California counties maintain tradition of excluding value of legal cannabis production
Four decades ago, the agricultural commissioner of Mendocino County created a maelstrom when he included cannabis on the county’s annual crop report, estimating its value at a whopping $90 million, second only to timber.
The 1979 controversy reached Sacramento, where the state Senate issued a formal reprimand. And “gentle, aging county agricultural commissioner” Ted Eriksen Jr. was asked to rip the page with one line mentioning cannabis out of every printed report, according to news reports.
“It was viewed as, ‘This guy is speaking the truth, this is the reality of what’s happening on the ground,’” said Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar, who held the same post in Mendocino County from 2009 to 2012. “But it wasn’t socially acceptable to be putting it out there.”
Fast forward to 2019, two years after dispensaries across California began selling cannabis to anyone 21 years or older. Nearly 9,500 cannabis cultivators have temporary licenses to grow statewide. But Sonoma County’s $95.8 million cannabis crop, the estimated gross value of the plants grown locally and legally in the 2018-2019 fiscal year before any processing, was nowhere within the annual crop report released by the county last week.
Instead, Linegar gave an oral presentation to the Sonoma County supervisors about the value of cannabis when he introduced the county’s official crop report, which showed local agricultural products in 2018 surpassed $1 billion for the first time, including the county’s $777.6 million grape crop.
Based on data from county taxes collected from cannabis cultivators in the fiscal year ending in July, Linegar’s estimate provided the clearest look yet at how much cannabis is being grown lawfully in Sonoma County.
Linegar said he came prepared with financial data because supervisors asked him about it last year. He also believes reliable data about cannabis will provide key information that could help strengthen agriculture as a whole in the county and potentially encourage farmers and ranchers to grow cannabis as a way to bolster traditional crops and products.
“You need to grow something that gives a big return per acre in Sonoma County because the cost of land is so high here,” Linegar said in an interview Monday. “We have to grow crops that produce a good return per acre, and certainly cannabis does that.”
There’s nothing in state law or memorandums between the federal, state and county governments that explicitly prohibits any type of crop or agricultural commodity from being listed in the annual crop report, including cannabis.
But since legalization, no California counties have updated their reports to include cannabis, the annual flowering herb known worldwide as a signature California product.
As part of their core duties, county agricultural commissioners are required by the state to create yearly reports on “the condition, acreage, production and value of the agricultural products in his county,” according to California agricultural code. The reports are ultimately provided to the U.S. Department of Food and Agriculture.
But cannabis remains illegal under federal laws. And the data within helps local farmers apply for state and federal grants and provides key information that informs banks and investors dealing with the agricultural sector, Linegar said.
That link to federal funding has made California hesitant to include cannabis with traditional agriculture, said Hezekiah Allen, former executive director of the California Growers Association, who until recently worked in Sacramento as a lobbyist for the industry.