Project Trellis’ diverts a portion of local cannabis tax revenue back to operators. Photo credit: GoHumCo.com
After decades of marginalizing their county’s cannabis growers, Humboldt County officials are now working to help them maintain their businesses.
Project Trellis is an up-and-coming program to support the cannabis industry in Humboldt County, located in Northern California. The county consists of 2.3 million acres, and protected redwoods make up 80% of it, according to The County of Humboldt.
The county makes up one-third of the Emerald Triangle — known as the largest cannabis-producing region in America. It earned that title after people who were part of the back-the-land movement moved to Northern California in the 1960s and 70s. They did so to escape society, and live off the land.
For decades, the War on Drugs has heavily affected the county and its residents. Specifically, the region’s growers were the target of one of the nation’s largest eradication efforts — the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP).
The Ronald Reagan administration introduced CAMP, which remains active today. As part of the military-style CAMP raids — which included Helicopters, and SWAT teams — growers and their families lived in constant fear. Consequently, death was common and the relationship between cannabis operators and law enforcement was strained, Jason Gelman, a second-generation cannabis grower, tells The New Yorker.
The Green Rush
In 1996, voters approved Proposition 215, legalizing medical cannabis in California, and decriminalizing production of certain amounts of medical cannabis. As a result, a green rush ensued. Due to its lucrative nature, people swarmed to the Emerald Triangle to grow weed — not all of them legally.
That caused a sudden surge of cannabis competitors in the area, which many refer to as the green rush. Then came recreational legalization, which California voters approved in 2016. However, that brought a set of new issues. Now farmers must deal with state and local regulations, more competitors, and taxes while trying to appeal to the market by developing their brand individually.
Simply put – legalization is inching out Humboldt farmers from the very market they helped create. Enter Project Trellis.
The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors adopted Project Trellis in 2019 to help boost the regional cannabis industry. For example, the program’s goals include protecting future cannabis excise tax revenues and providing services to populations affected by the criminalization of cannabis.
Project Trellis has three different tiers. Those include: the Local Equity Program (LEP), the cannabis business micro-grants program, and the Humboldt County cannabis marketing program.
Project Trellis receives its funding through an allocation of 10% of the County of Humboldt cannabis excise tax (Measure S). This contribution is then spread out across administrative costs, and then by varying percentages across the three tiers, according to Peggy Murphy, economic development specialist with the county.
In addition to the Measure S contribution, the LEP also receives funding through grant awards. So far, the Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC) and the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development has awarded Project Trellis $3.7 million dollars in Cannabis Equity Grant funding.
Each of Project Trellis’ three tiers has their own purpose to protect Humboldt-grown cannabis. Below is a breakdown of each tier.
The Three Tiers
The LEP aims to provide resources to those impacted by the War on Drugs. Cannabis Equity Grant funds from the BCC and the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development, as well as a contribution from the county’s Measure S cannabis excise taxes, finance this tier.
Applicants can apply for a maximum $10,000 per service item, as identified in the LEP manual. They must be an individual affected by the criminalization of cannabis. For V1.0 of the LEP, over $1.2 million dollars has been dedicated to local equity applicants and licensees. County officials will release V2.0 in mid-2021. V2.0 dedicates approximately $2 million to services for local equity applicants and licensees, explains Murphy.
The cannabis business micro-grant program provides cannabis businesses, nonprofits, cooperatives and road maintenance associations an opportunity to apply for funding to help with business-related expenses, the program explains.
In order to be eligible for one of these grants, applicants must have a Humboldt-based business. At least 75% of the business’ operations must be based in the county. Furthermore, the business must also be licensed and registered to operate in Humboldt. However, those applying for licensing can also apply for these funds to complete that process, the program’s website explains. Additionally, the businesses must maintain, “activities specific to the cultivation, processing, manufacturing, distribution or retail of cannabis, or whose organization provides support and/or services to the cannabis industry.”
The micro-grant program awarded approximately $180,000 to 14 separate cannabis businesses during its first year, 2019-2020. In its second year, 2020-2021, the micro-grant program has awarded 16 entities with approximately $519,000. County officials expect to open applications for the 2021-2022 micro-grant round to the public in late 2021/early 2022.
The Marketing Program
The Humboldt County cannabis marketing program’s goal is to brand, promote, and market Humboldt-grown cannabis.
To better inform the marketing program, the County of Humboldt contracted with The Humboldt County Growers Alliance (HCGA) to create the Humboldt County Cannabis Marketing Assessment. With the help of experts, the Marketing Assessment researched examples of geographic branding initiatives such as Napa Valley wine and Colombian coffee to provide guidance and recommendations for how to achieve a similar and successful regional branding initiative for Humboldt County Cannabis.
The assessment narrowed the strategy down to eight findings and thirty recommendations. For example, some of those include effective legal protection, strong market partners, and promotion of environmental sustainability. HCGA writes:
“A successful branding and marketing efforts will ensure that the region maintains a competitive advantage in the ever-changing cannabis marketplace. Humboldt county must continue to build the regional brand and further strengthen local product and related services positioning in the market.”
The county has not yet chosen a contractor to develop the Collective Cannabis Branding, Promoting and Marketing Strategy. However, Project Trellis is currently seeking proposals. To apply, “proposers must be Humboldt County-based non-profit entities, or coalitions of non-profit entities,” according to the county’s call for proposals.
Giving Back to Humboldt
The cannabis industry has helped support the Humboldt County community for decades. Money from growers has gone to support schools, hospitals, hospices, fire departments, and more. But, as legalization presents new threats to the industry — it is the county’s turn to support cannabis operators.