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Humboldt cannabis farmers sue to block 'Karen initiative' from ballot

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A group of Northern California cannabis farmers has sued the organizers behind a controversial local ballot initiative that would completely rewrite the rules of pot farming in Humboldt County. The farmers claim the measure’s organizers made “clearly false” statements while collecting signatures, and they are asking a judge to block the initiative from being included in a March 2024 election.

If passed, the ballot initiative would add significant new restrictions in Humboldt County — historically the largest pot farming county in California — including limiting pot farm size, reducing the number of overall farming permits allowed in the county and requiring stricter building regulations.

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in Humboldt County Superior Court by a group of seven farmers, as well as a local trade organization representing cannabis farms. In it, the plaintiffs add details about how they believe proposed regulations would harm local pot farmers. Indicus McGrath Riggs, one of the plaintiffs, said that the regulations would significantly increase the costs of running his farm despite the cultivation area being only 2,900 square feet — a tiny farm compared with most agriculture properties.

Hannah Whyte, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, said her recent $500,000 investment in her pot farm would become “wasted expenditures” if the initiative passes because the measure would reduce her cultivation capacity by 60%.

Betsy Watson and Mark Thurmond — two residents of the small Humboldt community of Kneeland — proposed the initiative after they were unable to stop a legal cannabis farm from moving into their neighborhood in 2021, as SFGATE previously reported. They’ve argued that the cannabis industry is hurting the local environment and that the county has not been an effective regulator.

The organizers successfully gathered enough signatures by late last year to qualify the ballot measure for a 2024 election. Both Watson and Thurmond are named defendants in Wednesday’s lawsuit.

The local cannabis industry and the county government previously argued the law would have devastating effects on local farms. The debate over the law has become bitter in the historic cannabis growing region, with opponents calling the measure the “Karen initiative” and describing the organizers as “NIMBYs,” a derogatory term for people who have “not in my backyard” sentiments toward new development.

Wednesday’s lawsuit contends that the initiative’s organizers “perpetuated a lie” while collecting signatures by saying that the measure would protect the county from “large-scale industrial cannabis cultivation.” In reality, the farmers say, the measure affects all farms in the county, including the smallest among them.

The lawsuit also alleges that the organizers should have provided potential signature-gatherers with more reference documents, including the county’s existing pot regulations, because the measure would make “dramatic changes” to those existing laws.

Watson did not immediately return an SFGATE request for comment.

The Humboldt County Planning and Building Department agreed with many of the arguments against the controversial initiative, writing in a June report that the measure would render legal cannabis farming “not viable” in the county and saying that the public likely “does not understand what this initiative would do.”

Watson told SFGATE in August that she thought some of the people who signed her initiative later regretted it. “I think there are a couple of growers who wish they hadn’t signed it,” Watson said. Still, she argued, “ I think our rules give the family farm a much better shot.”


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