The morning sun was playing catch-up with Casey O’Neill, who had already spent hours tromping around his hillside farm in Mendocino County near Laytonville. Alongside rows of tomatoes and green beans, O’Neill gingerly tugged at a six-foot marijuana plant bearing buds thicker and longer than his wrist.
“To us cannabis is a powerful special, unique thing,” O’Neill said snipping off a bud and tossing it in a plastic tub.
It’s been a transformational year for farmers like O’Neill who grow and sell weed permitted under California’s medical marijuana regulations. Recently, new laws signed by Governor Jerry Brown kicked-in creating a new state agency with new rules and licensing for medicinal weed growers.
And now this November, state voters will weigh-in on Prop 64 which would legalize recreational marijuana for the first time in the state and create a new tax system for it.
“It feels good to start to move out of the closet, out of prohibition,” O’Neill said in a voice that sounded like a gravel road. “At the same time it’s scary.”
With the prospect of a legal recreational marijuana industry in the state, O’Neill and other small-time farmers fear a storm of large commercial interests will move-in and kick them to the curb. O’Neill said he is already seeing signs of the industrial stampede.
“We’re seeing a huge rush of venture capitol, of investors coming in,” O’Neill said leaning into a large plant. “The bigger the business the harder it’s going to be for the small farmer to survive.”
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With the writing on the wall, O’Neill and other farmers in the three-county farm belt of Mendocino, Trinity and Humboldt Counties — known as the Emerald Triangle — have begun forming agricultural marijuana co-ops to take-on any weed-growing Goliaths.
“It’s incumbent upon us to work together,” O’Neill said, “and try to band together and participate in the marketplace that helps us survive.”
Michael Steinmetz, who owns the Flow Kana medical marijuana company and buys from several farms including O’Neill’s, is helping Mendocino County pot farmers organize themselves into a cooperative. The farms plan to band together to create a single interest, which could operate on a similar scale as a large company.
“As a cooperative they can act like a big grower,” Steinmetz said. “They can act like a really big player.”
But for all the coming together, Steinmetz said the state’s pot growing industry is split over Prop 64. O’Neill is tepid in his support of the proposition which will create a new set of regulations for the industry and allow people to grow up to six plants at home. Steinmetz sees it as a positive progression with plenty of possibility.
“We have to find the way within this framework to exist and to survive,” Steinmetz said, “and to embrace this new future and new era of cannabis.”
Further South near the town of Willits, Micah Flause and Johanna Mortz covered the hillside of their home with a forest of weed plants — some topping out at eight feet. The couple is also helping to organize the local cannabis co-op, attending regular meetings and writing up plans for a coalesced attack.
“I think that the cooperative is really a very good model for small farms,” Flause said, “to protect themselves from the onslaught of capital that is coming into the cannabis industry.”
Both Flause and Mortz share misgivings about the potential for voters to create a recreational market in the state. The couple, who also supply medicinal marijuana, fear the state isn’t ready to handle a recreational market — especially on the heels of the new medical pot regulations.
“I do lean toward hoping that it doesn’t pass quite yet,” Mortz said. “I think that we could use a little more work.”
Steinmetz said he understands the trepidation among farmers even though Colorado, Washington and Oregon have already passed laws legalizing some forms of recreational marijuana.
“There is a diversity of opinion,” Steinmetz said. “I think it stems from people trying to be more protective and want change slower.”
O’Neill hoisted his plastic bin of freshly picked buds and let his gaze sweep across the hills where he was born and continues to farm. He said whichever way the Prop 64 vote goes, he believes the public’s acceptance for cannabis has lifted it from the shadows.
“Last two years there’s been such a transition in the conversation,” O’Neill said, “everybody can actually talk about it now.