California Dreaming: Why the Golden State Said Yes to Cannabis

By Sharon Letts
Published: December 1, 2016 | Last updated: April 8, 2021
Key Takeaways

​American citizens recently voted in some big changes to the country’s marijuana laws. California, Nevada, Massachusetts, and Maine all legalized recreational cannabis for adults aged 21 years and older. Officials particularly noted California’s referendum as a gamechanger since it’s the most populous state. Maximum Yield contributor Sharon Letts examines what the future holds for the industry in California and beyond.

Politics isn’t pretty. In the United States during the 2016 election, up to 50 per cent of all eligible voters avoided the ballot box, with apathy garnering the largest percentage at the polls. But where cannabis is concerned, the people have spoken, with four out of five states on the ballot legalizing for recreational use, giving the country a total of eight states promoting the recreational use of cannabis and a total of 28 states now legal for medicinal use.


Proposition 64, sponsored by Napster founder Sean Parker, was California’s second try at legalization under the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA), winning with 56 per cent of the vote. All eyes are now on California, as the progressive state sits between Mexico and Canada—two countries poised to go forward on legalization.

Having grown up in Southern California, then transplanting to San Francisco in my 20s, then working in media in Humboldt County at the top of the state for nine years, this California girl can safely say the state is divided by more than geographical or weather differences. Where cannabis is concerned, there are no greater contrasts than the division of big business to the south, farming to the north, and activism from both sides.


In fact, during the 2016 State of Marijuana conference held historically on the Queen Mary in Southern California, no debate was hotter than the one participated in by farmers to the north, big business interests to the south, and activists wanting to free prisoners and reduce sentencing from America’s failed War on Drugs. Farmers spoke of losing their way of life, big business looked to the future, and activists demanded freedom from persecution.

History of Weed in California

To understand the fight, it helps to know the history of the plant in the country’s most progressive state. During what’s touted as America’s last great surge of the human spirit and revolt, California became the meeting place of those looking to change the world and do away with the status quo. In 1968, after the Summer of Love ended in San Francisco, the hippies who congregated from every state in the union made their way north. They called themselves Back to the Landers. They lived off the land and grew cannabis. When the first harvest was taken to town for sale, distribution on the black market began.

For the last 40 years, cannabis has been hybridized to the recreational plant we have today, with THC—the psychoactive compound of the plant—counts skyrocketing. Ironically, in the past 30 years, the same plants were hybridized back down to what some call the “God plant,” with lower percentages of THC and higher concentrates of CBD—one medicinal compound of the plant—now widely recognized to treat many ailments. The tally for cannabis already produced and distributed from California throughout the country is estimated to be upwards of 10 to 20 million pounds a year.


So, this is where we are today, legalizing for recreational use a plant that has been customized to heal, with fourth-generation California cannabis farmers who were traditionally covert now dominating a cottage industry soon to explode.

Farmers at the Forefront of Legalization in California

Humboldt farmer, medicine maker, and cannabis advocate Chrystal Ortiz has been vocal on the pros and cons of California’s Prop. 64. Once in the closet herself, in the past two years, Ortiz has joined Women Grow—a national organization for women in the cannabis industry—became involved in local pot politics, and was recently interviewed on National Public Radio on her plans for the future of farming in the region.


Ortiz is also the manager of True Humboldt, one of the first farming cooperatives to come out of the smoky closet and start promoting its organically sun-grown strains in a big way. One of the greatest fears of farmers is their way of life changing, of not being able to keep up in a corporate environment. However, while Ortiz says she feels that one point of the proposition—allowing a five-year grace period until commercial licenses are available—should give small farmers a chance to compete. “Under current medical regulations, there is no direct market access,” she explains. “All herb has to be fronted or sold to a distributor. If you told all our farmers market vendors that their produce had to be sold to a distributor, few would survive.”

Under AUMA, onsite consumption, bud and breakfasts, and micro-brewery businesses are viable options. Ortiz feels these would be good models for the small farmer to not only continue to exist in, but thrive in.

