Emerald Triangle Cannabis Economy Pushed to the Brink

Cannabis has been king in this rural area of northern California. As prices plummet, communities and small businesses are hurting, Many blame Prop 64.

PUBLISHED FEB 27, 2023 1:16 P.M.
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Scott Murrison inside a hoop house full of unused cannabis growing equipment in Hayfork on Feb. 7, 2023.

Scott Murrison inside a hoop house full of unused cannabis growing equipment in Hayfork on Feb. 7, 2023.   Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters

HAYFORK — It’s shortly before 8 a.m. and a touch above freezing at the Trinity County Fairgrounds. The food bank’s February distribution won’t begin for another half hour, but the line of cars already stretches into a third row of the parking lot.

Joseph Felice, his red Dodge pickup idling with the heat cranked up, arrived around 7 to secure a spot near the front — eighth, to be exact — and ensure that he gets his pick of this month’s harvest: frozen catfish filets, eggplant, winter squash, potatoes, cans of mixed fruit, cartons of milk. Getting here early is crucial, because by the time the final cars roll through some two hours later — 210 families served — all that’s left are a few packages of diapers and noodles.

Things are getting desperate in this remote, mountainous community in far northern California, where cannabis is king — the economy, the culture, the everything. Over the past two years, the price of weed has plummeted and people are broke.

The monthly food bank distribution moved from a church to the fairgrounds last summer to accommodate surging demand. There’s only one sit-down restaurant left in town, a Mexican joint that closes every day at 6. Some residents have fled for Oklahoma, where it’s easier for cannabis cultivators to get licensed. Others are stuck, unable to unload their properties amid an abundance of supply and a dearth of demand.

“I don’t see the same faces that I did before,” said Felice, 67, who performed maintenance work for a local grower for five years, until they called it quits at the end of last season.

Felice lost not just his income, but also free housing on the farm. The food distribution is now a crucial bridge between Social Security checks and trips to Redding, 60 miles away, where he can get cheaper groceries.

“I had plenty of money working out there,” Felice said. “But now that it’s gone, you have to do something.”

Just what that something might be for Hayfork — and the rest of the famous Emerald Triangle of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties — is unclear. 

For decades before California legalized recreational cannabis in 2016, this rural region of about 245,000 people was the base of weed cultivation for the entire country. The effects of the price crash, which has been particularly acute in the past two years, can be felt throughout the three counties, both within the industry and far outside of it.

Cultivators who can barely make ends meet are laying off employees, slashing expenses or shutting down their farms. That means money isn’t flowing into local businesses, nonprofits are getting fewer generous cash donations in brown paper bags, and local governments are collecting less in sales and property taxes.

Workers who spent their whole lives in the cannabis industry are suddenly looking around for new careers that may not be there. Store clerks, gas station attendants and restaurant servers who relied on their patronage now find themselves with reduced hours, meager tips or out of a job altogether.

A sense of despair and heartbreak has taken hold in many communities. People whisper about friends who are thinking about divorce or who killed themselves because they could not handle the financial devastation. And the pain is compounded by a feeling that their suffering has been all but invisible, overlooked by most Californians and dismissed by government officials who have never made good on the promises of legalization.

“We’re constantly at war. That’s how it feels,” said Adrien Keys, president of the Trinity County Agriculture Alliance, a trade association for the local legal cannabis industry.

These communities have been here before, stuck in a boom-and-bust cycle that played out with gold mining and cattle ranching and fishing. The last time, when the timber industry collapsed in the 1990s, cannabis cultivation flourished after the legalization of medical marijuana and filled the void. Now it’s unclear whether there’s anything left to sustain the local economies.

Some imagine that growing tourism can be the salvation, or attracting new residents with remote jobs and a desire to live way off the grid, or perhaps a logging revival driven by the urgent need to thin out California’s wildfire-prone forests. Others hope that a cannabis turnaround might still be possible.

But for a small, isolated town such as Hayfork — population: 2,300; high school student body: 88; empty sawmills: two — the answers are not obvious. The fear that the community could ultimately wither away is real.

Read more ‘Emerald Triangle communities were built on cannabis. Legalization has pushed them to the brink’ on CalMatters.

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

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