The 2014 outdoor cannabis cultivation season will draw to a close in Northern California during the next few weeks, and in the Bay Area, the arrival of harvest is often met with trimming parties and bargains on gorgeous, fragrant "sungrown" bud. But beyond the Bay, growers are battling almost-Biblical drought conditions this fall. And across California, law enforcement agencies have stepped up eradication campaigns against marijuana growers with little regard for whether crops are meant for the medical market.
In the Emerald Triangle, a decades-old pot-growing region a few hours north of the Bay Area that generates billions of dollars in revenue each year, the three-year-long drought has punished area growers, said Tim Blake, a veteran farmer and founder of The Emerald Cup, the largest annual outdoor cannabis competition in the world.
The growing popularity of cannabis has encouraged more folks than ever to try their hand at a little home-growing. DIY weed costs pennies on the dollar compared to store-bought bud. "You got crops coming in from all sides," Blake said. "It's an explosive market."
But the market has been booming just as California's water supply has plummeted. The once-mighty Eel River has run dry in several spots this year, and unregulated cannabis cultivation has played a part in it, experts say. Many private creeks and streams are dry, and many growers without wells are without local water supplies. "The water situation has been so critical," Blake said. "It's been tough on people."
Some savvy growers are managing to get through the drought because they stocked up on rain tanks last winter and planted less this year, said Hezekiah Allen, executive director of The Emerald Growers Association. "So far I haven't heard anyone who actually lost a crop due to water," he said.
But Blake said drought-related problems have impacted growers in a major way. Mites, mold, and fungus "have attacked people at a level nobody can even imagine or comprehend." And the dry weather has prompted animals to come out of the forest and go in search of water and food, he said. "More animals — gopher, deer, bear — are attacking crops than ever before. It's massive.
"We have a huge hornet problem — there's no water for them and no food," Blake continued. "Where are they going to go? People are feeding skunk off their backyard porches. Bears are coming into people's backyards. A friend lost half his crop to deer that came through. It's an amazing thing."
Sonoma, Mendocino, and Humboldt counties have also been hammered this year by law enforcement. After years of busting illegal grows on public lands, authorities this year have targeted private medical gardens with raids funded by state, federal, and private grants. Patients report that private contractors hired by law enforcement agencies have been going after pot gardens, cutting plants at the root, and then leaving without making any arrests. "They've been just going after small people — 25, 40, 60-plant gardens," Blake said. "They're dropping in and cutting 40 crops a day rather than just 5 or so."
The action is a throwback to the old days of "heavy-handed ... extreme ... brutal" enforcement, said Allen. "The best farmers leading the way are getting busted," he added. "That's a problem.
"It's more extreme, but going back as far as the early Nineties, this is absolutely nothing we haven't seen before," Allen continued. "Certain factions of law enforcement have been terrorizing this community for decades."
Blake said that many growers, however, managed to avoid the raids by harvesting their crop early — thanks to the new trend in "light deprivation," which involves using tarps to black out the sun and trick pot plants into thinking that fall has arrived so they start flowering early. The first "light dep" crop hit the market in August and early September — before the raids began.
In the central part of the state, years of federal eradication efforts in the Sierra foothills have pushed growers into the Central Valley. Counties, including Fresno, have responded by enacting blanket bans on medical cannabis cultivation and levying hundreds of fines of $1,000-per-day, per-plant. On Monday, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors heard appeals from folks whose 2014 fines total nearly $1 million. Lawyers for those fined often say that their clients either didn't know pot was being grown on their property, or didn't know that Fresno County could ban medical marijuana-growing.
Fresno-area resident Michael Green, who is suing the county as the Fresno Cannabis Association, said the Central Valley has a real problem with profiteers. But authorities are treating nonprofit medical gardeners like criminals, he said. "It's a hot and heavy harvest: The police are out in force and the lawsuits are flying," Green said.