Tony Linegar has a wealth of experience in two northern California counties where cannabis has long been a major cash crop: Mendocino and Sonoma. Before taking over the reigns as the Agricultural Commissioner for Sonoma in 2012, Linegar served as the Agricultural Commissioner for Mendocino where he witnessed the rapid growth of the cannabis industry. He still remembers the long ago days when Ted Erickson, one of his predecessors in Mendocino, included marijuana in his annual crop report and was chastised for doing so. For Linegar cannabis is a crop and ought to be counted along with other crops. As a society, we’ve come a long way in the last forty years. Or have we? To try to answer that question I sat down with Linegar in his office in Santa Rosa and had a free ranging conversation that moved from crime and climate change to pot and tourism. “People who drink wine also use cannabis,” Linegar told me. “There can be a tourist interface, but we have to be very careful.”
Q: How do you feel about marijuana?
A: Things are changing rapidly. It’s almost surreal. I have learned a tremendous amount in the last year. If I’m going to regulate the marijuana industry in my capacity as Agricultural Commissioner I’d better understand it. I have visited a number of sites. I came away with respect for how highly technological and advanced the industry is, especially when considering that it has been hiding in the shadows.
Q: What troubles you about the industry?
A: There’s the crime. There have been murders in the county that were linked to cannabis. But as I see it the crime is due largely to our collective failure—the state and the Feds—to properly regulate, which led to a black market. Marijuana is so valuable that people are willing to kill for it.
Q: What about environmental issues?
A: I have seen destruction of the environment. That onus is also on us. We need to create a regulatory framework and bring growers into compliance. I worry that we’ve set the bar too high. If so, then we're back where we started.
Q: Are you hopeful about the prospects?
A: We need to get out of the gate green and encourage the spirit in the cannabis industry and in the community that is connected to the earth and the environment. We can farm in harmony with nature. This is a great opportunity. Some marijuana that’s on the market will have to go because of mildew, pesticide and herbicides. The big boys will come. That’s inevitable. But we want to gives local people a five-year head start. There will be room for boutique gardens, like boutique wine.
Q: Do you believe in “reefer madness”?
A: Some call marijuana the evil stepchild in the agricultural world. I believe it should be treated like other crops. These people are farmers. But we don’t want a gold rush and we don’t want to give permits to chop down trees.
Q: What role will the police play in the brave new world of legal recreational weed?
A: We will have to have a strong enforcement arm right from the beginning. There have to be consequences for not getting a permit and following rules and regulations. If people won’t comply we can use the stick and weed out — eliminate — the bad actors. We can also use the carrot and encourage best practices.
Q: Is the county over regulating?
A: Farms are overregulated. I’m a regulator, but I’m trying to be mindful of not over-regulating. There is some truth in farmer talk about there being too much regulation.
Q: What have you suggested to growers in this transitional period?
A: Hire a lawyer and a consultant. Land use is very complex. There are potential pitfalls for developing a property for cannabis use. It’s like peeling away layers of an onion. Growers have to work directly with the Permit and Resource Management Department (PRMD), or hire a consultant. Ground water is a big issue. Growers need to vet their property. The zoning needs to be right. There are a lot of consultants floating out there. It’s a lucrative business now.
Q: In your eyes, what’s the future of cannabis in Sonoma County?
A: I think cannabis can have a bright future. Sonoma County is strategically located between big urban populations and remote rural places. Sonoma can be a hub for distribution and manufacturing and farming can continue here. Under the new regulations, farmers will still be able to make a living.
Q: How do you feel about Prop 64, which legalized recreational weed?
A: Prop 64 is imperfect. It has problems; it could be a lot better but it is a bird in the hand. There have been decades of injustice in the marijuana world. When people voted for 64 they voted against injustice.
Q: I don’t see a lot of effective spokesmen and women for the cannabis industry, do you?
A: Growers are not used to being political activists. They are just starting to learn. They haven’t been plugged into the political system, but they're beginning to do a good job interfacing with county regulations.
Q: Will cannabis rival grapes?
A: There are 63,000 acres of grapes in Sonoma. I don’t think we will ever have that much in marijuana.
Q: You have a deep sense of local pride don’t you?
A: Yes. We are — Sonoma is — the last real agricultural county in the Bay Area. We have carved out niches for dairy, eggs, apples and cider. Now with a bit of luck and planning we’ll carve out a niche for cannabis.
Q: And you will have been a part of it.
A: The regulation of marijuana is one of the most important things in my whole career. That’s why I want to get it right.