It's the Plants, Darling

When California’s Most Popular Plant Is Legal

Patents and trademarks.  The idea of “branding” cannabis grown in Humboldt is a fine one, but I hope growers are bracing themselves for the day when Big Tobacco walks into the US Patent and Trademark Office and files a patent for every strain of cannabis on the market.  That’s a patent, folks, as in, a piece of paper that prohibits anyone else from asexually reproducing, selling, or using the patented plant without permission. Now, plant patents are complicated and well beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that the day may come with the patent office is ready to accept plant patents for cannabis.  Who’s working on that paperwork?

A trademark is another beast entirely.  Plant trademarks are controversial; some plant growers (including outspoken nurseryman Tony Avent) point out that a trademark only protects a brand, not individual products within that brand.  So trademarking an individual plant species or cultivar is, people like Avent claim, a misuse of the trademark process.  Trademarking a line of plants all sold under one brand name would be a legitimate use of trademarking.

And yes, the Feds are probably not ready to accept a trademark application for what will remain, in their view, an illegal product.  But that could change.  Who’s going to be the first to file a trademark when it does? And what happens when the owner of that trademark starts sending lawyers to Humboldt to block the use of terms like “Trainwreck” and “Purple Haze”?

I’m not a plant patent and trademark lawyer, but if I had a stake in this game, I’d sure call one.

Responsible business practices.  Legit agricultural businesses have to file reports of their pesticide use with the county ag department, enforce health and safety standards for their workers, pay fair wages and taxes, pass inspections, and generally run a clean and safe operation.  Those laws are on the books for a reason:  without them we risk chemical spills, electrical fires, and a total lack of worker protections. Sound familiar? 

Now, the tricky bit here is that a person who decides to make their living growing pot is probably doing it in part because they don’t want to deal with the Establishment. But this is California, and we regulate our agriculture.  I’d get busy complying with those laws and learning how to keep records, follow rules, and all that grown-up stuff.  In fact, why not just voluntarily start complying with California’s agricultural and labor laws?  It’s the right thing to do.  Right?

Eco-labels.  We all know that our homegrown industry is an environmental nightmare.  Pollution, harsh chemicals, massive energy consumption, diesel spills—it’s a mess.   Meanwhile, the rest of the ag business has been focused on cleaning up its act and marketing its products as organic, eco-friendly, or sustainable.

What’s that going to look like for marijuana?  Want to sell organic pot?  Guess what—you can’t use the term “organic” unless your operation has been certified by one of a number of third-party certification programs. Are any of those programs ready to start inspecting marijuana grows?  If I was hoping to sell organic, Humboldt homegrown to the masses, I’d be Googling “USDA National Organic Program” right about now and schooling up. Even if the USDA’s not ready for it, we should be.

Or what about creating a new standard just for pot?  One that takes into account energy consumption, spills and runoff, and worker safety, but perhaps allows limited use of mild synthetic chemicals in some situations?  Guess what—mainstream agriculture’s already doing it.  Google “ANSI Sustainable Agriculture” and start reading about what the Leonardo Academy’s doing to develop voluntary, industry-wide standards that define “sustainable.”  A similar sustainability standard for pot could have Humboldt’s name on it—or not.  Depends on who gets there first.

Go to Holland.  And no, I’m not talking about studying Amsterdam’s permissive pot economy. I’m talking about their flower industry.  As the actual growing of flowers moved to regions of the world where the climate, labor costs, and real estate costs made agriculture more affordable—think Bakersfield for pot—Holland’s flower industry adapted.  They kept the tourism piece of the business.  They patent and market new plant varieties. They export their expertise, their technology, and their equipment. They have established eco-labels, developed a giant auction and warehousing business, created the best industry trade shows, and generally remained the leader in the flower business—even as more and more of the actual flowers are grown in Africa and Latin America.  Don’t be in denial about this change; it will happen.  Figure out how to embrace it and own it.

