In the Zone

Humboldt cities make room for cannabis manufacturing

By Isabella Vanderheiden

The typical cannabis consumer might not realize there are about a thousand steps between planting a seed and lighting up that joint from your favorite local dispensary. Along with licensing, cultivation, tracking and testing, the processing of cannabis is an industry in and of itself. California’s Medicinal and Adult-Use Regulation and Safety Act outlines standards and licensing requirements for commercial cannabis manufacturing, but it is up to local jurisdictions to decide where it can occur. In Humboldt County, municipalities are taking the lead in creating their own guidelines for accommodating cannabis manufacturing and the industry within an industry is thriving. 

Arcata established the Cannabis Innovation Zone (CIZ) in an area zoned as Industrial General/Industrial Limited in the northern portion of the city, along State Route 299. The city began looking into creating a Medical Marijuana Innovation Zone (MMIZ) for cannabis back in the former Flakeboard plant in 2015 knowing the state would soon go legal. “In short, we chose the area because of the extractive resource industries that have been [there] for the past several years,” says Community Development Director David Loya. “The predominant industrial uses in that area were ideal for a number of reasons to establish this new zone.” Loya says the city has no intention of putting a cap on the number of facilities operating in the CIZ and welcomes as many as the market will support. “The cannabis industry needs support regionally and across the state. The county is placed well in the industry for historic reasons and the cannabis businesses are lucky to have support throughout the county in the various cities.”

A grand opening ceremony in November welcomed a new warehouse to the CIZ, which promises to bring at least 70 new jobs to Arcata. The building resides in the West End Campus, which is already occupied by BEAR Extraction House, Northern Emeralds, UpNorth Humboldt, Humboldt Apothecary, SOURCE Nursery, Humble Hill and Simple Solutions, with Arcata Processing Co. and Flower Company soon to join. 

Processing raw materials at BEAR Extraction House. Photo by Amy Kumler.

“The city of Arcata has been our biggest ally,” says Stacia Eliason of BEAR Extraction House, who has been involved in the CIZ process since the very beginning. “We had just bought the old Wayne Bare trucking property with the intention to do cannabis on site … the MMIZ concept came as a great and pleasant surprise to us since that was aligned with what we were hoping to do.” Eventually, the Arcata City Council decided to zone some 12 properties in Zone 1 and limited permits available in Zone 2. “After a couple years of building updates on our site, we were licensed to operate at the beginning of 2018.” 

Similar to Arcata, Rio Dell established the Humboldt Rio Dell Business Park (HRDBP) located at the former sawmill situated along U.S. Highway 101 that has sat defunct for well over a decade. “The vision for the park is for it to be a value-added manufacturing center for the Emerald Triangle, although there is a good amount of interest and activity in cultivation itself,” says Rio Dell City Manager Kyle Knopp. “The city began aggressively looking into legalized cannabis in December of 2015. The HRDBP came about as a compromise by the city council that was divided over newly legalized cannabis.” Despite division among the council, it recognized the economic need in the community and the potential of legal cannabis. 

The creation of the business park has proved to have a positive effect on the tiny city. Along with the creation of 25 local jobs, Knopp says revenue from cannabis this year will be in the low six figures, which is a huge feat for such a small city. “A traditional non-cannabis business would need to do $15 million in annual taxable sales in order to generate the same revenue for city services. We will actually take in more cannabis tax revenue than any other city in the Emerald Triangle but we actually have one of the lowest rates of those cities that do have taxes.” 

Knopp says there are currently six licensed facilities operating in the HRDBP: two manufacturers, a testing laboratory, one processor, one distributer and one indoor cultivator. “On the immediate horizon is another cultivation facility, one tester, one processor, a nursery (with a tissue culture facility) and two dispensaries. We also have another four projects in various stages of early development.” Most of the operators in the business park take in product from unincorporated portions of the county, with some coming from Mendocino and Trinity, as well. 

