New California law gives regional title for marijuana branding

State Sen. Mike McGuire said he wrote the law because small cannabis farms needed an edge, not unlike the one enjoyed by the wine industry.|

California cannabis connoisseurs can celebrate -- a new law inspired by the wine industry requires that marijuana must be grown in the "sun and soil" of a city or county in order to be labeled with a regional designation.

So when that product has an 'appellation of origin' label from the Mattole Valley in Humboldt County, for example, you can know that it was grown in the ground and without artificial light or cover.

California voters legalized recreational, adult-use cannabis in 2016, but state lawmakers have been busy tweaking the law ever since.

The new law, signed late last month by Gov. Gavin Newsom, relies on a wine industry term called "terroir,“ which according to Merriam-Webster means "the combination of factors including soil, climate, and sunlight that gives wine grapes their distinctive character."

Now, that applies to cannabis as well. And California is the first state in the nation to legally recognize it.

"The governor signing this sets a global precedent," said Terra Carver, executive director of Humboldt County Growers Alliance and an advocate for the law. "What we really see is an environmentally sound program coming out of the governor's signature."

That's because the law means that small farms, like those Carver represents, that grow in the ground in a largely sustainable and more eco-friendly fashion -- without the carbon footprint of energy-intensive artificial light -- gain legal protection for their brands.

The way grower Drew Barber, owner of East Mill Creek Farms in Humboldt County, puts it, "terroir is ultimately the fingerprint of a place on the product."

Barber said there is no substitute for growing cannabis under the sun, and exposed to natural elements.

"The idea is that if you can have that fingerprint of place on the product, then you can really have something that is expressing your unique farm to the world in the best way," he said.

Put another way, people will pay for a product that they know is grown in a region like the Emerald Triangle, the region of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties that produces the most cannabis in the United States.

"World class cannabis comes from the Emerald Triangle," said Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, author of the law.

McGuire said he wrote the law because small cannabis farms needed an edge, not unlike the one enjoyed by the wine industry.

The senator said that much as an "appellation of origin" can drive the price of wine upward, so too can such a designation result in a financial windfall for cannabis growers.

"You know you're buying quality wine if you're purchasing wine from Sonoma (County) and Napa (County). And the same thing can be said for cannabis," he said.

The terroir law is a way for small farms to hold ground, literally, said Genine Coleman, executive director of Origins Council, an advocacy group that pushes for sustainable economic development of legacy producing regions in California.

"It's a causal link between the place and the quality of product," she said.

Not only will that protect small farms' brand, but it will help to build cannabis country as a premier agriculture-tourism venue, not unlike wine country, Coleman said.

"The wine industry has already proven the model, and it's been really successful," she said.

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