The Gentrification of Cannabis

Tiny - Posted on 26 July 2016

Its tough these days.  The economy has been rough for years.  Especially for low income residents of the city, mentally and physically disabled folk, and an under educated youth.  These are the people who have made up the back bone of the Cannabis industry for the last 10-15 years.  Many landowners, growers, and field workers in the Cannabis industry in Northern California are on government disability and use the cash economy to ‘cheat’ the government so they can live a decent living.  Its hard to even get a space in a trailer park when your only income is from a disability check, and you're legally not allowed to receive that check and have an additional income.

There is a huge cash economy that is happening in Northern California.  Landowners lease their fenced gardens to growers on a decent percentage of all the properties in the weed-friendly counties that make up much of Northern California.  There are thousands of growers who make their living growing outdoor crops, or sleep in their living rooms because the bedrooms are full of grow lights.  Thousands of college students and many urban young people get some extra cash from using up a closet or a bedroom and living a cramped lifestyle in order to keep up in a increasingly expensive city.  There are thousands who flock to Northern California for work, as trimmers, leaf pickers, soil mixers, security guards, cultivation experts, musicians, masseuses, electricians or as uneducated labor.  There is no reading requirement, no education requirement, no resume, cover letter, prior references or experience necessary.  The pay often is pretty damn good when compared to the other unskilled work that may or may not be available.  The young, disabled, economically advantaged and disadvantaged all have the ability to start entrepreneurial businesses with little or no start up.

15 years ago myself I started with a borrowed grow light and a few bucks.  I moved up slowly, from a closet to a bedroom to my own apartment (where I lived in the living room), eventually finding full time employment and running large outdoor grows where I was responsible to nobody but myself. It put me through college, let me travel where I normally wouldn’t have been able to, and even helped me be able to serve and volunteer in my community when it was required because I worked for myself. I could take off the odd summer, travel around the Indian community, go to far-away ceremonies, travel internationally and take half a year off to volunteer in my community full-time.  I have watched as the price dropped from $3400, to $2800, to $2200, to $1500, to $1200 and now even to sub-$1000 prices for an outdoor pound.  It still costs the same to grow. But originally because it was a black market, it was highly illegal to grow, and people were generally scared of being caught, the price was inflated and high.

As the laws eased year by year, as the criminal penalties slowly got easier, as the public perception changed, and now as we have a good deal of the western states with full on legalization, the price is at an all-time low.  I knew it had come because my own Mom, who once used to be so embarrassed by my smoking weed, now had discussions over lunch with her friends about their childrens involvement in the various sectors of the Cannabis Industry.  The market is flooded with growers.  It used to be hard to find a property in Northern California that would let you grow, now its nearly impossible to find one that isn’t growing already.   You can order herb on your iPhone and have it delivered in 20 minutes while paying on your credit card.  No more waiting for your local dealer to hopefully answer his phone.  The guy across the street can get a delivery before your dealer even sees the missed call.

I recently attended the Green Rush Job Fair in San Francisco, a gathering of the growing and explosive Cannabis businesses and prospective employees.  There were all sorts of new budding businesses in the room.  Uber-like delivery services, Bud and Breakfasts like Air B-n-B, Edible companies, Sacramento Lobbying groups, and even Technology companies.  There were also all sorts of attendees, eager people from all sorts of backgrounds looking for a job in this growing market.  There were stoners wearing business suits, nerdy tech guys, closet growers looking to get themselves a job to get to their next harvest and fresh outta’ high school kids with their favorite 420 T-Shirt tucked into their Khaki pants.  It’s obvious that the city I can hardly afford to live in is growing and moving me out, and now my own business has grown so big that I’m no longer qualified for the positions they are looking for.  If you're not willing to accept entry-level wages (even with a decade of experience), then they aren’t looking for you. They want the low payed security guard or the guy from the coffee shop to change jobs and serve you bud instead of coffee.  They are looking for Tech guys, Data Analysts, Sales and Marketing, College degrees and experience required. But not experience in the Cannabis industry.  Several employers said that that was actually frowned upon.  While our housing crisis may be kicking out families that have lived there for generations, the legalization and large scale ramp up of Marijuana is kicking out the employees and experts that the business has been based on for the last decade.  With the new legal situations come new employment situations.

No longer is it a business for society’s castaways, the disabled, the unemployed, the under educated, those with little to no capital, or the poor.  Now its a business for the guys who are already employed.  Instead of working for SalesForce, Uber or the new big tech firm, now they can work in the exploding Cannabis industry.  Now you need corporate experience and a college education to be in the weed business.  But what’s going to happen to the rest of the people who helped build this industry?  What is going to happen to those who are on government disability and have been taking part in California's hidden green economy to get by? What about all the traveling under educated folk who come in and work for the summer or the fall? What about the public school teachers who work the summers because teachers don’t earn enough to survive in the bay area?  What about the youth who don’t have other economic opportunities due to failing school systems, lack of education, lack of career prospects, and lack of opportunities?  What does the guy who only has a few hundred bucks and some borrowed equipment do when he wants to start a business?  What about all the physically and mentally disabled folk who our society has thrown out, won't employ, or who can’t find employment because of a failing mental health system?