Eureka has taken a slightly different approach, choosing to allow cannabis manufacturing throughout the city. The majority of cannabis manufacturers have set up shop in the Hinge District, along U.S. Highway 101 between Broadway and A Street. “It wasn’t necessarily intended to become the epicenter of cannabis manufacturing in Humboldt County, it just happened to benefit from a mix of the right zoning and a location outside of the Coastal Zone,” says Rob Dumouchel, Eureka’s acting planning and building manager. “All of the industrially zoned parcels in the city are in the Coastal Zone except for those found in the Hinge between Third and Fourth streets, what some colloquially refer to as ‘Extraction Alley.’” Dumouchel says the city of Eureka wanted to avoid creating a special cannabis overlay district and instead chose to look at cannabis manufacturing as a regular manufacturing use. “If it’s appropriate for manufacturing to exist in a commercial or industrial zone district, then there’s really no reason that cannabis manufacturing can’t be included within it.”

Papa & Barkley balms and tinctures coming down the assembly line.

The city has received approximately 40 manufacturing applications, half of which have been approved to operate. “I think it’s important to understand that cannabis manufacturing exists along a wide spectrum,” says Dumouchel. “On one end, we have big companies like Papa & Barkley that have a large and efficient manufacturing operation spread across multiple locations in the city. In the middle, we have small businesses that have found success with great products and branding, like Kiskanu or Space Gem. We also have operations that are just two dudes in a small commercial space making bath bombs and pre-rolls.”

Papa & Barkley has taken an unusual approach with its spread across Eureka, akin to its distinctive take on processing cannabis. Adam Grossman founded Papa & Barkley in 2016 in honor of his father and his father’s dog, Barkley. The company’s signature Releaf Balm was initially created by Grossman in an effort to relieve his father’s debilitating back pain and get him out of hospice care. Ultimately, the experience inspired Grossman to perfect his process and share it with others. 

What is unique about Papa & Barkley is its whole plant infusion process, which simply uses water, heat and pressure. Dave Aumentado, production facilities manager, led a tour through Papa & Barkley’s Second Street facility, where the full process can be observed.  Upon walking into the 9,000-square-foot building, you’re hit with the rousing scent of cannabis, peppermint and lavender. As we made our way into the processing portion of the facility, jovial employees were checking and placing lids on freshly filled jars of their signature Releaf Balm along an assembly line. A Nirvana track played over the commotion of machines and employees. 

Aumentado walked me through the whole plant infusion process from start to finish. It begins with cannabis grown by any of the 150 Emerald Triangle farms the company partners with. “When legalization came up, there was this fear that a lot of [small farmers] wouldn’t be able to make it,” says Aumentado. “We found a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, here at the end of prohibition, to be able to set the standard for what we want to see in the industry. Supporting local farmers is a part of that.”

The trim and small buds are packaged in 2-pound black bags and taken to a tumbler that shakes the keef, or resinous trichomes, away from the plant material. That keef is packaged and labeled, and will eventually make its way into little white sleeves that are pressed under high heat. “Essentially, this is extracting cannabinoid content in the form of a concentrate,” says Aumentado. The end product is rosin that is eventually used for Releaf capsules and patches.

The plant material left over after keefing is soaked with organic coconut oil. The infused oil is eventually pressed and filtered away from the plant matter. The oil is then blended with beeswax and essential oils, and packaged as Releaf salves and balms. 

Aumentado says Papa & Barkley is bursting at the seams — that’s why it decided to move into the new facility at the south end of Eureka. The company will still operate in the locations spread across Eureka but the new location will be the hub. 

Papa & Barkley is just one example of a Humboldt-based cannabis business focused on staying local. And that’s a task made easier when processing finds welcoming space. Eureka’s approach to zoning for cannabis manufacturing may be different from Arcata or Rio Dell, but one thing remains clear: Each municipality is focused on maintaining the Humboldt brand by supporting local farmers and local cannabis businesses. 

Isabella Vanderheiden is a freelance journalist based in Humboldt.