Develop standards for THC content.  It’s like the proof on a bottle of alcohol. Be kind to your new customers; let them know what they’re in for. If Humboldt cannabis tourism is going to happen, let’s make sure our visitors have a safe and pleasant experience that doesn’t send them to the hospital, run them off the road, or knock them off their feet.

Own the home gardening market. Expect to see a lot of gardeners adding a new plant to their backyard next year. Trust me, there are legions of garden writers out there who have no idea what to tell their readers about it. Let’s create a gardener-friendly retail business that offers helpful advice, friendly service, and products that are easy to use—and then work with the mainstream garden media to promote it. Garden centers and hydro shops are miles apart in terms of atmosphere, appearance, and customer service. Just as Restoration Hardware started here and went national, why not get the home gardening retail model figured out here and go statewide with it, cementing the Humboldt brand along the way?

Could happen.  For now I just hope that our local growers will look to the horticulture, agriculture, and mainstream gardening communities for inspiration and expertise in running a legitimate industry.

Posted by on April 14, 2010 at 5:22 am, in the category It's the Plants, Darling.
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20 Responses to “When California’s Most Popular Plant Is Legal”

  1. Good advice Amy. I am not really up on the black market growing procedures of pot, so it is hard to grasp the toxic nature of the grow operations of a plant that is a roadside weed in Kansas and Nebraska. Different strains of course, but they are both weeds and grow like them. Why all the chemicals?

    I do hope Californians have the good sense to legalize marijuana and put the first nail in the coffin in the war on drugs. If they do however their name will be mud in certain quarters by legalizing pot after denying civil rights to gays and refusing to allow same sex marriage.

    Think about it, is one issue more fear inducing than the other?

  2. trey says:

    I doubt you will get much of the tourism trade like Napa or Sonoma. Humboldt is just too far away from the major metropolitan centers of the Bay Area. Why travel to Humboldt when there will be little coffee shop like places in San Francisco where you
    will be presented with all sorts of choices, from all over the state? What happens in Amsterdam is likely what will happen here. Most of Holland’s growing is done indoors anyway, closer to the metro centers?

    Much of wine tasting involves taking a sip, and trying the next type. Try doing that with the super potent cannabis being grown and you won’t make it past the first “tasting room.” Just read the comments from the North Coast Journal you sited and you will get a sense of how this will change the scene there. Something like when the timber industry collapsed. Not going to be good for the local economy.

    What’s to keep large corporations like Phillip Morris from entering the business? They may very well start large farms in places like Bakersfield, or indoors anywhere. The state will love this since they can inspect, control, and tax organizations like Phillip Morris more easily than some small grower in the hills.

    From what I understand, if legalization happens you will be allowed one 5×5’ area to grow your herb. That’s just enough room for one or two people to grow their yearly needs, if done properly. There should be a market for the retail nursery trade that can show people how to accomplish their goals within that stated area. It may be more common to see cannabis growing in the garden plot next to the tomatoes and basil.

  3. I think we should also touch on taxation of pot once it’s legal. Considering what an economic disaster we are currently in, taxing pot would help with some of that. It also makes it more legitimate.

    I, personally, don’t smoke pot but I have a lot of friends that do and if it’s legalized I would probably go ahead and grow some to share with them. I’m just that way. I make beer too, but I don’t drink it (I prefer hard cider), just share it. Go figure.

  4. Amy Stewart says:

    Christopher C, to answer your question about the chemicals: indoor grow operations are very common here, which means hydroponic operations that use synthetic fertilizers, fungicides, and pesticides in large quantities, with no safe disposal procedures. Add to that mix huge electrical use for lighting & fans, sometimes powered by diesel generators, and you have the potential for house fires or fuel spills. Outdoor grows sometimes happen in the redwood forests, where plant life & streams get contaminated with this stuff (not to mention human-generated garbage from the people who guard the plants all season long and don’t pack out their trash.)

