Frustration and Fear: Local Cannabis Farmers Ask for Help, Claim Measure S Could Put Them Out of Business and Deprive County of Their Tax Revenue
Yesterday morning, a standing room only crowd packed the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors meeting as multiple speakers from the cannabis farmer community used the public comment period to express frustration and fear. In particular, most addressed Measure S, a county tax on marijuana grows. (Those wishing to view the meeting can go here. The actual comments period begins about minute 39.) Afterwards, a number of the farmers spoke to reporters in front of the Courthouse.
Many of the those speaking both in the meeting and out said they are struggling to move into the legal world and comply with what they perceive as an onerous and confusing process–one that several farmers, at least one with a longstanding store, told us later was much more onerous and confusing than most businesses face.
Although almost all the farmers expressed frustration at the burden Measure S as implemented by the County imposed on them, most didn’t ask to have it abolished but rather they had a number of suggestions for amendments or simply pled for help from the Board saying that putting farmers out of business was bad for County economically. Sequoia Hudson, a farmer who also works at a cannabis business, stated in the meeting, “I speak to a lot of farmers. Not one has ever said they didn’t want to pay taxes.” However, she said, the taxes pushed by Measure S were more than was reasonable and, more importantly, they could push cannabis growers out of the business. This, she argued, could harm the county as a whole. “If they have gone broke,” she said, “they won’t be able to pay [taxes.]”
Nicole Keenan, a Southern Humboldt farmer, was in tears as she argued, “We’re all working so hard to be part of this community and you are killing us.”
A lecturer in Anthropology, Fred Krissman, who is studying the marijuana farmers and writing a book about the Emerald County growers, told the Board that of the 30 case studies many are worried about going broke. He explained,
[The growers] are not being able to make ends meet…If Humboldt County doesn’t want to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs that produces at least a third and probably a lot more of the total private sector revenues for this county, now is the time…to think of a way to work with small family farmers so they can stay on the land and continue being productive even as they go through the legalization process… If we don’t do that, we are going to have an explosion in the black market [and] a renewed drug war.”
Charlotte Silverstein, a small business owner for 33 years in Southern Humboldt, said that even those not in the cannabis industry were suffering. “It’s dead in Garberville,” she said adding that other store owners were telling her that business was down “30% to 60%.” She scoffed, “Whoever thought of taxing something before it was grown.”
The farmers also described a process that had goalposts that kept changing. One man described how he and his family searched for a piece of property that met all the conditions for a legal cannabis grow last year including the garden being at least 600 feet from any school bus stop. They sunk their life’s savings into purchasing it, entering into the permit process, and then having Fortuna School District situate a bus stop close enough to their garden during the nearly year-long permit process so that their property was no longer eligible to be a legal grow.
Other farmers pointed out the tax actually encouraged non-environmental practices. Dan Gribi, previously the Salmon Creek Volunteer Fire Chief for 29 years, said his cannabis garden included old fruit trees and he was required to include them in his taxable square footage which meant that the County was disincentivizing growing a non-mono crop.
Furthermore, many of the farmers were furious at what Reuben Childs, a Southern Humboldt grower, called “shady moves” by the County when a letter was sent out in December that he and others felt tricked cultivators into signing an interim permit at the end of 2017 that made them liable for the entire 2017 tax when other farmers who simply waited until after January 1 to sign the permit were not liable.
Mark Switzer, who says he has several business licenses in Humboldt County said, “I feel this was a very misleading letter.” He quoted it as saying, “…[T]o enable the department to start licensing procedures, sign this letter before January 1.” Many farmers thought that if they didn’t sign the letter they were harming their chances to get a permit which was not the case, he said.
After the meeting, many farmers pointed out that the tax was hitting particularly hard at an industry that they said was staggering under the double whammy of precipitous price drops and coming into compliance with rules and conditions that change even as they wait for applications to be approved.
Several told us that they had voted for the tax but hadn’t expected that the tax would be applied even on years they didn’t grow. One farmer told us that though their property hadn’t had cannabis cultivated on it for several years, when they rushed to comply with what they told us they felt was a deceptively worded letter from the County, they ended up being billed over $30,000 in taxes for 2017. “What happens if someone gets sick and can’t grow?” another asked. “Then they have to pay a bunch of money when they are too sick to earn any?”
Because Measure S and the farmers’ concerns weren’t on the agenda, the Board could not address the issues at the meeting.