The Geography of Cannabis: Does California’s dual licensing program (de)criminalize cannabis and drive unnecessary anthropogenic activity in remote rural environments?

August 29, 2023

The Geography of Cannabis: Does California’s dual licensing program (de)criminalize cannabis and drive unnecessary anthropogenic activity in remote rural environments?

I am a third-year doctoral student in geography with emphasis in Computational Social Science at the University of California, Davis. My research is motivated by childhood memories of the “War on Drugs” in Saginaw and Detroit, Michigan when I lost several family and friends to death and incarceration. I have studied, consumed, cultivated, and distributed cannabis as an agricultural product for multiple decades and have intimate familiarity with cannabis regulations and policy. Cannabis production in Mendocino County, like many places in Northern California, is currently transitioning from an informal home-based economy to a traditional market demand system. The study of the (de)criminalization of cannabis businesses is increasing, but little is known about the impacts on remote rural ecosystems where access to sanitation services, renewable energy resources, and water are limited.

I applied for the D-Lab / Berkeley Graduate Division Data Science for Social Justice summer workshop series to critically engage with data science techniques in a safe and inclusive environment with other under-represented researchers like me. During the workshop, I saw how information about people and places can be weaponized, and as the architects of analytical tools, data scientists can hold extraordinary power if they choose. While building a dataset of cannabis related permits over the summer, I realized that my intentions and objectives were unclear and developed a datasheet to better articulate what drives my work. "Datasheets for Datasets" (Gebru et al., 2018) clearly documents how a dataset was created, the architect’s objectives, and functions as a mechanism for data transparency and justice.


On the California North Coast, data suggests that regional agricultural production is dominated by cannabis cultivation. This was the case prior to the 2018 California Medical and Adult Use Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act (MAUCRSA), which combined two regulatory frameworks to oversee cannabis production. At the local level, some counties and cities adopted ersatz zoning ordinances that codified where legal cannabis businesses would be conducted and the standards within which they would operate in addition to state requirements. Other jurisdictions in California declared that activities would remain criminalized. Mendocino County, a historic member of the Emerald Triangle, a Northern California region known for extensive cannabis cultivation, quickly developed a cannabis cultivation ordinance to be administered by the Department of Agriculture. Under California law, any authority which enacts legislation such as a cannabis cultivation ordinance must demonstrate how the regulation complies with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). For cannabis farmers in remote rural areas, cultivation is often located within a variety of ecologies and habitats classified as sensitive, and CEAQ tends to restrict human activities in these places.

As an inspector, my primary role was to confirm that a prospective cultivation site complied with the standards explained in the County ordinance, and identify any additional steps necessary to issue a permit. I was the only Black woman in the original cohort of predominantly white male inspectors who first visited formerly illegal cannabis farms. Most cannabis cultivation farms that I inspected, primarily owned and operated by white men, had never undergone an environmental assessment from a regulator. Unlike other agricultural crops, cannabis has a clandestine history which impacted access to environmental consultations and forced operators to conceal how they bootstrapped their home-based businesses. Many did not have septic systems, integrated sanitation, access to public utilities, and most did not have building permits for cannabis structures already erected and in use. This system correlates the ability to earn a county permit with the status of the buildings used in the operations. After 150 inspections, I found that the regulations were designed to benefit operators or applicants who owned the physical locations where cannabis activities occurred, and could pay for ancillary permits necessary for legal cannabis production. California’s dynamic history of environmental law has played a role in mapping the state’s cannabis production landscape and this post explains one strategy that quantifies production in terms of infrastructure development.


Federal cannabis prohibition has prevented systematic investigation into cannabis practice. In California, few research endeavors assess the tension between state licensing and local permitting requirements under a dual licensing program. My dissertation project considers cannabis production as a social ecological system (SES) and seeks to determine how regulatory regimes inform cannabis business practices and quantify what Land Use and Land Cover Change (LULCC) are driven by legal cannabis production in remote rural environments and answer the question, how is the increasing legalization of cannabis businesses impacting remote rural ecosystems where they are located? Economics, health, and safety of cannabis products are frequent themes in legalization research [1]. Oldfield et al. found normalization, economics, health, community, and gatekeeping as five major themes “regardless of the origin or methodology of the papers, the focus or expertise of the specific authors, or the jurisdictions in which the regulations were developed” [2, p10]. Sevigny et al.’s work asserts that their review is the “first comprehensive EGM (Evidence Gap Model (EGM)) of cannabis liberalization laws and associated policy documents” [3, p2]. Although few in number, the first comprehensive cannabis operator survey included respondents from across California in 2019 [4].

Since legalization in California, state permitting agencies have collected significant data from cannabis operators, such as water and pesticide use, through required reporting programs and some studies of California farming continue to promote a legacy of illegal. The lexical choice-making in published literature shows how cannabis operators are characterized. The typologies and vernaculars used may further show that regulations alone cannot erase historical worldviews. In 2020, researchers analyzed water use reports from participants in the North Coast Regional Water Board Cannabis program and omitted those that were “not prepared by professional consultants” as a way to assure the quality of the selected data [5] and reiterate that cultivators were not to be trusted. On July 25, 2023, this same article was cited in arguably a racist and anti-cannabis campaign to “create a Commercial Cannabis Prohibition (CP) Combining District” in Mendocino County. The cannabis opposition noted that findings from the water-use study indicates that for cannabis operators, the “easiest solution is to drill a well,” for irrigation [6]. How published policy assessments characterize remote rural cannabis production may reveal insights into the role of regulations as a driver of ecosystem disruption. New regulatory regimes may have (de)criminalized cannabis production; however, if ecological, economic, and social analyses of the industry evoke a tone of distrust and discrimination, what does it really mean to be legal?

