To a large extent, growers' worries these days aren't all that different from those of the folks at any local chamber of commerce. There is the issue of brand protection, for instance. Last September, a couple of hustlers moonlighting as monks showed up at the International Cannabis and Hemp Expo in San Francisco, hawking what they claimed were bona fide Humboldt seeds.
In response, local growers proposed an ordinance to protect the county's good name, which has acquired a special cachet over the decades. A fellow named The Man Who Walks in the Woods drew up a draft resolution freighted with 11 "whereas"es, one "be it resolved," and a "be it further resolved," and called for amending the county code to note: "The name 'Humboldt' as it expresses or implies or suggests Humboldt County, California is hereby reserved for the permanent and exclusive benefit of the legal residents of Humboldt County, California." Other enterprising souls began researching the feasibility of trademarking the Humboldt name, which sparked some nervous speculation that one or another local faction might lock up the appellation.
People also worried about the Emerald Triangle's distance from its main markets. There had been some recent discussion about using refrigerated semis to haul tons of weed down Highway 101 to the Bay Area. Somebody proposed repurposing an old armored car as a dope-delivery vehicle. ("I saw the thing, in Redway," Anna Hamilton told me, slightly incredulous. "It's an old dusty Brinks truck that's been sitting in somebody's yard for the last 10 years.")
Behind all this was a much more serious debate: how to bring Humboldt County's shadow economy into the bright light of government-regulated industry. For many growers, that's a pretty radical change. The black market is, in many ways, the ultimate free market. "The irony is that the most progressive community in the nation has been living Ronald Reagan's wet dream," Hamilton told me. "It's going to be a hard sell. A lot of people don't understand why a third of their income should go to taxes. They have never had to share their money with anyone. "
But big shifts are already happening in the business landscape. After four decades, the Humboldt growers, who had perfected the high art of lying low, are being edged out by an explosion of upstart, indoor growers in big cities like Oakland. "The rural counties that grow outdoor weed are getting left behind," Hamilton said.
That profusion of new supply has been pushing prices down, a trend that would be sure to continue with wider legalization. That would undercut Humboldt County's economic basis -- and that suggested a natural alliance between Humboldt marijuana growers and the county government. "The county," Hamilton said, "is a vested partner in the stability of the price."
Two camps emerged in the debate over how to shape the future. One grew out of Hamilton's crusading, and became the Humboldt Medical Marijuana Advisory Panel, or HUMMAP, a loose affiliation of locals including Hamilton and The Man Who Walks in the Woods. Some HUMMAP members were small growers who also belonged to the newly formed Tea House Collective, which is attempting to ride the wave of a new era of discriminating tokers -- namely, those Whole Foods devotees in the Bay Area with enough of a paycheck left over for boutique bud.
The other camp was the better-capitalized and more ambitious Humboldt Growers Association. While the HUMMAP types drove slightly dilapidated Toyotas and Volvos, the Growers preferred lifted Dodge pickups. Joey Burger, who owns a local business called Trim Scene Solutions -- best known for selling a power weed-trimming machine called the Twister, which looks like a gleaming jet engine on wheels -- was their main ambassador.
The Growers proved far more adept at politics than Hamilton's crew. Last year, members of the group contributed at least $14,750 to the re-election campaign of a county supervisor named Bonnie Neely, plus $13,000 to Paul Gallegos, the county's district attorney. But it wasn't until they held a press conference last October, to unveil their proposed regulations for how the county might regulate and tax marijuana, that it was clear just how successful the Growers had been in making the drug business a respectable issue for elected officials.
A day earlier in Eureka, 50 miles north of Garberville, HUMMAP had unceremoniously trotted out its proposed regulations in the time allotted for audience comment at the end of a county supervisors' meeting. The Growers, in contrast, rented a building with views of the Eureka waterfront, invited the press, and rolled out their proposal with a formidable show of support from the county's political bigwigs. Neely emceed the event; District Attorney Gallegos and another county supervisor named Mark Lovelace were also prominently in attendance.
Gallegos has never hidden his belief that the war against marijuana is, for the most part, a waste of time and money. "We don't see people smoking marijuana with a whole lot of initiative to go out and commit crimes," he told me a couple of days beforehand. "Generally, what we see on marijuana is people being stoned."
At the press conference, Gallegos led off the speakers, saying, "My feeling on this is we're a decade late."
Eventually, the microphone came round to the Growers' not-so-secret weapon: the magnificently pomaded Max Del Real, a glad-handing cannabis lobbyist from the state capital whose very name was spoken with awe -- or perhaps a kind of disbelief. Del Real promptly dialed up the grandiloquence to 11.
The Growers, he reminded the audience, "are your neighbors. These are the same people who sit on your PTAs, coach your soccer teams.
"These," he said, "are good Americans."
Del Real emphasized that, to qualify for a permit under the Growers' proposed regulations, any applicant would have to have been a Humboldt County resident for at least two years. "The key term here, people, is localism," he beamed.
The proposed regulations, like HUMMAP's, required growers to minimize their environmental impact, and obtain state water-rights permits for irrigation diversions from rivers or creeks. Both proposals would have excluded violent felons from the business. But the Growers were also lobbying for bigger grows than HUMMAP was. Whereas the HUMMAP proposal allowed grows up to 2,500 square feet, the Growers' proposal allowed ones up to 16 times bigger.
Each of those -- roughly an acre -- would bring the county $80,000 in permitting fees. Del Real pointed out that the Growers' proposal would, at a minimum, bring $10 million into Humboldt County's coffers. Then he hinted -- obliquely enough, but darkly nonetheless -- that three counties elsewhere in the state were already considering pot-friendly regulations designed to establish themselves as the next Humboldt County. "They're looking at jobs. They're looking at revenue. They're looking at bottom lines," he intoned. "Humboldt County needs to move quickly on this particular issue."
With that, Del Real roared to a Hollywood finish. "I don't think the road ahead is complicated, and I don't think it's long.
"Thank you," he said, "and God bless you, Humboldt County."