From Cottage Industry to Millionaire

When Colorado legalized cannabis, there were more than 250 medible companies existing in its medical market. During the first six months of legalization, most of them folded due to both the cottage industry’s inability to meet supply and demand combined with a lack of wherewithal to step up. Case in point: Love’s Oven, based in Denver. Within one year’s time it was forced to lease a larger warehouse space, purchase automated equipment, and hire a chef to run such a kitchen. It went from grossing $50,000 a year in the cottage industry, to $1.5 million in the first year of the new market. This poses the question to California’s cannabis industry: Are you ready to go big?

“The ability for tourism, retail sales, and auction-type clearinghouses gives me hope,” Ortiz says. “We have five years to show the state we have more than enough in production. We’ll also have better testing regulations,” she adds. “With six million tourists visiting California yearly, I’m betting many of them would love to see a real Humboldt County herb farm.”

Organizing for the Greater Good

Hezikiah Allen is executive director of the California Cannabis Association, an organization split down the middle on legalization in the state. His main concern after the vote is to make sure the next gold rush in the state benefits everyone. “From business owners to workers at the trim table, to casual consumers, to patients in need of life-saving medicine, we must make sure the green rush doesn’t come at the expense of our irreplaceable natural resources and our quality of life,” he said the day after Prop. 64 passed.

Allen’s suggestions for the future were detailed, and included imposing a living wage standard, a social justice and equity committee to ensure opportunity, environmental responsibility in enforcing standards in sustainable water use, and a call to rally together to protect the industry’s tradition and heritage of independent farms. “There is an irreplaceable value—economic and cultural—that small farms provide to our communities,” he says. “From urban agriculture to permaculture, cannabis is a unique opportunity for California to model the future of sustainable farming.”


And what of the more than 6,000 people currently serving federal sentences in the state on cannabis charges? The Drug Policy Alliance that sponsored the proposition campaigned strongly on this point, with many voting yes on the proposition for this very reason.

California attorney Omar Figueroa says that just days after the proposition passed he witnessed numerous defendants who were ordered released after felony possession with the intent to sell charges were dismissed, while others were reduced to misdemeanors. “One particularly memorable defendant was an elderly African American gentleman who appeared in custody. He was charged with felony possession for sale and apparently had been sitting in jail for months unable to bail out,” recalls Figueroa. “Thanks to Proposition 64, the case was dismissed, since the 11359 charge was now a misdemeanor, and he had already served the maximum sentence of six months.”

Figueroa confirms California’s Health and Safety Code, saying, “A person currently serving a sentence for a conviction, whether by trial or by open or negotiated plea, who would not have been guilty of an offense or who would have been guilty of a lesser offense under the Control, Regulate and Tax Adult Use of Marijuana Act, had that Act been in effect at the time of the offense, may petition for a recall or dismissal of sentence before the trial court that entered the judgment of conviction in his or her case to request resentencing or dismissal…”

Cheri Sicard, a mainstream author turned cannabis author and activist, corresponds and lobbies for prisoners of the failed War on Drugs on behalf of the Marijuana Lifer Project. Working with those serving life sentences for cannabis, she says it’s a two-step process and prisoners must take the first step. “First we need to get California cannabis prisoner priors knocked down to misdemeanors at the state level,” she says. “Once that is done, then we start dealing with the feds. Strategy sessions are being facilitated right now, so it’s still too early to tell how this will all play out.”

Though there are no perfect propositions in any of the states, the nine states now legal for the recreational use of cannabis are poised to bring cannabis into the mainstream and prosperity into the market place. Time will tell how ordinances will work in real time. One thing is certain, with Colorado leading the way with some $120 million made each month, the plant prevails. Those already reaping the benefits of cannabis as medicine are hopeful for more research leading to education and wellness for the masses.


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Written by Sharon Letts | Writer, Television Producer of Off the Beaten Path & Host of In and Out of the Garden

Profile Picture of Sharon Letts

Writer and Producer Sharon Letts began her life's work at age of 24 as a flower gardener in Southern California. Sharon produced and hosted visiting gardening show In and Out of the Garden for local television; then executive produced Off the Beaten Path, a travelogue in California for PBS. Today Sharon writes internationally for many publications, has published two works of fiction, and is currently developing intelligent TV shows on cannabis as medicine.

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