  5. Ficurinia says:

    If it puts some of the folks I know out of business, then I’d be pleased. Lake County, neighbor to Napa, Sonoma & Mendocino counties, has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state. Funny thing that their largest underground economy is marijuana. If it’s finally legalized and taxed, it may actually help the county, but then again, if it pushes the current growers out so that legitimate farmers can actually produce the stuff, then so what? Don’t try to delude yourselves either about the current criminal elements that exist. It’s an economy. If a convicted felon cannot find a job, growing pot is the first thing they often do in many remote areas of CA. If legalized, I really hope that this may help with that but society has to accept the fact that many former-prisoners also need to have more opportunities.

    I should add too that as a chronically ill person who has chronic pain, in a state where I can get medical marijuana easily, I would only do so if I was dying. As someone who does social work, I am more than aware of the psychological addiction that this drug can cause in many folks and that too in an issue that should be addressed since many folks are self-medicating mental illnesses.

    Sorry if it sounds like a good idea to you, but there are still some other issues to be worked out here. The I-5 drug corridor into Oregon and Washington State will have to be looked at since these two states are not likely to legalize anytime soon. Who will pay to patrol these areas? If you could potentially purchase cheap in California and transport elsewhere who will stop these folks from making profit in any other state in the US?

    I think that CA will eventually pass this, but it won’t be until some more details are worked out. Besides, so what if it is grown in the traditional farming areas of CA? Cheaper goods grown now in Mexico have hurt them a great deal and they too need more jobs etc.

  6. sara says:

    I am fully in support of legalization, if only to remove the motivation for the illegal operations hidden away in public parklands to stay in business. Those which rely on diesel generators for their lights (diesel fuel spills are not uncommon), and suck the water out of creeks to keep the crops irrigated. It isn’t quite as devastating as meth production in the backwoods is, but that’s only because toxic chemicals aside from the aforementioned diesel fuel are not involved.

  7. Laura Bell says:

    Leave it to Amy to put a fresh twist on the legalization issue !

  8. Claire Splan says:

    Interesting post and comments. If Trey is correct about the 5′ by 5′ growing area limit, I would think that someone using hydroponics could raise the production level quite a bit over what could be traditionally grown in that same space. I would not be surprised if the legalization of pot in CA doesn’t bring about a lot of innovation in horticulture.

  9. Amy, that essay just made my day. You lay out the practical concerns of legalization and it reads like the best conceptual art. Seeing the issues in many different lights and still sober. Bravo.

  10. angelchrome says:

    Well, that’s one way to work on California’s budget disaster. I agree that the first thing the farmers should try is a trip to ask the Dutch how you turn this type of opportunity into an enterprise. As gross as the lobbying system is, the are going to need better lobbyists. They’re going to need to poach talent from other ag groups who are experienced in things like how to put together an organization to protect their interests.

    As for Humboldt as a destination – it could easily happen. Don’t worry about the tourists from the Bay area. People from all over the country (and world) would come visit. If you’ve got money to invest, now is the time to get into hospitality, ’cause 24 months from now any hotel, motel and Holiday Inn will be hoppin’. Yeah the tax money will be good, but the tourism will be fantastic.

  11. Michelle D says:

    I’m for legalization but there must be some sensible and compassionate legislation in the law.

    For the 6 years I lived up in Mendocino county I augmented my income by offering professional horticultural services to several growers ( both indoor and outdoor operations) .
    Often I was called after there was an outbreak of fungal or a pest infestation so I saw a lot of desperate measures taken ( read chemical warfare) to insure their crop went to market.

    For this reason I would like to see some oversight in regards to pesticide application.

