Growing, Growing, Gone (copy)

Every June, the Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner releases the Crop Report, the definitive annual snapshot of the status of the county’s number one industry, worth $4.2 billion in 2018. For the past three crop report announcements at least one commodity has been the elephant in the fields: cannabis.

At the June 2017 Crop Report press conference—less than a year after Prop. 64 legalizing recreational cannabis was approved by voters, but six months before it became law—the big question from reporters was, why isn’t medicinal cannabis, which was legal in the state, listed in the report? It’s only mention was that the expansion of medicinal cannabis into county greenhouses was the cause of a decline in the 2016 nursery crop business.

“That’s the million-dollar question, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said the agricultural commissioner at the time, Eric Lauritzen, acknowledging the state of flux that cannabis was in.

Even now cannabis containing more that 0.3 percent of THC, the compound that can make people high, is considered an illegal drug by the federal government. (Closely related hemp is now legal under the 2018 Farm Bill, as long as it contains less than 0.3 percent of THC.)

Ryan Munevar, the executive director of Monterey County NORML, a legalization advocacy group, estimated in 2017 that it could take 10-15 years before cannabis might finally be classified as an agricultural product, instead of treated as a “weird crop” that faces regulations from governmental agencies more apt for medicine or alcohol.

Change is coming much faster than predicted. On Sept 5, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law Senate Bill 657, authored by State Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, giving agricultural commissioners the discretion to include cannabis numbers in crop reports as an addendum.

“I’m glad it was passed,” says current Agricultural Commissioner Henry Gonzales. “If we’re allowed to grow a crop then we should capture data about that crop.”

Gonzales and his staff are now working to include an addendum of cannabis data for the 2019 Crop Report, including things like the number of acres in production and the value of the county’s entire crop.

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Gonzales’ hesitation from cannabis being included in the body of the report hangs on the fact it’s still illegal on the federal level. He says he does not want the county losing out on federal dollars in situations like natural disasters, in case federal officials raise questions.

“Even having it as an addendum, it’s possible, but I think it’s less likely it would affect our funding in such a scenario,” he says. “It would be clear these are our conventional crops, including hemp, and cannabis is separate.”

The challenge to choosing a monetary value, he says, will be identifying the “Goldilocks” number of the county’s cannabis crop due to fluctuating prices throughout the year. “We’ll get a very accurate counting of what’s being grown here and what the value is.”

Overall, he says, including more crops in Monterey County’s agriculture picture is good for the industry.

“We’re going full forward fast just like other counties are, because in the end it becomes a part of our diversity that gives us strength locally with the economy,” Gonzales says. If one crop goes down in value due to a pest, disease or quarantine, like what happened to romaine lettuce last year, other crops succeeding will help keep the overall agriculture industry strong.

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