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Humboldt County pot growers share concerns with Gavin Newsom’s marijuana commission

GARBERVILLE - More than 200 people packed a Humboldt County theater Friday afternoon to share with high-ranking state representatives their concerns about the shifting landscape of marijuana regulation in California, where voters could legalize recreational pot next year.

Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, North Coast Rep. Jared Huffman and Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg, fielded questions and took notes on the points raised by the crowd of mostly marijuana advocates and growers, many of whom voiced concerns that they could be priced out of the market by large corporations, like those in the tobacco industry, that can afford to pay high taxes and prices for permits to grow pot.

“We do not want big industry,” said Jonathan Baker, a 25-year-old second generation cannabis cultivator in Humboldt County, the heart of the so-called Emerald Triangle and once the king of pot production, with a reputation for producing some of the best quality pot and hosting the most talented weed farmers.

“We are the premier name brand in the entire world,” said Mary Ann Lyons, owner of Sunboldt Farms.

The region’s small-scale farmers, including many of those on hand Friday, worry they’ll lose their way of life if pot becomes regulated in a way that favors large, wealthy growers.

“I don’t have millions of dollars. Make it viable for all of us,” Baker said.

All three officials said protecting small farmers was important to them.

“It’s about keeping those jobs,” Wood said.

The trio said they also want to protect the environment from degradation at the hands of negligent growers and keep drugs out of the hands of children.

The public forum, hosted by Huffman at Garberville’s Redwood Playhouse, was the third held by a marijuana policy commission formed by Newsom and the American Civil Liberties Union of California. The group, comprised of academics, legal and public health experts, is gathering input from a range stakeholders in the state and expects to release a report on issues related to marijuana legalization, regulation and taxation within 60 days, Newsom said.

The commissioners plan to work with groups launching a 2016 initiative to legalize marijuana for recreational use in hopes of avoiding some of the pitfalls and confusion that have plagued marijuana regulations since California legalized pot for medical use in 1996.

That landmark law has put the state at odds with federal authorities who until recently have maintained an aggressive stance against pot cultivation and sales. North Coast officials say the legal standoff has left them powerless to find any longterm solution that could further address such pressing issues as public safety and environmental protection.

“I feel we have a paralyzed approach,” said Humboldt County Sheriff Mike Downey, one of Friday’s panelists. Others panelists included former Humboldt County District Attorney Paul Gallegos and Keith Humphreys, a Stanford professor and former White House senior advisor on drug control policy, both of whom serve on the marijuana policy commission with Newsom; and Luke Bruner, co-founder of California Cannabis Voice Humboldt, Mourad Gabriel, executive director of Integral Ecology Research Center in Humboldt County, and John Corbett, chairman of the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Both Newsom and Huffman said they favor legalizing marijuana, as long as that shift adequately addresses environmental impacts, ensures public safety and protects children’s health.

“The status quo is untenable,” Huffman said.

The comments were welcome among the pro-pot crowd. One man shared a fist bump with Huffman while a woman said she wanted to be there when California legislators “light up a Capitol green in Sacramento.”

As part of Friday’s fact-finding trip, the commissioners took a private tour of a Humboldt County medical marijuana farm and met privately with about 50 stakeholders, including Humboldt and Mendocino county officials.

Newsom said Friday he’s learned much from the meetings, including that the needs and desires of the North Coast’s small pot farmers are different than elsewhere in the state.

When he spoke about protecting those small-grower interests, he received a standing ovation from the audience.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MendoReporter.

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