NorCal's Emerald Triangle Is Taking Aim at the L.A. Weed World

NorCal growers want to create a sun-grown revolution in SoCal dispensaries.

Late last August, representatives from the Emerald Triangle—the Northern California cannabis mecca encompassing Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity Counties—brought their sun-grown and artisanal cannabis products to a secluded Malibu property overlooking the Pacific for the inaugural Emerald Exchange, an upscale farmers market-like gathering catering to discerning cannabis consumers and entrepreneurs. 

Los Angeles’s card carrying Beautiful People in garb fit for Coachella sipped on InfuZions’ CBD-infused organic whole lemon lemonade, sampled Deviant Dabs’ artisanal concentrates, and supped on a three-course meal prepared by chef Joshua Fisher. It was a far aesthetic cry from the High Times Cannabis Cup

The hyper-chill scenario belied a quiet revolution: Sun-grown cannabis and the NorCal culture it represents has been long stigmatized, even shunned, by the massive Southern California market defined by its ultra-potent, indoor-grown product.

Suddenly, “there was this mutual love thing, which I didn’t expect,” says Rebecca Brinegar, sun-grown advocate and marketer, and a huge fan of the event.

Prior to the passage of Prop 64, the Emerald Triangle was moving much of its product illegally across state lines.

According to the event’s founder, Mendocino-based cannabis farmer Justin Calvino, Emerald Exchange is a harbinger of increased integration of the two markets. Demand is already evident: The next Emerald Exchange event, the third, is slated for March 18. 

“Southern California’s been so stuck in this aesthetic, high-potency model,” Calvino tells KINDLAND. “Dispensaries only want indoor that’s trimmed a certain way and that has a certain potency, and that makes absolutely no sense to the consumer.”

Sun-grown cannabis on display at the Emerald Exchange

Especially, he says, to the new consumers slated to enter the market en masse after January 1, 2018, when regulations and licenses will be in place pursuant to Proposition 64, the recently passed law legalizing recreational marijuana in California. These customers—yoga moms, kale munchers, Whole Foods shoppers, baby boomers looking to light up after a long hiatus—do not fit the taste profile SoCal dispensaries currently cater to. 

NorCal producers are banking on a belief that many of these consumers will be attracted to the self-sufficient, environmentally conscious, tradition-rich aesthetic endemic to NorCal, and will create bottom-up demand for quality sun-grown cannabis that SoCal dispensary owners have been historically hesitant to carry.

It’s not only mutual love and solidarity driving NorCal farmers to push south; it’s survival. Prior to the passage of Prop 64, the Emerald Triangle was moving much of its product illegally across state lines, Brinegar says. But with a highly regulated market emerging, it makes sense for the growers to drop the high-risk interstate activity and focus on internal-exporting to L.A., the state’s cannabis consumption hub.

To Calvino, a third-generation cannabis farmer, it’s a synchronistic opportunity for dispensaries that have been borrowing “crunchy” NorCal cultural markers—think reclaimed wood tables and mason jars— for branding purposes.

“Now dispensaries get to be legit and say, ‘that recycled bottle also comes up with sun, star, and moon-grown, artisanal, small-batch cannabis created by Farmer John. And, by the way, I’ve met Farmer John, I’ve broken bread with Farmer John.’ ”

True Humboldt's premium sun-grown all flower pre rolls

Chrystal Ortiz, operations manager at True Humboldt, a sun-grown-only co-op of local farmers, is concentrating on underserved consumers who “really care about their impact on the planet” and would like to support small, family farmers with regenerative practices.

When she does outreach in L.A., Ortiz tells KINDLAND, people often tell her they wish they knew where their cannabis was coming from. They’re eager to connect to the product via the rich history of farmers like Ortiz, who was born in Mendocino in the 1970s to parents who were part of the back-to-the-land movement that took root in the ‘60s.

Sun-grown got a bad rep after the financial crisis hit in 2008, which brought an influx of newly unemployed, unskilled growers to the Emerald Triangle desperate to make a buck.

