It’s no secret that many of California’s legal cannabis businesses have been struggling to thrive since the state launched its first adult-use sales in 2018.
To help support the industry, the County of Humboldt launched Project Trellis in 2019 as a three-tier initiative that provides business support and resources to the industry, covering cannabis business micro-grants, local equity, and marketing and promotion.
“It was created through a resolution that provided 10% of our local cannabis cultivation taxes to be returned to the community through this project,” said Peggy Murphy, economic development specialist for the County of Humboldt. “It covers three basic programs.”
The Micro-Grant Program offers grants of up to $10,000 for cannabis and ancillary businesses—including cultivators, retailers, distributors and manufacturers—for projects approved by the Project Trellis Committee. The grants are competitive, and applications go through the committee for scoring and ranking.
In its first year, Project Trellis awarded $180,000 in microgrants, and in its second year, it awarded $519,000. The grants have funded a variety of projects, Murphy said, including business’ organic certifications, water tanks and solar panels.
The Local Equity Program is based off California Senate Bill 1294, which encouraged the state’s counties to create a Cannabis Equity Assessment, and then a local equity program, in order to apply for state funds to support local equity programs.
Humboldt County ultimately won three awards—one from the Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC) for $1.3 million and two from the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development for $2.4 million and $1.05 million.
Murphy said Project Trellis initiated its Local Equity Program using the original BCC award and is in the final stages of contracting with those awardees.
Project Trellis launched an updated version of its equity program, “Version 2.0,” on Aug. 16, using the second award of $2.4 million and incorporating feedback from the community, stakeholders and funders.
Finally, the county-wide Marketing and Promotion Program aims to promote and maintain Humboldt-grown cannabis as a national and industry brand.
Qualifications for each program vary, Murphy said. Applications for the annual Micro-Grant Program were built in-house by the Project Trellis Committee and staff with oversight from the Project Trellis Board of Directors.
To qualify for a grant, a business must be operating in the cannabis industry, either as a startup or an established company.
“If your project includes finishing your establishment—like completing your permitting and licensure—then we will consider you, but it is really geared toward established cannabis businesses,” Murphy said.
Businesses must be licensed and registered to operate in Humboldt County, with at least 75% of their operations based in Humboldt County, in order to qualify for a grant.
In any given year, Murphy said Project Trellis receives approximately 70 applications for the Micro-Grant Program. During the first year, it funded 17 projects, and during the second year, it funded 16.
To qualify for the Local Equity Program, business owners must be at or below a certain income level, reside in Humboldt County, and be a shareholder or owner with at least 20% interest in a cannabis business. Once all those qualifications are met, applicants must meet a minimum of another set of criteria, including items such as minority ownership.
“A good amount of what we deal with is compliance-related, or conditional [license] approval, and that’s true for both the Micro-Grant as well as the Local Equity Program,” Murphy said. “I think overall, not just our program but the community itself, recognizes that the cost of becoming legitimate within the commercial cannabis marketplace is extreme, and with the fluctuations in the market, it’s incredibly tough even for those who have gone completely through the [licensing] process.”
Project Trellis Committee meetings are open to the public, and the program also hosts public town halls (now conducted via Zoom due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic) to receive feedback from the local community.
“We’re really intended to be there to help support the cannabis industry,” Murphy said. “I think that’s important to state because I think a lot of times, people assume that because we are the County of Humboldt, we aren’t necessarily looking out for their best interests. And we’re hoping to be an advocate for the community.”