Kale or Cannabis? Legalization Raises New Questions for Farmers
Last November, California voters by a margin of 57% to 43%, approved the legalization of recreational marijuana in the state. This started the process of developing the legal framework under which marijuana can be legally grown and sold for recreational, as well as medicinal, purposes. This framework involves three separate state entities: the Bureau of Medical Cannabis Regulation within the Department of Consumer Affairs, the California Department of Public Health, and the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA).
The involvement of CDFA should not be surprising since the debate is over a plant-based product which needs only minimal processing before its consumption. CDFA’s role is to regulate the growth and distribution of marijuana in the state while other departments take on the regulation of sales.
I probably get more questions from farmers about marijuana than about any other single subject. Many ask – some jokingly – if marijuana will be sold in farmers’ markets. That question is easy to answer. The law is clear and marijuana will only be allowed to be sold through licensed dispensaries and the rules will not allow a farmers’ market or a farmer within a market to qualify as a dispensary.
Other questions are harder to answer. Will legal marijuana production put increased pressure on agricultural land, further driving up prices? Farmers looking to expand or worried about the renewal of their leases are concerned about this question. If a farmer grows marijuana with all of the proper state permits, does that make the farm ineligible for USDA programs since the federal government maintains its prohibition on marijuana? Farmers who wish to partner with federal agencies like the Natural Resources Conservation Service to better protect their water and soil are worried they will lose access to those resources. If a farmer leases land to another farmer for marijuana production will the farmer owner no longer be able to maintain bank accounts since banks are federally insured? Farmers approaching retirement and looking to reduce the scale of their operations are concerned about being locked out of these opportunities.
Currently there are no clear answers to these questions. Other than the recent example of Colorado, whose voters authorized recreational marijuana in 2012, this is very much uncharted territory for farmers as well as for state agriculture departments.
Even though farmers’ markets cannot operate as dispensaries, we will still be impacted by the ripple effect from the changes in marijuana cultivation laws and practices that affect the small farms in our markets. The idea that acres of Monterey artichokes or delta asparagus might be replaced with marijuana plants is no more appealing than the idea that those acres might be developed into subdivisions or office parks. While I don’t want to see our state’s small farmers locked out of the economic benefits that legal marijuana cultivation might bring, I also don’t want to see the incredible food they produce and the rich agricultural diversity of our state plowed under.
I hope that as answers to these questions begin to emerge, we can find a way to balance our communities’ need for sustenance with our farmers’ need for financial success.