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Marijuana growers divided

Cory Bohn, who has been growing cannabis in Sonoma County for nearly 18 years, opposes Proposition 64. He fears it will encourage big business to move into marijuana and crush cottage growers like him. Click here to read his story.


Deep in the wild lands of northern Mendocino County, medical cannabis farmer Nikki Lastreto carefully tends 99 plants under the sun on her 190-acre ranch amid tall oak and fir trees.

Lastreto, a gray-haired, 61-year-old former San Francisco newspaper and TV reporter who settled 13 years ago in the remote Bell Springs area, considers herself an elder in what she calls the “cannabis movement.”

She markets a brand of weed called “Swami Select” — named for her 73-year-old husband, Swami Chaitanya — that is sold in medical dispensaries and hailed among pot aficionados as the right stuff.

“I know what it’s like to take our cannabis to the Bay Area and have everybody go wild over it,” Lastreto said.

The couple, longtime judges at the Emerald Cup cannabis competition, are unabashed advocates for Proposition 64, the marijuana legalization measure on Tuesday’s ballot. She believes the measure will reduce the number of people sent to prison for marijuana offenses, increase funding for scientific research on medical uses of cannabis and dispel the legal uncertainty that hovers over marijuana growers in California.

However, she acknowledges the initiative may not go over well with many of her fellow growers in the Emerald Triangle, which is said to produce 60 percent of the nation’s marijuana.

In 2010, California voters — including those in Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties — rejected Proposition 19, a legalization measure, while 55 percent of Sonoma County voters favored it.

Proposition 64, backed by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and financed by tech entrepreneur Sean Parker, will likely suffer a similar fate in the rural region where marijuana is an economic mainstay, Lastreto said.

Many growers are “used to being outlaws,” she said. “It’s kind of a hard cycle to break.”

But the three counties, with a total of about 137,000 registered voters — a little more than half of the 260,000 voters in Sonoma County — packs little electoral clout, she acknowledged.

The proposed law would allow people 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and grow six plants at home.

Commercial growers could emerge from the legal shadows, getting state licenses, paying taxes, submitting to a host of regulations and facing large-scale competition that some cannabis advocates say will crush small family farmers like Lastreto. For her, legalization is primarily a matter of social justice.

“I don’t think anybody should be going to prison for growing cannabis,” she said, describing the plant the federal government equates with heroin and LSD as “an herb that grows like rosemary in my garden.”

Cannabis merchants should pay taxes like any other business, she said, acknowledging the 15 percent retail sales tax and the $9.25-an-ounce cultivation tax may be a bit steep. Proposition 64 requires state lawmakers to consider tax rate adjustments in 2020, two years after the measure’s regulations take effect.

Lastreto raved over the measure’s requirement that the state pay $2 million a year to UC San Diego to study the “efficacy and adverse effects” of marijuana as medicine.

“What they’re going to find out the pharmaceutical companies might not like,” she said, convinced cannabis will prove to have multiple benefits that, in some cases, displace prescription drugs.

Marijuana growers divided

Cory Bohn, who has been growing cannabis in Sonoma County for nearly 18 years, opposes Proposition 64. He fears it will encourage big business to move into marijuana and crush cottage growers like him. Click here to read his story.

Lastreto used cannabis tinctures, edibles and topicals for years to fight the pain of an arthritic hip and finally to ease her discomfort following hip replacement surgery. She disagrees with those who believe Proposition 64 will erase protections of the Compassionate Use Act, the 1996 voter-approved measure that made California the first state to approve medical marijuana.

“People keep harping on that one,” she said.

Proposition 64 allows gardens of unlimited size, starting in 2023, but Lastreto said big growers are already operating in California pot country. Small farmers “can save themselves,” she said, either by forming cooperatives like other agricultural industries to work jointly with distributors or “brand yourself like crazy” as a top-shelf cannabis producer.

She and her husband started Swami Select as a “kind of joke” several years ago and now promote it seriously.

The success “has blown our minds,” Lastreto said. “I think people feel comfortable buying from a nice older couple.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.