Why some California cannabis growers oppose legalization

California voters will decide whether to legalize the cultivation, sale and recreational use of marijuana in November, but some pot growers in the state oppose it.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/File
Marijuana is harvested in Davenport, Calif. The Marijuana Policy Project on Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014, will file paperwork with the California secretary of state’s office for a new committee that aims to put a pot legalization measure on the November 2016 state ballot, the group said.

One would expect marijuana growers to rejoice at a ballot measure in November that would legalize the cultivation, sale, and recreational use of marijuana. In California, however, many growers actually oppose the proposition.

A recent poll conducted by the California Growers Association’s recent poll of 750 farmers, distributors, and retailers found that only 31 percent supported the measure, with 31 percent opposed and 38 percent undecided. It’s a difficult decision for the growers to make, as legalization will likely increase demand for their product – but at the same time potentially threaten their livelihoods if they can’t keep up with regulations and competition, two factors that come when an industry moves into the open market.

“I don’t want to replace a criminal injustice with an economic injustice,” Hezekiah Allen, marijuana farmer in California and executive director of the Association told Reuters.

Marijuana growers in California won’t be the only ones having to consider these issues. A record number of measures to legalize or decriminalize marijuana are on the ballots this November, according to Ballotpedia. Some states will be voting on possibly legalizing recreational marijuana, such as Massachusetts and Arizona, while others such as Florida and Nevada will be looking at medical marijuana.

Growers who oppose legalization for recreational purposes cite concerns that it will come with stricter regulation of farms' ecological footprints, pesticide and water use, and trash management, and the possibility of losing their licenses if they fail to comply.

Other concerns center on the potential for big corporations to move into the market, further pushing down the price of wholesale cannabis. If the measure passes, sales in California are expected to double to $6.46 billion in 2020 from $2.76 billion in medical use receipts last year, according to market researcher New Frontier. The price per pound has already fallen from $2,030 in January to $1,664 in August, according to Cannabis Benchmarks, a wholesale cannabis pricing company.

Chrystal Ortiz-Beck, a marijuana farmer in Humboldt County, told KQED that many older growers oppose the proposition precisely because of those reasons and they feel like “Budweiser and Coors and Big Tobacco and Big Alcohol and Big Ag are going to come in and wipe us off the map.” She describes how the growers are used to living off the grid because of their history of facing frequent raids with the prospect of being thrown behind bars. When medical marijuana was legalized and when they managed to obtain licenses, the industry became more open. With Proposition 64, it might turn the local cannabis culture corporate, which she worries the growers might not be able to handle.

“I’m not for the prostitution of the plant,” Ms. Ortiz-Beck said, “I’m not for the commercialization of the plant.”

To protect themselves against competition, Ortiz-Beck and her husband plan to focus on selling organic, high-grade marijuana, maybe turning their farm into a tourist destination like a “bud-and-breakfast.”

Ortiz-Beck says still plans to support the proposition because it will reduce criminal penalties and prior convictions for marijuana offenses.

While pot growers are considering the business practicalities of legalizing marijuana, there are concerns elsewhere about the negative consequences of increased marijuana use. As The Christian Science Monitor reported in May, several Massachusetts politicians voiced their opposition of legalization after going on a fact-finding mission to Colorado, which has had legal recreational marijuana since 2014.

"I think if people understand that this not about – 'Do we want marijuana, yes or no?' – this is about legalizing an entire industry and people competing about who has the best marijuana," Sen. Viriato deMacedo told The Christian Science Monitor. "It's about money, and I don't think most people have an understanding of that."

The concerns stem from the high percentage of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in marijuana products, especially the popular “edibles” in the form of lollipops and chocolates, causing overconsumption and emergency room visits that burden the medical system.

Colorado legalized marijuana in 2012 and some recent reports have illustrated growing opposition against the decision. According to Fortune, school suspensions related to marijuana have increased, marijuana-related hospitalizations have tripled since legalization, emergency-room visits have climbed 30 percent and police are dealing with new cartel-related drug operations.

But the data may not be reliable as similar data wasn't available before legalization for comparison, chief medical officer of the state health of department told Fortune, "It may be a year or two before we’ll really have good answers."

At the same time, good news has also come with legalization, bringing in new jobs and revenue. But as The Boston Globe reports, law enforcement officials are struggling to adapt regulations and testing equipment to tell if a driver is high or if products have too much THC.

After legalization, it seems that regulating marijuana will require more supervision and thought than some may have expected. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper offered his advice to other states considering legalization in a June interview with CNBC: “I would suggest wait a year or two and see how it goes and make sure there aren't more unintended consequences."

This report includes material from Reuters.

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