Ryan Stoa: From wine to weed: Keeping the marijuana farm small and local

August 20, 2016 – In November, voters in as many as 12 states will see a marijuana legalization initiative on their ballots. Marijuana is already legal for recreational use in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Washington, D.C. Another 25 states have legalized medical marijuana. The era of marijuana prohibition is rapidly coming to a close.

Unfortunately, lawmakers lack easy answers to tough questions facing the marijuana industry. Legalization presents challenges on a number of fronts, including distribution, taxation, consumption, security and public health.

In a recent article, I argue that the agricultural sector of the marijuana industry also presents a number of challenges. One paramount question looms over the rest: Will marijuana agriculture become consolidated, with “Big Marijuana” companies producing vast quantities of indistinct marijuana? Or, will small-scale farmers thrive by producing unique and local marijuana strains?

My research shows that Big Marijuana is not inevitable. On the contrary, a local, sustainable, small-scale farming future is entirely within reach.

The problem with Big Marijuana

Marijuana agriculture in the United States is currently dominated by small-scale farmers. Staying small allows farmers to stay under the radar of federal officials. When the federal prohibition is lifted, however, many people assume the free market will push these farmers out of business. As large farms producing cheap marijuana drive prices down, small-scale farming may no longer be profitable.

As one recent study put it, “legalizing marijuana opens the market to major corporations, including tobacco companies, which have the financial resources, product design technology … marketing muscle, and political clout to transform the marijuana market.”

But there is reason to doubt the inevitability of Big Marijuana. To begin with, it’s not clear the marijuana plant is capable of large-scale cultivation. “Marijuana” is a catch-all term for the hundreds of individual strains of the Cannabis sativa plant species. Each strain has unique cultivation needs, and yields a product with unique characteristics. Marijuana farmers have told me that many of these strains are notoriously high-maintenance. It would be difficult to mass-produce these strains without a noticeable drop in quality.

There’s little reason to believe marijuana agriculture will operate in a completely free-market environment, either. Many states are wary of letting big corporations take over the marijuana industry. California’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy recommends “a highly regulated market … not an unregulated free market; this industry should not be California’s next Gold Rush.”

Marijuana sale in Colorado.
REUTERS/Rick Wilking

And, “the goal should be to prevent the growth of a large, corporate marijuana industry dominated by a small number of players.” Some states have already taken measures to protect small-scale farmers, and prevent a Big Marijuana takeover. California, for example, limits the maximum canopy size of a marijuana farm to one acre, which is minuscule compared to most American farm crops. Many people might be uncomfortable with the mainstreaming of marijuana, but spreading the opportunities and benefits to many, rather than a powerful few, might make it easier for politicians and their constituents to make peace with legalization.

Parallels between wine and weed

If a local, sustainable, small-scale vision of marijuana agriculture is possible, how can it be made a reality?

I argue that farmers, regulators and consumers may benefit from adopting the wine industry’s organizational model, known as the appellation system. An appellation is a legally protected designation that is applied to a product to indicate the geographic region where it was created.

For example, when a wine label says the wine comes from Napa County, you can be confident it actually did. Some appellations – in Europe, for example – also enforce quality standards or cultivation methods. Under U.S. law, wine appellations typically speak only to the place of origin, but in theory an appellation system can do much more. In the U.S., appellations can take the form of a micro-region, county, state, or group of states. There are 236 active wine appellations in the United States today.

Farmers in Mendocino County, California, have established micro-regions as proposed cannabis cultivation appellations.
Mendocino Appellations Project

Appellations can add value to the marijuana industry in several ways. Appellations provide a legally protected designation of origin, differentiating local products from generic products. That helps protect local farmers and farming communities from the threat of cheap marijuana flooding the market, because the products are no longer the same. Some appellations, like those in Europe, can also encourage farmers in each region to work out issues together by setting rules and standards for cultivation that maintain the product’s quality and reputation. Also, as in the wine industry, appellations may promote agrotourism in marijuana farming communities.

In the image above, for example, micro-regions of Mendocino County, California, have been proposed as cannabis cultivation appellations. Farmers hope these designations will promote tourism and enhance their brand.

For the consumer, designations of origin provide transparency and protection. In the prohibition era, most marijuana transactions took place on the street. Consumers typically had no idea where their marijuana came from. Chances were good it came from Mexican cartels. But now that American farmers are supplying consumers with quality marijuana, a certified designation of origin would provide some measure of transparency by relaying important information to the consumer. By keeping unique products in the marketplace, appellations also provide consumers with more options to suit their medicinal or recreational needs.

Marijuana appellations are not a panacea, and it will be challenging to implement and enforce “cannabicultural” designations of origin nationwide as long as a federal marijuana prohibition is in place. But at a time when lawmakers are scrambling to put regulations in place, appellations may provide the organizational structure needed to make sure marijuana agriculture remains safe and sustainable.