  12. I would venture a guess that alcohol has ruined more lives than pot ever has. I know nothing about the core issues so I am unable to embrace it based on facts. Native people from all over the world smoke and chew plant materials for the stimulation it provides. If you look at it in that light why wouldn’t you legalize it, many of these people have been doing it for thousands of years. As for trademarks and patents, you are dealing with a part of society that could care less about law and government. Patents and trademarks do not prevent you from reproducing a plant, they only give the the right to pursue those who are violating your product. This could be a means to slowly bleed anyone holding patents and create a quagmire in the California court systems. I believe Humboldt could be a tourist attraction if properly organized and managed. Look at Sturgis for the biker community, what major city is it near? For those that this directly effects you must organize yourselves and get educated. You must decide to take up good business practices and abide by the law. If not once pot is legal to produce,and there is enough social acceptance corporate America will buy up the land and leave you in the cold.

  13. Norm says:

    Why not just meld it with the gardening industry rather than the competing regulated tobacco and alcohol industries. Everyone will have their backyard favorites, and save seeds which will become heirloom. “Big Hort” will brand their favorite best sellers, charge too much for it to those in apartments and the rest of us will grow “Grannies Great Grass”!

  14. greg draiss says:

    Legalizing pot would go along way to stop the drug cartels that speacialize in pot.
    Peoplemake their own wine and beer so let it go commercial

    The TROLL

  15. sara says:

    Here’s the other reason pot needs to be legalized and taxed. It’ll reinvigorate the paper industry by taking the emphasis off wood as a feedstock.

    Legalize cannabis and that opens the doors to legalize the growing of industrial hemp, which doesn’t turn soil into dirt as quickly as cotton does.

    It could reinvigorate the textile industry, too, taking some of the emphasis away from cotton.

  16. Kaviani says:

    Great ideas except for the penultimate one: as far as I can tell, it’s impossible to guarantee a percentage of a given compound. Tobacco is only successful in that area because they process the hell out of tobacco leaves; essentially stripping it of nicotine and a few other alkaloids and then spray the stripped material with a set solution of nicotine.

    While this *may* be possible with cannabis, I imagine it would be extremely cost ineffective (the compounds in question being insoluble in water) and not many consumers would look favorably on a product processed to the point of a chicken nugget after enjoying the real deal.

  17. Elizabeth Stump says:

    You mean if it becomes like the flower industry, California will be the agricultural center for a while until it all moves off to the Mexico and Ecuador because land and labor are cheap, the sun is stronger at a lower latitude and domestic companies will move off shore. It’s like produce today. How many people really care if something is grown locally, “seasonal” and organically if they can get it on sale, imported for cheap at the supermarket. Strawberries from Mexico in fall and winter, grapes from Chile in the Spring, apples from New Zealand in winter and spring, and the list goes on. Yeah, there is a higher percentage of people who read this blog who make a point of going to the local farmers market or grow their own (man, nothing beats alpine strawberries grown in your own backyard!), but think of the millions of others who just shop at the local Walmart/Target/big store chain for all their produce needs? Do they care if it’s local? No, just if it’s on special. Some people do care, others are more concerned about making their pennies stretch than the usual slogan of “it’s sustainable.” Sorry about being a cynic on this, but when Walmart is now the largest grocery retailer in the U.S., you have to think about the numbers of people who shop in a place like that.

  18. Ben says:

    It will be interesting to see the economic consequence of legalization. A lot of money is involved in the black market, one that would nearly instantly dry up.

    Maybe people would spend that money instead on above-the-board business… But in any case, people who make a living via rejecting the social norm will have to go deeper into nefarious activity, or else become part of the machine / combine and work for ‘the man’.

    Good luck to you black marketeers, its a tough world out here, hopefully you can find sustained income on a bottomed out weed market by following some of the tips in this article. Don’t let mega-agra push you out of business.

    Also – think about seeds as oil / bio-fuels.

  19. alec says:

    Your use of big words and rationality disgusts me. You’ll burn in hell for this!!!!!!!!

  20. Rob says:

    I agree that people might be in for some surprises should legalization happen. Here’s my take on it.

    http://www.helioclinic.com/what-if-tobacco-companies-sold-marijuana.html

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