Economies of vice

  • Sarah Gilman

 

Paonia, Colo., High Country News' hometown, is not an easy place to find work. As is true in many rural areas, young folks who want to stick around have few opportunities. The options are even fewer for those who can't or don't want to work in local coal mines. Through the warmer months, many string together jobs in construction, on farms or in the service industry to subsidize life in the winter, when employment is especially scarce. It's been rougher since the housing bubble blew; work on trophy homes and new condos and hotels in nearby resort towns has slowed, along with remodels and new development closer to home.

And so, every fall, some cross the hardpan deserts of Utah and Nevada, to the cool, verdant hills of Northern California, hoping to earn a large chunk of change, fast.

They're bound for the annual marijuana harvest in the Emerald Triangle -- the nexus of Humboldt, Trinity and Mendocino counties, which is notorious for its decades-old underground economy. There, they join countless other temporary workers from around the West.

This migration is certainly part culture and part adventure, but it's also an interesting crack-in-the-door view of pot's economic power. And that crack has been widening as marijuana emerges from the shadows. Nine Western states have legalized the drug for medical use in the last 15 years. After the Obama administration indicated in 2009 that it would essentially look the other way as long as growers complied with state medical marijuana laws, it became obvious just how inextricably the drug is woven into many communities. Plenty of Westerners seized what they saw as a big, fat opportunity to rise from the recession. In Colorado, to mixed dismay and delight, medical grows proliferated and dispensaries appeared in baffling array. Paonia, a town of around 1,500, briefly had two on its block-and-a-half-long downtown strip.

Throughout the rapid changes, local governments have faced a conundrum: How should they regulate this formerly black-market business? And is there a way to tax it to boost crumbling government budgets?

In this issue's cover story, Contributing Editor Matt Jenkins ventures to the heart of it all -- the Emerald Triangle -- to follow pot growers and officials as they navigate their way into this weird new territory. The federal government seems cagey about the potential outcome of such negotiations, but they're not unprecedented. Legitimizing, regulating and taxing other vices has provided valuable revenue through hard times before. In Colorado, lottery revenues fund crucial conservation programs. Casinos buoy some struggling Indian tribes. Tax revenue from booze helps fund all manner of government services. So what would it mean if the West's massive marijuana economy were finally drawn completely out of the shadows? If the amount of money involved is any indication -- the annual crop is worth an estimated $13.8 billion in California alone -- the possibilities are staggering enough for any enterprising politician to notice.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • OFFICE ADMINISTRATOR AND BOOKKEEPER
    Posted: July 19, 2021 Application deadline: August 27 or until position is filled. Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking a fulltime Office Administrator...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Posted: July 15, 2021 Application deadline: August 21, 2021 or until position is filled Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking three full time...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT EDITOR
    High Country News (HCN) seeks an audience editor to attract and acquire new audiences and deepen engagement with them - in our newsletters, on our...
  • COMMUNITY MARKETER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Marketer to build and strengthen relationships between HCN and other organizations and individuals, with the aim...
  • FINANCE & OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Job Announcement: Finance and Operations Manager Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Development Director Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August 9, 2021...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • HECHO NEW MEXICO SENIOR FIELD COORDINATOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. This position is part of our...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is dedicated to saving the lands and waters on which all life depends. For more than 30 years, TNC has...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, CLIMATE AND ENERGY PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-climate-energy-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Climate and Energy Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Climate and Energy Program Director Location: Helena, Montana; other...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, WILDLANDS AND WILDLIFE PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-wildlands-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Director Location: Portland or Eugene,...
  • DISCOUNT SOLAR PANELS
    New w/25 year warranty. Shipped anywhere in the lower 48. Minimum order of 10 units. Call, text or email for current prices. .50-.80/ watt
  • SWEET MOUNTAIN HOME
    3.8 acres in pine and fir forest on a year round creek. Custom home, 2x6 framing, radiant heat, wrap around decks and established berry patch....