CAMP estimates it has removed nearly 25 million marijuana plants from California since its creation. But there was a flip side. Many people jokingly refer to CAMP as a price-support program for marijuana. By the mid-1980s, with busts limiting supply, pot was going for prices that have not been matched since -- as much as $6,000 a pound, wholesale.
The high-risk, high-reward nature of the business only sharpened the local spirit of self-reliance, daring and innovation. Certain handymen began specializing in the construction of plywood platforms for marijuana in tree canopies, hidden from helicopter-borne drug agents. The community radio station, KMUD, doubled as an early-warning system, broadcasting the position of law-enforcement vehicles headed into the hills.
Then, things began to change. California's legalization of medical marijuana in 1996 raised the curtain on an elaborate pantomime that continues to this day. With a doctor's recommendation, a patient could either grow limited quantities for personal use, or purchase it from dispensaries. Some 2,100 dispensaries have sprung up throughout California, and the medical marijuana revolution has spread to every Western state except Utah, Idaho and Wyoming. Two years ago, the federal government issued its own imprimatur of sorts, when Deputy U.S. Attorney General David Ogden directed federal prosecutors to leave alone "individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana."
With time, the Emerald Triangle's marijuana growers have begun acting more like real farmers. Today, many have contracts to supply medical dispensaries in the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento and Los Angeles. A few growers even receive IRS reportable-income forms from the dispensaries they sell to, and pay federal tax. An entire cloud of supporting businesses has also emerged, from attorneys who specialize in ensuring legal compliance to labs that analyze and certify the product's purity. A company called Statewide Insurance Services offers marijuana crop insurance, including a special "raid coverage" option. The availability of insurance has, in turn, raised the prospect that growers who supply dispensaries may someday be eligible for crop loans from banks, just like tomato farmers.
But the enthusiastic pursuit of what is still largely an unregulated industry has generated fallout, too, drawing unwelcome attention to the whole enterprise. Illegal diversions of water for marijuana gardens, together with indiscriminate use of fertilizer and pesticides, have choked important salmon streams. The widespread use of rat bait took a toll on birds of prey. And the CAMP assaults literally drove some growers underground: Buried shipping containers with high-intensity lights powered by diesel generators -- their fuel tanks holding as much as 2,000 gallons -- proliferated in the hills.
Hamilton and other like-minded residents took to the airwaves on KMUD and began proselytizing against the "diesel cowboys" who ran such operations. Diesel dope's carbon footprint would give Al Gore a case of the fantods: According to some calculations, it consumes about 75 gallons of fuel and releases more than two tons of carbon dioxide per pound of pot produced. Some growers dumped used crankcase oil from their generators straight into the ground. Poorly maintained generators caught fire in the middle of the woods. And they leaked -- sometimes a lot. In May 2008, 1,000 gallons of diesel-grow fuel poured straight into Hacker Creek, which provides habitat for salmon and drinking water for the watershed's residents.
But an even bigger problem has emerged recently. Criminal cartels, mostly with Mexican ties, have begun moving onto federal, state and private timberland and setting up monster grows with tens of thousands of plants. Last year, CAMP arrested 182 people in California, seized more than 5 million plants and shot at least seven people; the vast majority of the raids were aimed at cartel grows.
All this has helped shape an unusual social code in the Emerald Triangle. Practically everyone, including the police, distinguishes between "outlaws" -- the mom-and-pop, reformed-hippie operators who grow a little dope to make ends meet and put their kids through school -- and "criminals." And smart growers, while they may technically be breaking the law by growing for recreational markets, meticulously observe a certain set of rules that, at least theoretically, put them in compliance with the state's medical marijuana law. If a grower has fewer than 100 plants, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency generally leaves the decision to prosecute up to the local sheriff. And as long as the grower's not too flashy and doesn't go around brandishing guns, the sheriff will usually leave him be.
There are, after all, much bigger fish to fry. "Our priority now," says Humboldt County Sheriff Mike Downey, "is definitely the cartels."
Scrupulous observance of the law is, although officials hesitate to say so, tempered by a very practical concern. If local sheriffs were to crack down on the outlaws, they would destroy a significant chunk of the regional economy -- and their own budgets.
Just how important marijuana is to Humboldt County's economy may be as unknowable as the ineffable Tao. One Humboldt State University economist suggests that a quarter of the county's economy -- roughly a billion dollars -- is marijuana money. Conventional wisdom suggests that, particularly in southern Humboldt, the percentage is much higher.
Ernie Branscomb is a genial, fifth-generation Humboldter who owns Garberville's version of Sears. With his white mustache, bald head and easy banter, he would seem at ease behind a barber's chair. He's part of the unreconstructed Old Guard here, at least technically. "I've never grown marijuana," he said. "I've never even used marijuana. I'm afraid I'll like it."
Branscomb's store has given him a front-row view of the business, so I asked him how big a part of the local economy he thought marijuana is. He pondered for a moment. "In my opinion," he said, "it's about 80 percent."
I laughed and said that was impossible. Branscomb looked at me like I was an idiot.
"Look around you," he said.