Ganjanomics: bringing Humboldt's shadow economy into the light

  • A grower tends his plants in Humboldt County in California's Emerald Triangle.

    Matt Jenkins
  • Radio host and marijuana activist Anna Hamilton has urged Humboldt County officials to take advantage of the local underground marijuana economy by regulating and taxing it ... before the state steps in.

    Kym Kemp
  • A bumper sticker points to tension between sunshine growers and those known as “diesel cowboys,” who use up to 75 gallons of diesel to grow a pound of pot.

    Matt Jenkins
  • A red medical cross -- big enough to be visible from a low-flying helicopter -- identifies a marijuana grow site that supplies a cannabis dispensary.

  • Cannabis lobbyist Max Del Real visits with Caleb Counts at his Sacramento dispensary. Del Real has been retained by the Humboldt Growers Association to push a plan to regulate and tax marijuana -- and to protect market share and the Humboldt name.

    Peter Hecht/Sacramento Bee
  • Offerings from the Tea House Collective. "Organically, Sustainably Humboldt" is the slogan the group uses on its packages.

    Kym Kemp
  • Garberville music store Wild Horse Records and Tapes sells music ... and rolling papers and turkey-roasting bags, used to transport and store bulk marijuana.

    Kym Kemp

One evening last October, I met with Anna Hamilton in the Northern California town of Garberville. A singer-songwriter with a barbwire voice, Hamilton is known locally for her radio show, Rant and Rave, Lock and Load and Shoot Your Mouth Off -- which, it turns out, is a pretty good description of her approach to life.

"I'm a little gutterballer from the beach," she said. "And I get nervous around too much normalcy."

We sat by the front window in a bar called the Blue Room, shielding our eyes from the sun while a pair of hippies attempted to maneuver their minivan into a parking space. As a dreadlocked woman passenger gently upbraided him, the scrawny, bearded kid behind the wheel struggled to line up between the two white lines on the pavement. The entire operation seemed to unfold in slow-mo. Hamilton watched in disbelief.

"Don't let anybody tell you," she growled, "that pot makes you a better driver."

The hippies were among a wave of migrants that appear each fall to help with the harvest. And on those still-warm October days, Garberville and its neighbor, Redway, a couple miles down the road, felt like the forward operations base for a hard-core gardening cult. Citizens stormed local garden centers, loading up last-minute supplies and hauling them over a tangle of dirt roads into the surrounding hills.

Out in that wild country, concealed behind private gates in the draws and gulches that lace the rumpled landscape, lies the heart of what may be the biggest false-fronted economy in the United States. California produces nearly 40 percent of the country's marijuana; worth an estimated $13.8 billion, it is by far the state's biggest cash crop. The longtime hub of the business is here, in Humboldt and neighboring Mendocino and Trinity counties -- the legendary Emerald Triangle.

Despite the drug economy's pervasiveness, locals observe a kind of winking discretion that goes back four decades, when the hill culture first retreated from the reach of authority. As one grower put it, "We all are keeping each other's secrets, and there is kind of a community because of that."

But Hamilton has pushed for more candid talk about Humboldt County's economic reliance on marijuana. The formerly logging-dependent counties on the North Coast have struggled economically for years, and the money weed generates is real. Still, the marijuana business is an extremely complicated creature. In 1996, California became the first state to legalize marijuana for medical use. Yet the majority of the marijuana grown in the Emerald Triangle goes to recreational markets, and roughly 90 percent is sold outside the state -- where it has been very, very illegal.

That, however, is changing. A raft of other states have passed medical marijuana laws, and last fall, California voters took up the question of whether to legalize pot for recreational use as well. Despite seemingly broad support, Proposition 19 narrowly lost at the polls, receiving 46.2 percent of the vote. But in the aftermath of its failure, marijuana's slow roll towards legitimacy has continued, if somewhat more sluggishly.

Over the past year, trade organizations and the other institutions of commerce by which entrepreneurs of all stripes sustain themselves have spontaneously emerged. Marijuana growers have begun negotiating the complicated realities of regulation, launched lobbying campaigns, and even enlisted government support in fighting for market share. The county government is itself trying to delicately navigate its way into tapping an industry that is still mostly illegal.

That could soon pit the county against the federal government -- but it also may be the only practical thing to do. After all, Hamilton said, "it's stupid to not just flatly admit that marijuana is what's holding this county's underwear up."

The Emerald Triangle has long been isolated by distance and geography, holding itself consciously aloof from the rest of California. Until the 1920s, the main way to reach the North Coast was by ship, and the timber industry was king, sustained by redwoods that grew enormous in the coastal fog. By the late 1960s, however, when the area appeared on the psychic maps of disillusioned hippies desperate to escape from San Francisco and elsewhere, much of the land was logged over -- and cheap.

"They could come here and live off of welfare and peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches," says Charley Custer, a transplanted Chicagoan, "and just kind of scrounge along."

But the hippies were idealistic, too -- dreamers who hoped to leave mainstream America behind and create a different reality. Some began using their new land to grow pot on the side. They weren't the only ones. The timber industry, battered by environmental regulations and unfavorable economics, was wheezing a death rattle: In the two decades after the hippies arrived, logging in the county declined by 60 percent. Meanwhile, a single marijuana plant could fetch as much money as an entire redwood. Even the old-guard loggers who would rather cut a tree than hug it saw the practical benefits of the new crop.

"Now it's hard to tell who's who," says Eric Kirk, a Garberville attorney, "because when the mills all closed down, everybody got into marijuana."

Even as early as the '70s, it was clear that a new age had dawned. Itinerant hippies brought in specimens of Cannabis indica, a highland champion, from Afghanistan, and crossed it with Cannabis sativa, the Central American species that had long been the mainstay of U.S. growers. The plants that resulted were hardier and produced a more potent high. Then came the discovery that unpollinated female plants -- called sinsemilla -- are richer in THC, the active chemical in marijuana.

The new stuff practically sold itself, and Humboldt County became a slightly grubbier realization of the classic California dream. "I've heard stories about local kids who went away to college, and were living on Top Ramen diets. They came back, and their buddies who didn't go to college are driving around big rigs with expensive stereos," Kirk says. "And they're thinking, 'What the hell am I doing?' "

That kind of entrepreneurialism is hard to hide, and the government took notice. In 1983, the Reagan administration created the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, or CAMP, a multi-agency SWAT team that bills itself as the nation's largest law enforcement task force. Practically everyone who lived in southern Humboldt in the late '80s and early '90s remembers frantically dialing neighbors to warn of impending busts, and women and children streaming out of the hills to safety.