Legalization Hurts – Small Farmers Battle the Man – By Paul James

photo of white, blue, and green concrete building with glass

So, they move away from the big cities to an area now known as the Emerald Triangle, where the property is cheap and the scenery is picture-perfect.

They decide to hold onto their way of life by living off the land and being one with their surroundings.

To take the edge off after a long day’s work, many of these hippies take to smoking the pot they’ve grown amongst their vegetables and other herbs.

Though they joined their fellow stoners a bit later than most, this story rings true for Swami Chaitanya and Nikki Lastreto. In the late 1990’s – after spending years cultivating cannabis – Chaitanya and Lastreto made their way up to the Triangle…

“Back in those days, it was completely secret. Kind of like an underground society,” Chaitanya explains. “And people just never talked about it in public. You kind of knew people growing and so on. But you never really talked about it.”For this reason, being a part of this community was a very personal experience. “It was kind of neat, kind of cool. Once you were in that community, you knew you were in this secret group.

”That was until some years later when the Green Rush hit California in a similar fashion to that of the Gold Rush. With medical cannabis now legalized, many individuals from all over the country were swarming to the Golden State as a means of taking their chance at the new market.

As adult-use became legal both in California and some other Western States, this Green Rush only continued to expand.Now, the government has had to step in. And being so involved in cannabis cultivation, many of those farmers who were simply trying to “turn on, tune in, and drop out” find themselves once again battling that old nemesis they sought to live away from.We sat down with Chaitanya and Lastreto to offer you a true sense of how legalization can actually hurt those most passionate about cannabis.

To get a sense of how the government has hurt small farmers, it’s vital to get an idea of how these people once lived. As mentioned, the Emerald Triangle was always a hush-hush community. One of which you needed to be trusted to truly enter.But unlike most ‘secret societies,’ the Emerald Triangle pot-growers weren’t secretive about how to grow the best cannabis.“We were all outlaws together,” Lastreto discusses.

“We shared a lot of information together. People were very giving of, “Oh, how’s your crop growing?’ ‘What did you learn this year?’”“It really was a shared knowledge that was being developed and passed around,” Chaitanya proclaims. “People really took care of each other as much as they could up here.”This knowledge would eventually develop into some of the strains many stoners have come to know and love. But to take things further, it was through this experimentation – both of cannabis growing and a community that held dearly to the niche – which led to the high-quality weed we find in dispensaries today.

The unfortunate truth is, governments didn’t seem to become interested in this product that could be capitalized on until it was of this quality.Under public vote, cannabis possession and consumption was made legal in California. First for medical card patients back in 1996. Then for everyone over the age of 21 in 2016.

The legality of this crop has naturally changed the atmosphere of the Emerald Triangle as a whole.“Now, there are basically two camps,” Lastreto begins. “You’ve got the people who have gone legal and the people that have stuck to the traditional market. And we still talk because we’re still friends. But we don’t necessarily talk about how our crops are doing.”“You see, at one point, it was estimated there were eight to ten thousand cultivators in Mendicino county.

” Chaitanya continues. “[In terms of legally registered growers] the maximum number I’ve heard now is around five hundred. So, how many people are still in the traditional market falls into question. Probably several thousand, at least.”It should come as no surprise the traditional market for cannabis is just as prominent under legality (if not more) than it was before. Anyone who holds up to an ounce of cannabis cannot be prosecuted. This allows the consumer to purchase where they please without having to worry about any sort of repercussion.

And considering the high 15% sales tax of any legally purchased cannabis, it’s even less shocking to assume many still go to their dealers. Of course, this comes with legal complications both for the illicit supplier and cultivator.“They have been busting people again,” Chaitanya tells us. “Especially in Humbolt. They haven’t cracked down on too many people, but they will continue to do so.”Regulations – Beyond Cannabis Itself“For the grower, he had two big secrets,” Chaitanya informs. “One was who he was selling to. And number two was where he got his water.”Once Chaitanya and Lastreto went legal, they had to provide the government with an onslaught of information. Everything from the longitude and latitude of their grow operation to the source of their water.

But even once this information is provided, the government only wants more and more.“For example, right now we’re in the middle of harvest,” Lastreto explains. “And we need to keep track and trace going. This is a very big deal for a lot of people – the MATRC system, it’s called. We need to track from seed to sale.“So now, at harvest time, we need to weigh everything that comes in before it goes out with the distributor. We’re no longer allowed to do trimming here on our property because we don’t have a commercially permitted building. We used to have several trimmers here for a couple of months at a time. That doesn’t happen anymore.

“Once it’s harvested and weighed, it’s out the door with lots of numbers on it to be able to track every seed in there.”“Every plant gets a barcode attached to it,” Chaitanya furthers. “It’s a detailed manifest that goes with every plant and that’s reported in.”Lastreto does admit this is probably how any other business works.

She mentions how if she were selling popcorn in a bag, she’d imagine the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would strike down with just as many regulations. Admittedly, it is important that cannabis is safe for the sake of the consumer and one could comprehend these strict rules for that sake.But for people like Chaitanya and Lastreto, it’s impossible to forget the days when this market illegally regulated itself. For in those days, such safety precautions weren’t necessarily needed.

