California's marijuana farmers have existed in a legal gray area in the 18 years since the state became the first to allow residents to use the drug for medical purposes.
But veteran cannabis growers are emerging from the shadows to make their voices heard at the Capitol now that groundwork is being laid to legalize pot for recreational use in the state.
Marijuana producers from Northern California's infamous Emerald Triangle are hiring 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 of coming forward 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: a Wednesday hearing for a bill that would require medical marijuana growers to obtain permits and subject them to environmental inspections. The Emerald Growers Association, which recently hired a senior adviser from a top lobbying firm, 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 bill's author is Assemblyman Jim Wood, a Democrat whose sprawling, 300-mile-long district encompasses most of the state's prime sun-grown marijuana territory. 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 talking about it. That's the bottom line," Wood said. "I would hope that people would see that, you know what, the times they are a-changing."
In Colorado, Oregon and Washington state, where marijuana already has been legalized for adult use, pot growers have engaged in political advocacy both in concert with and opposition to consumer and business groups that fought for full legalization. Ongoing issues include price differences between legal 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. Emerald Growers 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 like vineyards and that any licensing system should employ a tiered approach that leaves room for small "craft cultivators," Executive Director Hezekiah Allen said.
"Regulation of commercial cannabis in California is existential for tens of thousands of small farms statewide," Allen said. "If regulation does not include them, they will be forced between not being able to afford licenses and not having enough time to transition or continuing to operate in a gray area or worse yet, being forced into the black market."
Much of the state's outdoor marijuana growing is in the Emerald Triangle — Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties.
One sign that the growers are being heard was a two-day field trip California Cannabis Voice Humboldt, a local advocacy group, organized last week for two members of the state tax board, which is providing input for the legalization initiative's drafters on how recreational weed could be taxed. The elected officials toured a seedling nursery, a pair of specialty farms and a horticulture supply company, posing at the end of the outing for a group photo with their hosts.
"Everyone with a dream of having an edibles company, a farmer made that happen," group Treasurer Luke Bruner, who organized the visit, said. "The weed fairy doesn't bring this stuff to the dispensary."