Ortiz acknowledges that some SoCal dispensary owners are less excited than consumers to let her tell her story and promote sun-grown products—which the SoCal businesses may be directly competing with, economically and culturally.

“When you’re talking about your culture with pride and with joy, you’re instantly putting that dispensary owner on the defense, because they are just as prideful and joyful about their indoor grow,” she says.

According to Ortiz, sun-grown got a bad rep after the financial crisis hit in 2008, which brought an influx of newly unemployed, unskilled growers to the Emerald Triangle desperate to make a buck. The result was a glut of cheap, subpar sun-grown appearing between 2008 and 2011, just as dispensaries were rapidly multiplying in L.A. and elsewhere.

SoCal dispensaries picked up the subpar sun-grown cheap and flipped it with a high profit margin, subsidizing their businesses and allowing them to expand their increasingly sophisticated indoor operations. Having broken the reliance on Northern growers, dispensaries in the south were no longer willing to pay the premium for Emerald Triangle sun-grown, Ortiz explains.

“They took that market away from the mass consumer. So the mass consumer in L.A. ended up feeling like, indoor good, outdoor bad,” she says.

Inside THC Design's indoor grow facilities

Ryan Jenneman, the owner of LA-based indoor cultivation operation THC Design, acknowledges tension remains between the Northern and Southern California markets, with growers in both regions wary of one another’s product encroaching on their local scene. 

He personally enjoys and welcomes sun-grown into the SoCal market, and also believes it will especially appeal to the new, “mainstream” client around the recreationally legal corner. He doesn’t consider the Emerald Triangle direct competition. He considers it a completely separate market.

Most of his customers, he says, fit the L.A. user stereotype. “They are going for the most intense form of the drug they can get,” he tells KINDLAND. “They’re going after a strain that knocks them out. I think it has a lot to do with the culture of L.A. and the party vibe of L.A.”

Brinegar and every stakeholder interviewed for this piece are convinced that to have a presence in the L.A. market, sun-grown producers will need to build strong brands to challenge the prevailing L.A. stoner archetype. As Jenneman puts it: “Branding will dictate everything.”

The backdrop of this flurry of post-Prop 64-passage activity—building brands and seeking licenses— is fear and uncertainty. 

Brinegar co-founded APOP Media about a year ago to do just that—help cannabis brands like sun-grown producers tell their stories, establish retail relationships, educate consumers “and just create that space for them down here.” SoCal producers have less incentive to do the same up north. They can move all of their product in their massive local market, at least for now, Brinegar says. 

True Humboldt represents more than 200 farmers in that region and is beginning to build its brand in the L.A. basin, as Ortiz continues her outreach. Humboldt’s Finest, another sun-grown network, is following suit. 

Calvino is taking a novel approach and leading a movement in Mendocino to establish the country’s first marijuana appellations—a legally defined and geographical identification system similar to what’s used in the wine industry.

The appellations will impose a hard definition on the region’s unique marijuana qualities and, he hopes, prevent outsiders from capitalizing on its built-in name recognition.

But the backdrop of this flurry of post-Prop 64-passage activity—building brands and seeking licenses— is fear and uncertainty. Most counties have not yet begun issuing grow permits. There is rampant anxiety that Big Cannabis will supplant producers in the north and south alike with big box operations.

The silver lining is that the fear seems to be expediting bridge building between culture-crossed northern and southern growers, who have both experienced the difficulties of operating in a Wild West-type industry.

Calvino recalls hearing a lot of conversations at Emerald Exchange in August during which SoCal dispensary owners and NorCal farmers realized they had already met, albeit usually in a less glamorous setting. “It’s like, yeah, the last ten fucking years I’ve been driving down to L.A. at Christmas time because I’m broke as crap with a duffel bag full of cannabis going from dispensary to dispensary trying to sell a couple pounds just so that we have enough money for food,” Calvino says of his own situation.