California's marijuana growing heart has new fear: competition

Sacramento BeeNovember 28, 2010 

EUREKA, Calif. — Joey Burger was 14 when his naturalist parents moved from Santa Cruz to settle in the coastal forest of Humboldt County. Local hippies and homesteaders welcomed the new kid in the woods. They schooled him in the regional art — growing marijuana.

"It was never looked upon as a bad thing," Burger said.

Except before the fall harvests, when helicopters full of narcotics officers whipped through the sky. Neighbors rushed "to call their friends to make sure they were OK," he said.

These days, it isn't just helicopters that frighten Humboldt County's pot culture.

America's most renowned bastion of illicit marijuana growing is threatened by cavernous, city-taxed cultivation warehouses soon to be licensed in Oakland. It is alarmed by cities from La Puente to Berkeley to Sacramento that approved taxes on dispensaries or endorsed medical marijuana cultivation, sanctioning a weed economy wider and more competitive than ever.

So now Humboldt seeks to save itself by going legit.

In an area where marijuana growers typically evade attention, Burger is the public voice of the new Humboldt Growers Association. Aligned with a Sacramento lobbyist, it is working for county approval to license and tax outdoor pot plantations of up to 40,000 square feet.

The proposal — for local growers who can confirm that they have contracts to supply weed to California medical pot shops — is attracting serious attention. But the plan riles small marijuana farmers, pits indoor vs. outdoor growers, and stirs up fears that Humboldt's legendary marijuana brand could lose its character to industrialization.

Humboldt, which already permits local medical pot patients to grow up to 100 square feet of plants, is expecting to begin work next month on a more liberal cultivation ordinance.

"Doing nothing is not an option," said county Supervisor Bonnie Neely, who supports the Humboldt growers' plan in concept but is uncertain how large a scale of growing the county should allow. "This is a major part of our economy. I just don't think we can let Oakland or anyone else just become the leader."

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