Safety precautions such as packaging (and every last word on it), testing, and making sure everything is in coordination with licenses. “I mean, we used to just take bags full of weed and just sell it, you know?” Lastreto says. “Now every little detail has to be there. Not to mention all of the taxes and permit fees. We’re in well over $100,000 just to get our ranch up to code to grow legally.

One of the biggest discussions when it comes to legal cannabis is how many jobs it’s going to open. Of course, in states where cannabis has been legalized, a lot of jobs have been created. In California alone, over 200,000 jobs have emerged since 2016.But when we hear stories such as Chaitanya and Lastreto’s, we can only help but ask the question, who’s this Green Rush really for?It shouldn’t be forgotten that Chaitanya and Lastreto are two examples of the 200,000 jobs that have opened up in California. Yet, even in a market that’s being compared to the gold rush, they’re struggling to survive. And how fi tting is it that two people who have decades of experience and knowledge growing cannabis are the ones making the least profi t off it?

The real winners in this market are what’s being termed, “Big Cannabis.” Large growing operations that are becoming more like their corporate Big Agriculture counterparts. The threat of Big Cannabis is huge to some but for Chaitanya and Lastreto, they keep in mind their true purpose in this industry.

“What’s being grown inside those giant greenhouses we don’t see as any sort of competition for what we do,” Lastreto explains. “We are really pure, small-batch cannabis here. What we’re doing is never gonna compare, it’s always gonna be something for the connoisseur. Weed just isn’t the same when it’s not grown under the sun with love and care.”For those who’ve been puffi ng cannabis for some time, they know how true this is. However, Chaitanya and Lastreto do have growing concerns for some of the actions Big Cannabis is taking.“They’re doing now what’s known as ‘slotting,’” Chaitanya educates.

“They’re buying shelf space in the major dispensaries. And it can cost, like, $10,000 a month to get shelf space from a big one. The major outlets almost need to do that because that’s money they can deposit in a bank cause it’s not touched with plant money.”Which brings us to our next point.
Unlike other industries, banks are prohibited from investing in cannabis. This has become an extremely diffi cult situation for the little guys who’re simply trying to start a cannabis business. Unless all the proceeds are coming out of their own pocket, they aren’t going to have a chance. There are simply too many fees for licenses and permits and what-have-you.“One gets the feeling [the government] is trying to run small growers out of the industry,” Lastreto claims.

“Because for the government – which is basically a big business – it’s a lot easier to have a few people you have to keep an eye on than having a lot of little guys.”The Battle ContinuesSoon after our interview, Chaitanya reached out to us again through email and offered a better understanding of how the chaos of legality has really shaped both the industry and the personal lives found within it. A segment of that email reads:“[Prior to legalization] we were a sitting duck, without representation in the legislature, lobbyists or a voice in local politics. Interaction with government was limited to law enforcement and the judicial system. Even the writers of Prop 64, AUMA, never consulted the farmers.

‘If you are not at the table, you are on the menu.’“Then it all became legal, so the next step by the state and various counties, was the creation of a whole regulatory system for cannabis. Imagine a brand new industry with no rules whatsoever, just waiting for a comprehensive regulatory structure and there would be no resistance from all those who were going to be regulated. The state had to hire thousands of new people to staff all these new Offi ces and Boards set up to write, inspect and enforce hundreds of pages of new rules and regulations.

“All of these new bureaucrats had no clue about anything to do with cannabis, but they did have lots of degrees, PhDs and big ideas, especially about protecting the environment and about collecting millions in taxes. Some of the most aggressive departments have been Fish and Wildlife, and the State Water Boards for water rights, and waste water disposal requirements, and they all collect fees and impose penalties.“Then too, the unions came in on the legislative process, as well as the Policemen Lobbying team, the association of Cities and the alcohol distributors lobby, the environmentalists, the farm bureau, all wanting their piece of the action or protecting their turf.

“Meanwhile, the tens of thousands of cultivators, manufacturers, aggregators, and dealers were suddenly faced with the choice of coming in from the cold, known as ‘coming into compliance’, to get legal or staying in the underground market and hope for the best. The cultural shift was extreme. From being secret and clandestine, those going the legal route had to expose everything about their operations, latitude and longitude.

In order to do this every applicant or business working to get legal needed to hire numerous experts, professional, consultants, lawyers, accountants, engineers, etc, to do all the paperwork.“So yeah, government did take advantage of the rather naive farmers and numerous people back in the mountains who concocted the amazing healing tinctures, salves, ointments, topicals, edibles in their country kitchens. Everybody seems to be making money except the farmers.

”Ultimately, we as the consumers make the decision as to who wins the battle. We maintain the freedom to purchase cannabis from small farmers such as Chaitanya and Lastreto. If those in the high offi ces see the money going down this way instead of theirs, they are naturally going to invest more time and energy into these small farmers.

Written and Published By Paul James In Weed World Magazine Issue 144

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