It may be too early to estimate the effects of California's drought on the Humboldt County marijuana market, which provides an estimated $400 million a year to the local economy but has been flooded with product for quite some time.
"If the water situation remains dire, prices will go up, but if people can find the product cheaper, that will push the prices down," said Chip Perry, manager of Medical Cannabis Consultants and Evaluations in Eureka. "Consumers dictate the prices, and they'll try to find the cheapest medicine out there. I'd estimate marijuana prices could increase by 10 to 20 percent because of the drought, but the increase still won't raise prices to the amount they were in 2010."
Perry said a pound of indoor marijuana cost about $3,500 in 2010, and the same amount of outdoor grown marijuana cost about $2,500. He said an indoor pound now costs about $2,200 and outdoor costs about $1,100.
"Marijuana prices have gone down almost 40 percent in the last couple of years because supplies are so high," Perry said. "In the last four years, the amount of people growing has at least doubled."
In her thesis for the Pacific Coast Banking School graduate program at the University of Washington, Jennifer Budwig of Redwood Capital Bank found that the marijuana industry, based on conservative estimates, was responsible for pumping at least $400 million annually into Humboldt County's economy. If the industry were to be disrupted -- potentially due to legalization or other factors -- it would cause a 25 percent reduction in local economic activity, Budwig concluded.
When it comes to marijuana production, water is a major factor.
"From talking to those in the industry, one large outdoor marijuana plant typically needs 3 to 5 gallons of water a day," Humboldt County Sheriff's Office Lt. Steve Knight said. "Plants are typically harvested after two to three months of growing."
Humboldt County Sheriff Mike Downey said he thinks the effects of the drought would be the same for outdoor and indoor marijuana grows.
"It may not be as lucrative for people to grow indoors as it has been in the past," Downey said. "If the drought is significant and persistent enough -- and the price of water and electricity goes up -- there could be pressure to significantly reduce the amount of marijuana grown."
An outdoor marijuana grower in the county, who was contacted via Craigslist and requested to remain anonymous, said he works under Proposition 215, which covers marijuana possession and cultivation for personal medical use. He said he thinks the drought will certainly affect the local industry.
"I'd love for it to rain, but I'm not sure what will happen," he said. "I think if people don't have water here, they might try to do other things to get it, such as steal it or route it from someone else."
Bridgeville Elementary School was forced to close for a day in September when staff discovered up to 20,000 gallons of water had been stolen from an onsite water tank. The theft came one month after 20,000 gallons of water were stolen from the Weott Community Services District Board, which provides water to a community of 330 people -- including Agnes J. Johnson Elementary School, the Cal Fire station, the post office and a state park campground.
The thefts have never been tied to marijuana growers.
California National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws coordinator Dale Gieringer said he thinks it's too soon to tell the effects the drought will have on Northern California marijuana prices.
"Illegal water diversions to marijuana gardens have been an issue in the past," Gieringer said. "It will be an interesting experiment to see what actually happens. I have friends in the growing community who said there will be a huge outdoor marijuana drought this year, but that was when the state was bleached white before the last round of rain."
Gieringer said Northern California marijuana prices are probably at the lowest level that they've been in a long time.
"I don't think the drought will have a huge effect on consumer use," Gieringer said. "It could result in more marijuana being imported into the state from other parts of the country or world. California is typically a big export state for marijuana, but I don't think it will be this year."
Jillian Singh can be reached at 441-0509 or firstname.lastname@example.org