By Jonah Raskin —
Remember the Biblical plagues — water turning to blood, infestations of frogs, lice, flies, plus livestock pestilence, hail, locusts, and darkness? Sure you do. There are others just as unforgettable, including the curse on firstborn children. As a species, human beings have been whining about disasters for thousands of years. Some of the loudest and most persistent complaints have come from farmers who have faced and still face droughts, floods, pests and market fluctuations. Recently, a local wine industry publication observed that, “wildfires, economic uncertainty, politics and a worldwide pandemic have all conspired to shake our core.”
Conspired? Has there really been a conspiracy against the wine industry? Some observers think so. Men and women who cultivated cannabis don’t just think so. They know so. Indeed, paranoia grows wild in the minds and the imaginations of pot heads, stoners, medical marijuana patients, dispensary owners and employees as well as the farmers who cultivate cannabis and hemp outdoors and indoors, too, in the Valley of the Moon, on Sonoma Mountain and in the Mayacamas.
As psychiatrists and psychologists have observed, even paranoids have real enemies. The dazed, the confused and the suspicious don’t just or only hallucinate dangers, though they can do that. They encounter real obstacles in the real world almost every day, battle bureaucrats, red tape and yellow tape. The U.S. Constitution supposedly guarantees freedom of speech, protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, a modicum if not more of privacy and the right not to self-incriminate
The mantra that marijuana growers, dealers and the like hear most often is, not you have a right to privacy and are innocent until proven guilty, but rather “Everything you say will be used against you in a court of law.” Neighbors spy on them and file complaints with county agencies about the smell of ripe marijuana flowers, though some find it as pleasant as the aroma of roses.
Drones fly overhead and keep an eye on what farmers are growing, where they’re growing it, how they’re drying and processing it. The prohibition against pot supposedly ended years ago, but employees and agents with County Code Enforcement still often act like the plant is illegal.
At Solful, the clean, well-lite Sebastopol dispensary, co-founder and CEO Eli Melrod worries big time about the small and medium sized growers in Sonoma County and in the Emerald Triangle which includes the counties of Mendocino, Humboldt, Lake and Trinity. “There’s an existential threat,” he tells me. “Now is the time of reckoning.” He adds, “Solful can’t carry the whole Emerald Triangle.”
For years, Melrod has been buying cannabis from the “legacy” growers who cultivated when it was illegal to cultivate and who especially this summer will find that increasingly impossible. Big has come to shove.
Melrod isn’t worried about his own financial future or the stability of Solful. “We’re in great shape,” he tells me. “We’ve done very well during the pandemic. Business has soared and we have a solid customer base.”
Cannabis sales hit the sky in Sonoma County and all over California during the time of COVID. Pot, weed, ganja, grass, marijuana —whatever one calls it— has helped kids and adults cope with anxiety and rescued seniors from insomnia. In whatever form it’s consumed—tincture, joint, salve or gummy— it usually quiets nerves, enhances appetites, especially for those who don’t feel like eating and helps provide a good night’s sleep.
Still, as savvy experts know, it’s not a magic bullet and doesn’t work for everyone. Some consumers complain cannabis doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. They’re part of the culture of grousing and grumbling. Indeed, one has to try cannabis repeatedly, experiment with it, monitor the effects on mind and body and hopefully find the right dosage and the frequency with which it ought to be consumed.
Erich Pearson (above) sees many of the same issues that Melrod sees in the cannabis world, locally, nationally and globally. The CEO at SPARC, Pearson grows weed on his farm in Glen Ellen and sells most of it at his dispensaries in Sebastopol, Santa Rosa and San Francisco. He will also sell it at his soon-to-open Sonoma dispensary.
It’s been a long strange journey with a series of hurdles from the county of Sonoma and the city of Sonoma. Few people in the industry are more persistent than Pearson. In the five or so years that I’ve known him and followed the arc of his cannabis enterprises I have never known him to give up or turn back. Anyone who takes him on as an opponent will find him formidable, as well as civil and well informed about rules, regulations and the art of marijuana cultivation.
“There will be more cannabis on the market this year than ever before,” Pearson told me. “The price will drop and continue to do so. Small independent growers will likely turn to the black market and or continue to sell there. They’ll do whatever they have to do to survive.”
These days, the marijuana market is national and even international with local growers facing competition from growers in Oregon and Oklahoma and from huge commercial operations in places like Santa Barbara. Even Colombia in South America is growing cannabis legally and shipping it to Canada. From there it will make its way across the border if not right now then soon.
Listening to Erich paint the big picture I came to one inescapable conclusion: If I were a small or even a medium-sized marijuana farmer in Sonoma or in the hills of Mendocino and Humboldt I’d be biting my nails right about now.
But I wouldn’t be worried about police raids and the confiscation of my crop, or thieves ripping me off. I’d be worrying about something more impersonal and all powerful: the impending flood on the market of big time commercially cultivated marijuana and the drop in price that will likely make it difficult if not impossible to earn a living and not lose land, house and everything worked for.
If you want to grow six plants for your own personal use go ahead. That’s legal. But if you want to get into the commercial market forget about it. It’s way too late. Try to grow a crop for sale now and you’ll lose your savings, the shirt on your back and your peace of mind.
About the only thing that small local dispensaries like SPARC and Solful can do is to solidify their loyal customer base and to form business relationships with small-time top of the line growers like Mike Benziger.
One of the founders of Benziger Family Winery, Mike said goodbye years ago to grapes and vineyards and turned his green thumb and love of the earth itself to the cultivation of cannabis on Sonoma Mountain near Jack London State Historic Park.
“If I am to survive I will need small dispensary owners like Erich to buy my marijuana,” he told me on a day when we toured his garden where he grows medicinal herbs like ashitaba as well as cannabis. SPARC’s Sonoma dispensary can’t open soon enough for Mike who sells all the herbs he grows, along with his organic vegetables to Glen Ellen Star. The chef is his son-in-law.
Meanwhile, he’s planning to sell a good deal of his marijana crop to Eli Melrod at Solful. It’s a win-win for both seller and buyer.
Of course, Mike Benziger wouldn’t be Mike Benziger if he didn’t complain in a good-natured way and with a smile on his beautiful face, first about his recent operation and his drawn-out recovery. “I hate the couch!” he told me. Then he was on to other topics and issues.
“This year has been a bitch to farm, with heat, drought and mega winds,” he said. He added, “The two plants that like this shit so far are the tomatoes and the pot. We will see how the pot does when it has those big oily buds hanging out there.”
I can see them, smell them and taste them right now.
Jonah Raskin is the author of Marijuanaland and a contributor to Sonoma Sun.