Critics warn ‘Karen initiative’ could wipe out California pot farms

Critics warn ‘Karen initiative’ could wipe out California pot farms

Critics warn ‘Karen initiative’ could wipe out Calif. pot farms

By Lester Black

 Aug 21, 2023.

Pot farmers in Humboldt County, one of the largest pot-growing counties in California, say they’re facing an “existential threat” to their livelihoods, but this time, it isn’t a contagious crop disease or crashing wholesale prices — it’s their own neighbors.

The local cannabis industry is on high alert after a new ballot initiative — which would limit the size of pot farms and severely restrict any modifications to existing ones — qualified for a March 2024 election. The local farmers are warning that passing the initiative would destroy the local commercial cannabis industry.

“It would be very effective at putting the final nail in the coffin and just shutting down the industry,” said Dylan Mattole, a Humboldt County cannabis farmer.

Even the county government is warning that the initiative would have dire consequences. A June report prepared by the Humboldt County Planning and Building Department said that the initiative would make it so hard for farmers to comply with the proposed restrictions that the “legal market [would be] rendered not viable in Humboldt County.”

Despite the criticisms and concerns, the initiative’s creators are not backing down. Betsy Watson, one of the measure’s creators, said the initiative will hurt big pot farms but ultimately will help small, family-owned pot farms.

“It will be five or 10 years before we know who is correct, but I think our rules give the family farm a much better shot,” Watson said to SFGATE. “If you are a person who is now farming legally and have your pony hitched to the expansion wagon, it will hurt you.”

The initiative has become deeply controversial in Humboldt County, which has the largest cannabis farming industry in Northern California’s Emerald Triangle, according to state cannabis licensing data. The local cannabis trade group calls the initiative an “existential threat,” while farmers have dubbed it the “Karen initiative” and are describing it as misleading and funded by a small group of “NIMBYs” (a derogatory term for those who harbor “not in my backyard” sentiments toward new development). 

Stricter farming regulations

The idea for the controversial initiative got its start in the fall of 2021, after a pot farm was approved in the small community of Kneeland, in the Humboldt County mountains not far from the Pacific Coast. According to Lost Coast Outpost, a group of mostly retired neighbors worried that they would be able to see the farm from their homes, that the farm would bring excessive traffic to their roads and that it would use too much water.

The group tried to block the farm from moving forward, but when that failed, it decided it was time to rewrite the county’s pot rules. The initiative has since been bankrolled primarily by two donors: over $17,000 from Watson and $35,000 from Audrey Thurmond, another retiree living in Kneeland. By late 2022, the initiative had over 7,000 signatures, enough to qualify for a March 2024 vote. 

If passed, the initiative would bring far stricter rules that limit pot farm size to 10,000 square feet, or less than a quarter acre; it would reduce the number of farm permits allowed in the county; and it would block individuals from holding multiple cannabis cultivation permits, according to the county analysis.

These changes would put most of the existing pot farms in violation of the county’s regulations, rendering them “nonconforming,” according to the county analysis, and unable to make modifications without complying with the lengthy list of new rules.

For the 70% of Humboldt farms that are larger than 10,000 square feet, that would mean reducing their farm size if they want to make almost any changes to their property, according to the county’s analysis.

The initiative’s backers have contested the county’s analysis, calling it “overblown and inaccurate” in a June 26 letter. The letter claims that the county has more flexibility in implementing the initiative in ways that won’t hurt as many cannabis farmers. “County staff appears to be looking for interpretations that harm growers, even where those interpretations are not supported (much less compelled) by the Initiative’s text,” the letter said.

A ‘misleading’ initiative?

The ballot measure has become even more controversial after critics accused signature gatherers in March of this year of misleading the public by describing the measure as a way to protect small family farms from “industrial mega-grows.” 

According to the county analysis, the initiative would burden even the smallest farms in the county, and there are currently no pot farms in Humboldt County that can be described as “industrial mega-grows.” The largest legal pot farm in the county is reportedly 8 acres, far smaller than California’s industrial pot farms in other counties, which can span over 100 acres in size. A 2021 study found that Humboldt’s median pot farm size was 0.09 hectares, while Santa Barbara County’s median pot farm size was 1.2 hectares. 

The county analysis concludes that the public likely “does not understand what this initiative would do,” and Michelle Bushnell, a county supervisor representing Southern Humboldt, called the initiative “misleading.” She said she knows multiple people who originally signed the initiative but later regretted it when they realized it wasn’t just a ban on large farms.

Even Watson told SFGATE that she thinks some local cannabis farmers signed the initiative only to later regret it. “I think there are a couple of growers who wish they hadn’t signed it,” Watson said.

The one thing all sides agree on is that the initiative would be extremely hard to change if it were to pass in March. The proposal would directly modify the county’s general plan, which is effectively a constitution for California municipalities that can only be changed by future citizen initiatives.

Watson said that permanence was intentional: “That is why we chose an initiative, because it’s the county supervisors that messed this up in the first place.” But Bushnell said if the initiative’s regulations don’t work, there will be no quick way to fix them — a prospect that is deeply frightening for small-business owners.

“In one [growing] season, you’re broke. You’re done. You’re out of business. It takes longer than that to get something on a ballot,” Bushnell said. “It’s not an easy process to change. When it’s your livelihood, how scary is that?”

By Lester Black

Lester Black is SFGATE’s contributing cannabis editor. He was born in Torrance, raised in Seattle, and has written for, High Country News, The Guardian, The Albuquerque Journal, The Tennessean, and many other publications. He was previously the cannabis columnist for The Stranger.