CalMatters: Despair in Emerald Triangle as CA legal cannabis collapses

by CalMatters, CalMatters Network
February 27, 2023

In 2016, when California voters faced the choice of whether to legalize marijuana for recreational use, they heard promises that it would help end a racist “war on drugs,” bring a violent illegal market out of the shadows and, by the way, bring in tax revenue. Gavin Newsom, then lieutenant governor and now governor, said so. 

More than six years later, while Proposition 64 has cut arrests for marijuana-related offenses, it hasn’t lived up to its billing for the small cannabis growers in Northern California’s famed Emerald Triangle. 

CalMatters politics reporter Alexei Koseff spent several days this month in Humboldt and Trinity counties. What he heard from growers, workers, business owners, local officials and others was that plummeting prices are causing the collapse of the legal cannabis market — and the economies of surrounding communities with it. 

Commercial cannabis sales fell by 8% last year to $5.3 billion, according to just-released state tax data — the first decline since it became legal in 2018. And state tax revenue dropped from $251.3 million in the third quarter of 2022 to $221.6 million in the fourth quarter.

Cultivators who can barely make ends meet are laying off employees, slashing expenses or shutting down their farms. For many, the situation is verging on despair — seen in the faces of people whose images were captured by CalMatters assistant photo editor Martin do Nascimento. You can hear some of their voices in snippets produced by CalMatters audio editor Mary Franklin Harvin.     

One story published today starts at a food bank distribution site in Trinity County, which moved from a church to a local fairgrounds due to surging demand. Alexei also explores the criticism of state policy and its impact on the cannabis economy.  

  • Adrien Keys, president of the Trinity County Agriculture Alliance, a trade association for the local legal cannabis industry: “We’re constantly at war. That’s how it feels.”

Another story focuses on the impact on workers, including some who spent years in the cannabis industry but are suddenly looking for new careers that may not be there. 

  • Daniel Rivero, a 39-year-old Garberville resident for whom cannabis isn’t just a job, but a culture: “Do you keep on struggling or do you go for something that’s more secure?”

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