It’s been two years since I’ve seen Oaky Joe, a charismatic cannabis cultivator whose been growing medical marijuana in California for decades and who claims to have had more indictments against him dismissed than anyone else in the state. Those were two long years.
The last time I saw the exuberant old grower was in 2017, right before the Tubbs Fire devastated his home county of Sonoma, on a visit to his farm during a cannabis tour. By the time I spot him in the crowd at the 2019 Emerald Cup — the world’s leading outdoor cannabis competition taking place on Dec. 14-15 at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, California — Oaky Joe says he’s going to quit growing cannabis.
Oaky Joe is wearing a hat embroidered with his slogan “Do Some Good” and a shirt with his own name on it. He’s handing out packs of 15 seeds to the people he meets, and he says he’s given out over a thousand seeds so far.
“These are my ‘f*ck the government’ seeds,” he says with a laugh. After more than 30 years cultivating the plant, Oaky Joe says 2019 will be his last. He says he grew 70 plants this year as the primary caregiver for his longtime roster of medical patients, but got in trouble with the state (again) and fined thousands of dollars under California’s new legal cannabis regulations.
“I’m done,” he says. “The state of California has made it illegal to grow cannabis.”
A toothy grin peeks out from his grey beard as he admits, perhaps joking, that he’s thinking about growing on public land next year. “Then at least I can just walk away, and I’m not living right next to my grow where the state can find me,” he says.
Among the 30,000 people present at the Emerald Cup this year, Oaky Joe is one of the hundreds of cannabis growers on the bustling fairgrounds who have a bone to pick with the state of California. Since California’s adult-use cannabis regulations went into effect on Jan. 1, 2018, cannabis growers in California — particularly small legacy growers set up on land not easily brought into compliance with the state’s strict laws — have struggled. They’ve faced expense after expense along the licensing process, they’ve watched their neighbors quit the game or turn to the underground market and now they’re looking at another tax increase on New Year’s Day.
For the past 16 years, the Emerald Cup has served as a place where cannabis advocates could come together after the harvest, not just to compare bud, but to connect and rebuild for the year ahead. And so, of course, this year, the consequences of a tough year couldn’t help but make themselves apparent. In panel discussions, in casual conversation and in the general hype level, cannabis advocates made it clear at the 2019 Emerald Cup that morale was dipping across the industry.
“Hundreds, maybe thousands, of legacy growers in Mendocino advocated for legalization, but state barriers to permitting mean that they can’t succeed,” said Mendocino County Supervisor John McCowen in a panel on local cannabis politics. “It’s really physically difficult for people and what we’ve done is guarantee a robust black market.”
McCowen added that Mendocino is looking to change its regulations so that it will be easier for larger grows to establish themselves in the county.
Later in the Emerald Cup, a panel about reversing the damages of the War on Drugs illustrated how some of the people particularly struggling against California’s new cannabis regulations are people of color who have been pushing not just for equity programs but for support for people of color in general across the cannabis industry for years.
“I’m tired of having this conversation. We’ve all been on panels like this for years at big festivals… but what do people actually walk away and do afterward?” said co-founder of the cannabis delivery service The People’s Dispensary Chaney Turner.
Turner’s solution, like many others who’ve wrestled with regulators for long enough: “I’m not looking for the government to save us.”
But this year’s Emerald Cup also displayed a tricky phenomenon: that when two people who are having a hard time are brought together to celebrate, they often start to have a good time.
“Hope springs eternal,” said cannabis farmer Casey O’Neill of HappyDay Farms, in his presentation on the regenerative practices his farm uses. He told the crowd that he looks to his farming peers for support and inspiration, and encouraged people to continue to push together for something better.
Josh Sarvis of Dragonfly Earth Medicine had a similar message a few hours later. “We want to encourage people to keep going,” he said. “Let’s look to our allies and the people around us to give us strength.”
Sarvis concluded, “The times are a’changing, but so are we.”
TELL US, did you go to the Emerald Cup this year?