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Marijuana is emerging among California’s vineyards, offering promise and concern

SANTA YNEZ VALLEY, Calif. — It is the fall harvest here in this fertile stretch of oaks and hills that produces some of the country’s best wine. This season, though, workers also are plucking the sticky, fragrant flowers of a new crop.

Marijuana is emerging among the vineyards, not as a rival to the valley‘s grapes but as a high-value commodity that could help reinvigorate a fading agricultural tradition along the state‘s Central Coast. Brushed by ocean breeze, cannabis has taken root, offering promise and prompting the age-old question of whether there can be too much of a good thing.

Cannabis has been fully legal in California for less than a year, and no place is generating more interest in it than the stretch of coast from Monterey to here in Santa Barbara County, where farmers now hold more marijuana cultivation licenses than in any other county.

The shift in legal cultivation patterns is coming at the expense of the remote Emerald Triangle, the trio of far-northern California counties where an illegal marijuana industry has thrived for decades. The Central Coast is not growing more marijuana than the Emerald Triangle, but it could be on track to grow more legally, if trends hold.

“We‘re nearly right in between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the two big consumer hubs,” said John De Friel, whose 17-acre Raw Garden Farm and seed lab sits among cabbage patches and wineries. “We really didn‘t foresee how advantageous that would turn out to be.”

The regulated California cannabis market is a $4-billion-a-year industry, a boon to the local tax base and to a generation of entrepreneurial farmers more schooled in the agricultural sciences than in the dark arts of deception.

But legalization already is reordering the business and geography of cannabis cultivation, pushing crops into places they have never been. The new cultivations are challenging long-held beliefs in some conservative communities, including this one, where a rural libertarian streak is confronting a crop still stigmatized despite its legality.

Hoop houses at the Vertical cannabis farm in Buellton, Calif. Photo for The Washington Post by Philip Cheung Cannabis buds dry on racks at Vertical cannabis farm in Buellton, Calif. Photo for The Washington Post by Philip Cheung

The novelty of cannabis here also is a benefit. In northern California, the marijuana industry’s decades-old outlaw culture has proved a major obstacle to transforming the black market into a legal one. With so much lower-cost, unregulated marijuana on the market there, farmers complying with the stiff, expensive new regulations are struggling to make it into the light.

Here, along the Central Coast, growers complying with the licensing process are having an easier time without a thriving black market as competition. California farmers have only until the end of the year to meet the licensing and regulatory requirements – a process that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars – or face the law.

While expensive, the commercial logic to get legal is undeniable. In approving recreational marijuana use in November 2016, California voters vastly expanded the legal market, which previously was accessible only to the roughly 200,000 residents with medical marijuana cards. Now, marijuana can be sold to the entire drinking-age population of the nation‘s most populous state.

The initiative allowed counties and cities to make their own rules, including outright bans on sale and cultivation. As a result, hundreds of potential growers are still “jurisdiction shopping,” trying to find counties with the lowest cannabis taxes, the right climate, an experienced labor force and a favorable location.

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Published: November 29, 2018

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