emphasize the importance of our declining traditional industries.

So let’s hurry up and put pot out of business, right?

There’s some familiar defeatist thinking that the big boys of Oakland and Winston-Salem will extirpate our economic base, so we might as well stop thinking about it. The more I learn about what’s called legal marijuana, the less I believe we’ll be diddled out of our pound of kush—if we work together to create a future for our foundational industry. But that’s a lot to ask for an industry that’s weakened neighborhoods, damaged watersheds and annoyed and threatened citizens across the county—though our previous economic bulwarks all did the same. The question that’s flummoxed policymakers until now is, how do we control their eggs, without killing our golden geese?

The answer is, we can’t. We have to cooperate with golden geese, corralling without controlling them. That’s the thing about geese, which is easier to accept when the geese are legal. What do we do about our latest, fattest and shadiest golden goose, whose tens of thousands of jobs and dependents now may be threatened?

Some jobs will undoubtedly be lost in the coming changes, but without spending so much as a Headwaters grant we can conserve and strengthen many jobs, securing property owners and taxpayers while systematically mitigating their impacts for the first time—if we can bring ourselves to create intelligent policy on this issue.

Decentralized Mom-and-Pop growing was proposed by a Dutch study as the best method for reducing crime associated with marijuana. We’ve already got that covered. A business model is being invested in right now in SoHum that pools small growers into a cooperative that decentralizes both criminal temptations and impacts of growing, while continuously improving sustainability as part of its branding for Bay Area consumers with similar values. Grades of pot in this scheme are based on their growers’ achievements of the brand’s Salmon Safe Sensimilla.

Can we encourage sustainable sunshine grows, forbearance from summer water draws, standards for road and runoff improvements, and evolution of cultivation practices toward an ideal of self-sufficiency? To complement individual efforts, rural reformers must gain a critical mass of urban support before officials will get behind such programs.

It’s worth noting that legal collectives do something Humboldters outside the cannabis culture have long complained isn’t done—they report and pay income taxes. Medical growing, thanks to the indoor industries, already supports hundreds of above-board jobs in dispensaries and supply stores. We can encourage further small business growth and economic stability with cooperative planning.

Is it possible for us to get past our ancestral fixed positions on pot, and plan together a stable and prosperous future? I don’t know, but I hope we start to find out this weekend, at the Humboldt Medical Marijuana Advisory Panel’s forum entitled “Humboldt Cannabis—A Future of Opportunity” on Saturday from 2 to 6 at the Bayside Grange. It’s time for fresh thinking and nimble action on a countywide scale—because we’ll die of the bright ideas of others if we don’t start re-thinking ourselves.

Charley Custer is Secretary of the Humboldt Medical Marijuana Advisory Panel http://hummap.org and a Redway writer

2 comments to The Elephant In The Grow Room

  • It’s nice to see the robust discussion taking place in Humboldt, if only because economic arguments are a change of pace from the standard reefer rhetoric found in other communities.

    So far, however, the comments I’ve seen coming from Humboldt have failed to inspire. Large-scale cultivation, a la Oakland, is seen as inherently evil, and the Big Tobacco bogeyman is seen lurking everywhere. “Mom-and-pop” growers are depicted as the preferred business model, even noble, but that’s a moral argument, not an economic one.

    Truth be known, capitalism has room for everyone under the big tent of legalization. Don’t be scared of big business: It provides vital jobs and worker protections, supports related industries, and wields the necessary political clout that the mom-and-pops have yet to develop. For those who demand the finest, or simply want an excuse to visit the north coast, Humboldt can and will serve customers with unique and inventive cannabis products.

    As for those who tremble at the words “Big Tobacco,” please stop; until federal law changes, their market entry is stalled. Start building the business infrastructure for small and mid-sized growers, pay your taxes and buddy up to state and local pols. There’s still a huge amount of ignorance out there; HUMMAP and similar groups have much work to do.

    Besdies, turning the “free market” into something less than that will not serve cannabis users long-term, not in Humboldt or anywhere else. Big business is not the enemy … prohibition is. Prop. 19 delivers more local control options than statewide regulatory models like AB 2254. Humboldt should be singing Prop. 19’s praises, not grousing about it with naked self-interest from growers afraid of losing their livelihood.



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