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Know the West

Economies of vice


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.