Tricky Transition Hezekiah Allen is helping to cultivate the future in favor of California’s cannabis roots

CULTURE Magazine

You might think, with California emerging from decades of cannabis prohibition, that our state’s cultivators would be feeling euphoria not unlike how folks feel when consuming their product.

You would be wrong. And while the state lumbers toward legalization and regulation in 2018, nobody is voicing their concerns louder than Hezekiah Allen.

As Executive Director of the California Growers Association, he’s not trying to be a buzzkill at the legalization party, but rather to point out that the devil is in the details. That’s why he says only 12 percent of growers have started the process to be licensed and regulated growers.

“I think the state is taking a pretty balanced approach to making sure folks can participate.”

“That doesn’t mean folks don’t want to. There are pretty significant barriers to entry in the marketplace,” said Allen. “I think a lot of people would like to make the transition, but without access to banking and small business development loans, the one-time costs are pretty hard for most folks to bear.”

Humboldt County Roots

Allen, 34, was born with Humboldt County cannabis credibility, in an off-the-grid house among a family of longtime growers.

Anyone who smoked cannabis before there were dispensaries knows that Humboldt County bud has always been among the best. Along with the counties of Mendocino and Trinity, the region is known as the Emerald Triangle, where the soil and climate are ideal for cultivation and cannabis has been a way of life since long before even medical cannabis was legal.

“It’s been the family business for as long as I can remember,” said Allen. After college and some international travel, he wound up back home in 2008. Lacking any other opportunities in a depressed economy, he started growing again.

But authorities were still raiding farms, his friends were still going to jail, and an alarming number of illegal grows on public lands were wreaking havoc on the environment. He soon decided that growers needed to step out of the shadows and organize.

“We were going to have to take on more risk and expose ourselves, and if we didn’t expose ourselves and speak for ourselves, the policies would never change,” he said.

In 2014 Allen sold the ranch, left the verdant green hills behind and moved to a sixth-floor apartment in Sacramento, to become a full-time advocate for the state’s growers, with the Emerald Growers Association, which later changed to the California Growers Association.

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Strict Limits

What first spurred him to become a lobbyist was a proposal by lawmakers to impose strict limits on the number of cultivation licenses. Other states had enacted similar restrictions, but California, especially the Emerald Triangle, was different than other states.

“We’ve got tens of thousands of growers. To put an artificial cap on that . . . The number I heard was 30. These 30 growers get licenses and everybody else is out. The idea that there would be limits on cultivation licenses is what got me to (Sacramento). We successfully defeated that bill in 2014.”

Another idea he had to battle was a proposal to have cannabis regulated by the California State Board of Pharmacy.

“Our line in the sand was, ‘We are farmers. We want to be regulated like farmers. Cannabis is an agricultural product and not a pharmaceutical product,'” he explained.

Then came Proposition 64, which legalized recreational cannabis use for adults in the state. Allen, no stranger to the press, raised some eyebrows when he told a reporter he wouldn’t personally vote for it. In fact, he estimates half the association’s members felt likewise, that it was trying to do too much, too quickly.

Continuing Uncertainties

Still, the people spoke in the election, and state officials and the industry have been toiling ever since to come up with a framework for how it will be implemented.

There are plenty of things Allen likes so far. Any household can cultivate up to six plants legally. The only limits on the total number of licenses involve two of the 20 specific categories. Large commercial licenses—the sort Allen fears will bring big businesses into the state—won’t be available for several years.

Yet there are plenty of uncertainties. How high will the license fees be? What sort of limits will there be on vertical integration—for example, a grower who also wants to have a dispensary? For his 1,200 clients, all of whom are planning to seek licenses, these are key questions.

And what will happen to the vast majority of growers who have not yet started the application process after the state begins issuing licenses in January 2018?

All these questions are looming, but for now Allen is confident that California will create a system that won’t shut out the family farmers who have been growing since long before anyone thought legalization could occur.

“I think the state is taking a pretty balanced approach to making sure folks can participate.”

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