Datasheets for Datasets

The purpose of the cannabis compliance infrastructure database (CCID) is to explore how cannabis business practitioners in remote rural environments navigated local compliance regulations through an analysis of building permit records. If we assume that legal weed growers throughout the California hills cause environmental degradation, how can every step in the cannabis production system require a building permit?


The continued development of the CCID remains under my primary oversight as it was originally designed in collaboration with Tommy Pham, a recent computer science graduate from the University of California, Davis, and former research assistant. Our work during the summer of 2023 was funded by Dr. Daniel Sumner, Frank H. Buck, Jr. Distinguished Professor Director, UC Agricultural Issues Center, my Graduate Student Research (GSR) supervisor (summer 2023), and dissertation committee (Qualifying Exam FA 2024) member. 


This project is partially funded by a 2023 University of California Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences JASTRO-SHIELDS Graduate Research Award. I am also the recipient of a 2023 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

Data Objective(s)

The database arranges instances where a building permit was initiated, completed, or canceled on a physical lot where a cannabis related structure was required in order to facilitate legal commercial activity. To extract applicable properties from county records, a robust criterion was used during the collection process.

Collection Process


Lists of building permit records were downloaded from the Mendocino County Planning Department website and converted into .csv files with Tabula on Apple computers, using Firefox and Chrome web browsers. Permits whose description include hoop house, greenhouse, cannabis, and dry shed were extracted. The resulting architecture consists of a collection of applicable annual building permits from 2017 until 2022 and comprises the foundation of the CCID. Each building permit record includes the assessor parcel number (APN) which is used as a unique identifier of all assessed parcels throughout the state. To learn if locations identified with cannabis structures were also invested in renewable energy resources, all solar permits on corresponding locations were also merged into the dataset.

Through Mendocino County public records request #23 – 260, pursuant to the California Public Records Act, the Mendocino County Department of Environmental health provided a PDF list of well permits issued by the Division during the study timeframe. The APN was used again to integrate water well data into the CCID where corresponding locations were identified. California state licensing information was then merged into the dataset which confirms the cannabis business status of each subject property. The complete CCID contains sixteen individual attributes and the associated cannabis state license.

Systems Approach

My broader dissertation project uses a mixed-methods transdisciplinary research approach, to collect data from public records and semi-structured interviews, and analyze them through a social ecological systems (SES) framework that uses geographic information systems (GIS) spatial techniques and econometrics. On February 14, 2023, the University of California, Davis Institutional Review Board Administration determined that the IRB review is not required based on the protocol, consent form, questionnaire and review application submitted to the Board.


Whether the transition from an informal home-based economy to a traditional market demand system will advance social or environmental justice or improve community resilience or quality of life remains to be determined. It is my hope that this dataset will help link several components in the cannabis production system and demonstrate how cannabis policy regimes drive disturbance to land, concealed as compliance requirements. As a scholar I contend that the regulatory regimes governing cannabis businesses in California may drive land use and land cover change (LULCC) in a way that not only impacts agricultural practice, it forces operators to build structures as a compliance mechanism to earn a license.

Initial assessment of historic building records shows that prior to legal cannabis, a hoop house structure for agricultural products did not require a permit. If you grow strawberries or other crops, you still do not need a permit today. From 2017-2022 Mendocino County cannabis cultivators spent approximately $600,000 to permit hoop houses and $9.4 million in greenhouses of which a fraction contributes to county revenues. Now imagine an equitable system where other agricultural products require building permits for ancillary structures like cannabis. How much greater would revenues in remote rural areas be?


[1] Kavousi, Parisa, Taylor Giamo, Gwen Arnold, Mateo Alliende, Elisabeth Huynh, Jaclyn Lea, Rachel Lucine, Alexandria Tillett Miller, Alana Webre, and Aneka Yee. 2022. “What Do We Know About Opportunities and Challenges for Localities from Cannabis Legalization?” Review of Policy Research 39 (2): 143–69.

[2] Oldfield, Karen, Sean Evans, Irene Braithwaite, and Giles Newton-Howes. 2022. “Don’t Make a Hash of It! A Thematic Review of the Literature Relating to Outcomes of Cannabis Regulatory Change.” Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy 29 (5): 439–50.

[3] Sevigny, EL, Pacula, RL, Aloe, AM, Medhin, DN, Greathouse, J. 2021. “PROTOCOL: The Effects of Cannabis Liberalization Laws on Health, Safety, and Socioeconomic Outcomes: An Evidence and Gap Map.” Campbell systematic reviews, 17(1), e1137.

[4] Wilson, Houston, Hekia Bodwitch, Jennifer Carah, Kent Daane, Christy Getz, Theodore E. Grantham, and van Butsic. 2019. “First Known Survey of Cannabis Production Practices in California.” Calif Agr 73 (3): 119–27.

[5] Christopher Dillis, Connor McIntee, Van Butsic, Lance Le, Kason Grady, Theodore Grantham, (2020). “Water storage and irrigation practices for cannabis drive seasonal patterns of water extraction and use in Northern California.” Journal of Environmental Management, 272.

[6] See Mendocino County Planning and Building Services Staff Report for R_2021-0002.