SACRAMENTO — California's marijuana farmers have existed in a legal gray area during the 18 years since the state became the first to allow residents to use the drug for medical purposes.
Now, veteran cannabis growers are emerging from the shadows to make their voices heard at the Capitol as the groundwork is being laid to legalize pot for recreational use in the state.
Marijuana producers from Northern California's Emerald Triangle are hiring veteran lobbyists, forming political action committees and taking elected officials on fact-finding tours — even though large-scale pot farms remain illegal under federal law and growers risk being raided and prosecuted.
The growers' coalition says it's worth the risk to ensure their interests are represented as lawmakers, and ultimately voters, consider regulations that could allow them to do business aboveboard.
"This is democracy in action," said Casey O'Neill, who grows flowers, vegetables and marijuana in Mendocino County and serves as secretary of the 750-member Emerald Growers Association. "Every other industry sends lobbyists to tell government how to think, so finally as an industry we are realizing if this is how it works in America, we are going to have to play ball."
Their first at-bat is a Wednesday hearing for a bill that would require medical marijuana growers to obtain permits and subject them to environmental inspections. The association is bringing members to Sacramento for advocacy training and to support the legislation with visits to legislators' offices and T-shirts reading, "I am a farmer."
The author of the bill, AB243, is Assemblyman Jim Wood, a Democrat whose sprawling, 300-mile-long district encompasses the prime marijuana territory of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties. Wood said he doesn't know how his constituents will be received, but he hopes his colleagues will keep open minds.
"It's one of those things that here in Sacramento, when you start talking about it, some people, if you don't live in the world where this comes from, they are uncomfortable," Wood said.
To prepare for the hearing of the Assembly Agriculture Committee, nine members of the growers' association put on slacks and dresses for a meeting in their lobbyist's 25th floor office within blocks of the Capitol to plot strategy and messaging.
They decided to highlight their community as consisting largely of responsible farmers who are good environmentalists and employers but have been forced to operate as outlaws and unfairly lumped in with unscrupulous drug gangs that steal water for illegal pot grows on public lands.
"The more consistent we can be in reminding people that unregulated agriculture is the problem, and for all of the problems the solution is regulation, the better off we'll be," said Emerald Growers Association Executive Director Hezekiah Allen, a third-generation pot farmer.
In Oregon, Colorado and Washington state, where marijuana already has been legalized for recreational use by adults, pot growers have engaged in political advocacy in concert with and in opposition to consumer and business groups that fought for full legalization. Ongoing issues include price differences between medical and recreational pot and whether longtime growers are getting locked out of a more tightly regulated environment.
California's growers want to avoid such scenarios. Association members say the state's medical marijuana laws are too loose to offer guidance or protection, so they have been collaborating with the drug reform groups that are crafting ballot language for a 2016 legalization campaign.
The growers' organization says pot farms should be overseen by the state agriculture department, as vineyards are, and that any licensing system should employ a tiered approach that leaves room for small "craft cultivators."
One sign that the growers are being heard was a two-day field trip that California Cannabis Voice Humboldt, an advocacy group, organized last week for two members of the state tax board, which is providing input for the drafters of the legalization initiative on how recreational weed could be taxed. The officials toured a seedling nursery, a pair of specialty farms and a horticulture supply company, posing after the outing for a group photo with their hosts.
"A farmer made that happen," said group treasurer Luke Bruner, who organized the visit. "The weed fairy doesn't bring this stuff to the dispensary."