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Will Legalizing Pot Destroy Humboldt Or Transform It into the Napa Valley of Weed?

The marijuana capital of the world tries to figure out the future of its illicit product.

Excerpted from the book HUMBOLDT: Life on America’s Marijuana Frontier by Emily Brady.  Copyright © 2013 by Emily Brady.  Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing.  All rights reserved.

Mare Abidon had first heard about the event while listening to KMUD-FM, the community radio station. A local talk show host named Anna “Banana” Hamilton was organizing it. The flyers she posted around town advertised the event two ways: “The Post-Marijuana Prohibition Economy Forum,” and the shorthand version, which rolled off the tongue much easier: “What’s After Pot?” The accompanying art featured a pot leaf, two nude female figures wearing baseball caps, clumps of trimmed marijuana buds, and what appeared to be dollar bills with wings fluttering away.

The meeting was taking place at the Mateel Community Center in Southern Humboldt, an area of 1,200 square miles of sprawling wilderness in the far reaches of Northern California. The area used to be known as the Mateel, after the Mattole and Eel rivers that flow through it, but now, as if it were some Manhattan neighborhood, many people called it by the abbreviated term SoHum.

Over the years, SoHum, the rest of Humboldt, and neighboring Mendocino and Trinity counties had become known around the country as the Emerald Triangle, after the region’s brilliant green clandestine marijuana crop. Since the mid-1970s, outlaw farmers throughout the Triangle had been supplying America with its favorite illegal drug. What had started as a lark nearly forty years earlier had become the backbone to the county’s economy. Throughout the region, and particularly in SoHum, marijuana farming had become a way of life, one that transcended class and generations. “It’s what we do here,” people would say.

Mare herself had grown a half-dozen plants every year for decades.

But the code of silence surrounding the marijuana industry was such that, until one March evening in 2010, there had never been a public gathering in Southern Humboldt where what people did there was openly discussed.

Sure, for twenty years there was an annual hemp festival, where pot-related books and paraphernalia were sold, and for decades there had been meetings to discuss the actions of law enforcement in the community, but a public discussion about the dependence of the local economy on the black market marijuana crop had never happened before. Up until this moment, it was even considered bad form to ask what someone did for a living in the community. It was just understood.

Mare passed through the front doors of the Mateel Community Center and a giant wooden sculpture of an open hand. Inside, the stage where musicians from around the world came to play shows was empty, but the entire oak floor below was filled with a dozen long banquet tables and an army of folding chairs. On each table were handwritten place cards indicating who should sit there. There were tables for landowners, local government, medical marijuana patients, the press, “Growers,” and “Just Curious.” There was even a gray metal chair labeled “FBI.”

It was a large crowd for Southern Humboldt. Nearly two hundred people were milling about. Instead of picking a table, Mare headed for the fireplace in the back corner that was sculpted to resemble a giant redwood tree trunk and looked as though it should have a cauldron bubbling away inside it. There were other familiar faces in the crowd—neighbors and friends—and the unfamiliar. Seated at the landowners’ table was a woman with long, coppery red hair named Kym Kemp. A third-generation Humboldter, Kemp had been blogging about local marijuana culture since 2007, under the name Redheaded Blackbelt. Her blog posts ranged from photos of local wildflowers and quilts she helped stitch to links to stories about the marijuana industry and flyers of the occasional missing person. Sitting nearby was a man Mare knew named Charley Custer, who was dressed in his trademark Stetson hat and Jesus sandals. Custer had moved to Humboldt from Chicago in 1980 to write a book that he referred to as his “opus dopus.” It was, as of yet, incomplete.

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