The Conversation

Ryan Stoa, Senior Scholar, Environmental and Natural Resources Law, Florida International University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Oh, certainly. Legalize it but don’t corporatize it. Big business interests should not be allowed to outlaw or outmaneuver home cultivation, the farmer’s roadside stand, or small businesses. A little competition may actually benefit larger firms. One cannot patent a plant, only strains which one has created. If home cultivation is forbidden, the number of strains available to patients and public alike will be limited to those which enrich a few wealthy people who favor ‘limited prohibition’ in order to line their own pockets. And commercial crops are likely to be pesticide-rich, rather than grown organically.

    Due to the plant’s ‘drug-war’ notoriety, other marketing challenges remain. No one should promote the canard that marijuana is dangerous, like pharmaceutical drugs. Or even that it is a ‘drug’, except in Merriam-Webster’s third and broadest definition, as something which affects the mind. By that definition, religion and television (‘the plug-in drug’) should also be included. In truth marijuana is a medicinal herb, cultivated, bred, and evolved in service to human beings over thousands of years.

    “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that had two enemies: the anti-war left and black people. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting people to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, break up their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” –John Ehrlichman

    Prohibition of marijuana is a premise built on a tissue of lies: Concern For Public Safety. Our new laws save hundreds of lives every year, on our highways alone. In November of 2011, a study at the University of Colorado found that in the thirteen states that decriminalized marijuana between 1990 and 2009, traffic fatalities have dropped by nearly nine percent—now nearly ten percent in Michigan—more than the national average, while sales of beer went flat by five percent. No wonder Big Alcohol opposes it. Ambitious, unprincipled, profit-driven undertakers might be tempted too.

    In 2012 a study released by 4AutoinsuranceQuote revealed that marijuana users are safer drivers than non-marijuana users, as “the only significant effect that marijuana has on operating a motor vehicle is slower driving”, which “is arguably a positive thing”. Despite occasional accidents, eagerly reported by police-blotter ‘journalists’ as ‘marijuana-related’, a mix of substances was often involved. Alcohol, most likely, and/or prescription drugs, nicotine, caffeine, meth, cocaine, heroin, and a trace of the marijuana passed at a party ten days ago. However, on the whole, as revealed in big-time, insurance-industry stats, within the broad swath of mature, experienced consumers, slower and more cautious driving shows up in significant numbers. A recent Federal study has reached the same conclusion. And legalization should improve those numbers further.

    No one has ever died from an overdose of marijuana. It’s the most benign ‘substance’ in history. Most people—and particularly patients who medicate with marijuana–use it in place of prescription drugs or alcohol.

    Marijuana has many benefits, most of which are under-reported or never mentioned in American newspapers. Research at the University of Saskatchewan indicates that, unlike alcohol, cocaine, heroin, or Nancy (“Just say, ‘No!’”) Reagan’s beloved nicotine, marijuana is a neuroprotectant that actually encourages brain-cell growth. Researchers in Spain (the Guzman study) and other countries have discovered that it also has tumor-shrinking, anti-carcinogenic properties. These were confirmed by the 30-year Tashkin population study at UCLA.

    Drugs are man-made, cooked up in labs, for the sake of patents and the profits gained by them. Often useful, but typically burdened with cautionary notes and lists of side effects as long as one’s arm. ‘The works of Man are flawed.’

    Marijuana is a medicinal herb, the most benign and versatile in history. “Cannabis” in Latin, and “kanah bosm” in the old Hebrew scrolls, quite literally the Biblical Tree of Life, used by early Christians to treat
    everything from skin diseases to deep pain and despair. Why despair? Consider the current medical term for cannabis sativa: a “mood elevator”. . . as opposed to antidepressants, which ‘flatten out’ emotions, leaving patients numb to both depression and joy.

    The very name, “Christ” translates as “the anointed one”. Well then, anointed with what? It’s a fair question. And it wasn’t holy water, friends. Holy water came into wide use in the Middle Ages. In Biblical times, it was used by a few tribes of Greek pagans. And Christ was neither Greek nor pagan.

    Medicinal oil, for the Prince of Peace. A formula from the Biblical era has been rediscovered. It specifies a strong dose of oil from kanah bosom, ‘the fragrant cane’ of a dozen uses: ink, paper, rope, nutrition. . . . It was clothing on their backs and incense in their temples. And a ‘skinful’ of medicinal oil could certainly calm one’s nerves, imparting a sense of benevolence and connection with all living things. No wonder that the ‘anointed one’ could gain a spark, an insight, a sense of the divine, and the confidence to convey those feelings to friends and neighbors.

    Me? I’m appalled at the number of ‘Christian’ politicians, prosecutors, and police who pose on church steps or kneeling in prayer on their campaign trails, but cannot or will not face the scientific or the historical truths about cannabis, Medicinal Herb Number One, safe and effective for thousands of years, and celebrated as sacraments by most of the world’s major religions.

  2. Where will the water come from? Standard practice is using 6-10 gallons of water per plant per day for ’boutique’ outdoor marijuana. We have several neighboring parcels that each have hundreds of plants, abusing our rapidly dwindling ground water. In fact, several neighboring wells on illegal marijuana grows have already run dry.
    Are you saying our drought stricken, water scarce, foothills are an appropriate place to commercially raise marijuana?
    I don’t think so. Any commercial crop should be raised where existing infrastructure already exists. The central valley already has farmland, access to the state water system, transport, processing and storage facilities.

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