A lot of folk in California have been finding extra work, or literally the only work that they can do, and they are finding that their job is disappearing.  Marlboro wants to do it now.  Uber-style delivery wants in.  Air BnB clones want a piece.  Corporate strategy is now taking over the good-vibe marketing that made California's Green economy such a relaxed place and made us famous.  I feel like the San Francisco Cab driver who now is having to find other work now that Uber came to town.  It’s back to the back of the line in the labor force and starting all over.  We had no stake or equity in the economy that grew around us. Counties have been changing their laws slowly over the past few years, making it tighter and tighter and more and more regulated.  Grows are shrinking or being outlawed all together.  They are becoming more regulated.  It’s all paving the way to legalization.  To turn the 1000 acre almond orchards into grow sites. 

What all this entails is that the low-capitol entrepreneur is no longer going to be able to participate the same way that they used to.  Do you know anyone who’s leasing 100+ acres with Irrigation and tractors just to get from one side to the other?  Or do you have an uncle or an aunty who used to rent the corner of their backyard?  For most people its the latter.  Now you will need serious investment to take part.  You need financiers, several employees and a permit.  Who’s gonna get the permits?  I bet it won’t be the hundreds of thousands of growers in Northern California who have been banking on this for decades and who are now being displaced.  The people who might have upgraded their truck, paid off their mortgage, or put their kids through college.  Sure, some might have bags of money buried or came up majorly on real estate, but for the majority of people it was a little extra income or the only income they could get.  

One of the problems of an underground cash economy is that you’re never really sure how many people are involved in it.  They don’t show up on the census, they don’t get counted by the IRS.  Trust me, Northern California depends on it.  Its the reason that half the houses have renters, the reason why rural areas where there is no real work have decent employment.  There are people who rely on it to pay their bills or their mortgages because it is the only employment in the most rural areas of California.  There are hundreds of thousands of people who are about to lose their part time or full time job.  But because its cash, because its black market, they can’t speak out.  Although you can buy almost anything with cash, you can’t buy a house these days with $100 bills you’ve been hiding in a shoebox, even if you have a big shoebox.  You also can’t go down to the bank and deposit the $500,000 that you’d need to start a legitimate business in the cannabis industry.  So our cash economy has left us out of the future of this “green rush” that we started. 

Northern California property has had an added value the last decade because people were able to grow on it.  You could have a half dozen full time employees working on a single property that were only able to be there because of the grow.  There are billions of dollars that, because they are cash, haven’t made it into the banks. Instead they have been supporting the local Ace Hardware, the local cafe, better tips for restaurant workers, hiring people to do work for you because you’ve got a wad of cash in your pocket, more cash being spent because there’s nowhere else to put it.  The economic impacts of taking so many jobs away from Northern California are going to be devastating.  Devastating to rural real estate, to small and rural towns, and devastating to all the would-be and soon-to-be unemployed who formerly had work. 

De-criminilization of Cannabis needs to happen.  The drug war has gone on far too long and far too many people have suffered and had their futures irrevocably changed for the worse.  I myself was facing a handful of felonies for some weed.  6-12 years of my life potentially gone.  Luckily I had the privilege of a lawyer, and bail.  That wasn’t something that many can afford, and unfortunately both of those things are rights that you can buy, and you get treated completely different in the system if you have them.  Decent legal representation and the right to have equal access to living in your own house while you await trial should be guaranteed rights, but unfortunately they are something you must buy, and they are not cheap.  Thinking back its hard to believe that I could have lost so much of my life.  My future would never have been the same.  My dreams would have been snuffed.  Legalization needs to happen, even if just to keep people out of prison, but what worries me most about the impending changes that are happening is what is going to happen to those who are already employed in the industry.

Even those who built quite the resume out of the whole thing are finding out that their experience isn’t wanted or respected.  Selling weed and being a middle man isn’t the same as having Sales experience from a major corporation.  Agricultural companies won’t hire you for all your ‘irrigation’ experience but instead will offer you a low paid labor position.  “Amateur botanist” and a Botany degree from UC Santa Cruz aren’t the same thing.  Managing employees on the farm isn’t the same as management experience in corporate America. The school of hard knocks sure ain't looked at the same as a college education. A resume full of experience that you can’t actually put a telephone number next to is turning out to be quite the road block.  This new Green economy is full of low-paid work for most of us, and new job opportunities for those who are now living in the house that we grew up in.  

Don’t even get me started on the Green Rush/Gold Rush thing.   


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