Pot farmers don’t have it easy. They must deal with rules, regulations, licensing setbacks, fluctuating costs, demand issues, and other factors that arise as the market gets itself situated. But now farmers in California’s Humboldt County must deal with a new type of beast. It’s not so affectionately nicknamed the Karen Initiative.

What is the Karen Initiative?

The Karen Imitative is a new ballot initiative set to appear in the March 2024 election. It would restrict the size of pot farms and limit modifications to existing farms. Farmers are concerned that it may destroy the local cannabis industry.

“It would be very effective at putting the final nail in the coffin and just shutting down the industry,” said Humboldt County cannabis farmer Dylan Mattole.

The county government sides with the local farmers. A Humboldt Country Planning and Building Department report said the Karen Initiative would make it so hard for farmers to cultivate cannabis that the legal market would not be viable in Humboldt County. It is one of the largest pot-growing counties in California.

Creators Not Backing Down

Karen Initiative creators are aware of community concerns, but they are not backing down. One of the measure’s creators, Betsy Watson, says it will hurt large pot farms, but it will help small family-owned farms.

“It will be five or 10 years before we know who is correct, but I think our rules give the family farm a much better shot,” Watson said. “If you are a person who is now farming legally and has your pony hitched to the expansion wagon, it will hurt you.”

Meanwhile, local cannabis trade groups are calling the measure an “existential threat”. They have nicknamed it the “Karen initiative” a modern term used to describe complaining, angry, white women who use their privilege to have their say over other people’s behavior. They further describe it as a misleading measure funded by a small group of NIMBYs, a derogatory term for people with a “Not In My Backyard” attitude.

History of the Karen Initiative

The Karen Initiative originated in 2021 when a pot farm was approved in Kneeland, a small community in the Humboldt County mountains. Local farmers complained that the farm was visible from their homes, that it would bring too much traffic, and use too much water.

The group tried to shut the farm down but was unsuccessful. They created the initiative to change local pot rules and make them more in line with the community’s wishes.

The initiative was funded by two primary donors. Retirees Betsy Watson contributed $17,000 and Audrey Thurmond funded $35,000. By late 2022, they managed to gather over 7000 signatures, enough to bring it to the ballot.

What the Karen Initiative Means for Humboldt County Pot Farms

If the initiative passes, pot farms in the area will be limited to 10,000 square feet. It would limit farm permits in Humboldt County. It would prohibit individuals from holding multiple cannabis cultivation permits.

The changes would put most Humboldt County farms in violation of the rules. Modifications are an option, but farmers would need to follow a lengthy list of rules to move forward. 70% of farms in the area are over 10,000 square feet.

The Initiative’s supporters responded calling the county’s backlash “overblown and inaccurate.” They claim the initiative can be implemented in ways that won’t harm many farmers. “County staff appears to be looking for interpretations that harm growers, even where those interpretations are not supported (much less compelled) by the initiative’s text,” they wrote in a June letter.

Is the Karen Initiative Misleading?

Critics of the ballot have also accused its backers of misleading the public by describing their measure as protecting small farms from “industrial mega-grows.”

The county analysis finds that the initiative would harm farms of all sizes. It also contests that there are no farms in Humboldt County that would be considered “industrial mega-grows”.

The largest Humboldt County pot farm is 8 acres. It is much smaller than industrial pot farms in other California counties that measure 100 acres or more. A 2021 study found the county’s median pot farm size to be .009 hectares as compared to Santa Barbara’s 1.2 hectares.

The county analysis concluded that the public probably “does not understand what this initiative would do”.  County supervisor Michelle Bushnell called it “misleading”.

She stated that several people who signed the initiative regretted it later. They didn’t realize it was more than a ban on large farms.

Watson even admitted that some cannabis farmers who signed regretted it later. “I think there are a couple of growers who wish they hadn’t signed it,” she said.

The Karen Initiative Will Be Hard to Change

Judges gavel and book on wooden table. Law and justice concept background.

One thing both sides agree on is, if the initiative passes, it will be hard to change. It would modify the county’s general plan that serves as a constitution for California municipalities. It can only be changed by future initiatives.

Watson says the Karen initiative was created to be permanent. “That is why we chose an initiative. Because it’s the county supervisors that messed this up in the first place.”

Bushnell stated that the initiative’s permanence is a scary prospect for small business owners. If it doesn’t work, there will be no way to fix it.

“In one (growing season) you’re broke. You’re done. You’re out of business. It takes longer than that to get something on a ballot. It’s not an easy process to change. When it’s your livelihood, how scary is that?” Bushnell stated.