At the Willits, California Food Bank, a 31-year-old cannabis farmer we’ll call Mark was energetically ticking off the community service hours he’d earned for growing our nation’s number-one cash crop. I watched for a few minutes as he passed bags full of apples, cheese and surplus generic sponge cake to a Mendocino County mom. I asked Mark what he thought about the approaching end of federal cannabis prohibition. He acknowledged that it was imminent, but was deeply wary of it.“It’ll be the end of the small farmer,” he told me.“Foks’ll be buying packages of joints made by Coors or Marlboro.”
Why does Mark, like many if not most of today’s American black-market cannabis farmers, dread the aboveground acceptance of his industry? Why did the voters in the Emerald Triangle cannabis farming counties of Mendocino (by 6%) and Humboldt (8%) vote against California’s Proposition 19 in 2010, which would have legalized cannabis?
The answer has as much to do with simple accounting as the more common outsider assumption: that farmers fear the price drops that come when a prohibitionary economy dissolves (though this is certainly part of the story). When, in three generations of farming, your family has never had to pay taxes, record payroll or meet building code, let alone meet a customer (the Emerald Triangle has an entire caste of middlemen and women who broker wholesale deals, so the farmer doesn’t have to leave the farm), the prospect of coming aboveground -- and dealing with the same red tape every other industry does -- can be terrifying.
Some of these farmers, like all successful small-business owners in any industry, resist change in knee-jerk fashion by distributing worst-case scenarios the way some people pass around business cards.“Look at tobacco," Mark told me at the Food Bank. "They’ve made the paperwork crazy complicated so only giant corporate farmers can afford to grow it commercially.”
He’s actually correct. Section 40 of Title 27 of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s regulations has 534 subsections. You need a corporate lawyer on call to endure this document without a migraine. The system favors big producers, and Big Tobacco is at least paying attention to federal drug law: NPR has reported that Philip Morris trademarked the brand “Marley” at the height of Just Say No in 1983 (though this doesn’t turn up at the United States Patent and Trademark site, and the company is mum). And Dan Mitchell reported in Fortune that tobacco company Brown & Williamson “enthusiastically” advised, in a 1970s internal report, that the company start viewing marijuana as "an alternative product line.”