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Up in Flames

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Is the Federal Government More Destructive than Wildfires?

In the federal government’s latest failure to protect citizens, the wildfire devastation is compounded by the desolation of no access to disaster relief, banking services, loans or mainstream crop insurance.

 

Picture this: you are a small-scale cannabis farmer in Mendocino, Sonoma, or Napa County, California. You’ve spent enormous amounts of time and money readying yourself for the switch to a legal cannabis market—money for county and state permits, environmental reports, and licenses, while the typical work of farming keeps you busy from morning to night—planting, tending and preparing for harvest. Your family’s future is tied up in this shaky venture. You cannot use banking services of any kind for your business—no credit cards, no checking account, because the federal government considers you outside the law, though the state does not. Your savings are kept as gold coins or cash buried on your property. You pray for a good harvest. It’s mid-October.

Then, the wildfires roar through. The plants that are not burned to a crisp are smoke-damaged. Your carefully buried savings have melted into the ground or turned to ash. Perhaps your home is still standing, perhaps not. The work of a year and the dreams of a lifetime lie in ruins around you and there is no help. Federal disaster aid is not available to you as it is to the other farmers in the area. Federal banking rules have kept you vulnerable to theft so a safe buried in the ground seemed to be your most secure option… until the extreme heat destroyed that illusion. You can’t qualify for loans. You are a classic American entrepreneur in an emerging legal market, playing by the rules as you are given them, staying flexible as those rules change, hoping, as farmers do, that one good crop will set a stable course for your family’s future. Now what? *

Farmers always gamble on weather and crop yields and new business start-ups are often shaky. But most entrepreneurs and most farmers have banking services, insurance—and if the worst happens, disaster aid to rely on—all federally regulated, and unavailable to cannabis farmers.

Adding insult to injury, even crowdfunding is off limits. According to a report from the California Cannabis Industry Association found at Entrepreneur.com, Hezekiah Allen, Executive Director of the California Growers Association, tried to start a donation platform through YouCaring.com. As money started to come in, YouCaring shut down the site, saying their payment providers (WePay and PayPal) are under federal constraint not to accept any cannabis related funds. All donations would be returned to the sender. Cannabis industry folks are stepping up with fundraisers. Our community has always been generous. But the scope of these fire losses vastly out-strips the ability of even the most dedicated of private supporters.

This massive tragedy brings even more sharply into view the real harm the federal government has been causing its citizens in the attempt to crush legal cannabis businesses.

Forcing people to pay their employees and their taxes in cash endangers the general public as much as it does the cannabis business owners and workers. In my January 2016 report in the Emerald Magazine titled “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” this writer examined the financial convolutions required of cannabis entrepreneurs in Colorado and the obvious public hazard to citizens as hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash are delivered to the tax office, and on a predictable timetable too. Federal agents continue to threaten financial institutions, shut down cooperatives and credit unions, and hold federal tax law over businesses like the proverbial Sword of Damocles. All to bully and intimidate cannabis business owners.

Lack of access to crop insurance shows federal intimidation in action. Some news sources (NPR.org, Marketplace.org) have written that no access exists for cannabis farmers. Yet, online you can find at least half a dozen companies claiming to write all kinds of insurance for the cannabis industry—for the crop, for property, for manufacturing facilities, dispensaries, and doctors.

In an October 28, 2017 “Los Angeles Times” article by reporter Joe Mozingo, cannabis farmer Kelvin Craven spoke of not trusting the claims of insurers, saying the few small companies trying to sell insurance to the cannabis industry “seemed kind of sketchy. We didn’t know if they would really cover the crop in the end.” The same article clarifies, “Established crop insurance companies do not write policies for cannabis.” So, again, the continued and absurdly unscientific federal scheduling of cannabis as dangerous and of no medical value (Schedule I) leaves legitimate entrepreneurs stranded.

Tawnie Logan, co-founder and chair of the Sonoma County Growers Alliance (SCGA), and board chair of the California Growers Association (CGA), said about 50 cannabis operators from different sectors of the industry are known to have been impacted by the fires in Sonoma County. Many more, not having completed the new application process, remain unidentified. She spoke of federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents using disaster assistance as an excuse to round up undocumented vineyard workers,  and of the sobering sight of helicopters and National Guard troops.

Tawnie said the SCGA and CGA have been preparing documents for a dialogue with California officials, hoping the state will provide some of the relief funds needed by legitimate cannabis businesses barred from federal disaster aid, and whose losses are not even included in disaster statistics. But, even here, the feds can cause harm. An even larger swarm of wildfires have devastated Southern California and threaten, as of this writing, to be the largest ever recorded in the state.

These fires will undoubtedly drain a large portion of the state’s limited disaster relief budget, forcing California to rely more heavily on federal funds. That translates to greater federal scrutiny and bullying. Let’s hope state officials can hold up under the pressure and come to the assistance of our newest industry as legalization dawns.

*(Composite profile drawn from articles in the “Los Angeles Times,” the “New York Daily News” and Money.CNN.com.)

 

For more information, visit:

The California’s Growers Association

CalCrowersAssociation.org

Sonoma County Growers Alliance

SCGAlliance.com

Mendocino County Growers Alliance Chapter

facebook.com/CalGrowersMendocino

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