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Inside the Fascinating World of Marijuana Growers

A crop of writers are reporting on the medical pot trade.

A man lights a marijuana joint during a demonstration in Montevideo, on May 8, 2013. Uruguay has moved closer to becoming the world's first nation to produce and distribute marijuana, after its lower house approved a bill putting control of the drug in go


This article originally appeared on the  L.A. Review of Books.

"I now have absolute proof that smoking even one marijuana cigarette is equal in brain damage to being on Bikini Island during an H-bomb blast." — Ronald Reagan

It's been a long journey  from the reefer madness of the 1930s and the War on Drugs of the 1980s to the medical marijuana dispensaries of today. As with any changing social norms, reclaiming words or destroying terms with negative connotations has been essential for rights advocates. As Greg Campbell notes in  Pot Inc., which centers on his efforts to grow marijuana in his suburban Colorado basement, the pot lexicon, too, is undergoing a transformation:

A certain faction considers  marijuana itself pejorative and racist, based on a longstanding theory that narcotics agents in the 1930s chose that word over the more scientific  cannabis when crafting drug laws; the word is of Mexican-Spanish origin and thus, the belief is, sounded more exotic and sinister. For others, cannabis is too pretentious to take seriously […] The act of actually inhaling is also a linguistic minefield. In the modern world of medical marijuana, to talk of “getting stoned” is an immediate giveaway […] Patients  medicate, even if the need to do so is no more pressing than that  South Park comes on in fifteen minutes.

Given all of the legal and linguistic debate, and the fact that drugs and their subcultures can seem inherently interesting (even sexy?), it’s not surprising that there’s a crop of writers who are eager to report on those who grow it, smoke it, or seek to regulate it. With so much at stake — medically, financially, even recreationally — more books about the marijuana industry are highlighting the importance of changing how we talk about it. Journalist Emily Brady’s is the latest. In  Humboldt: Life on America’s Marijuana Frontier, Brady focuses on part of the “Emerald Triangle” region of Northern California, where pot growers are plentiful and federal legalities are overlooked. Humboldt County is widely known as the California capital of marijuana farming, and the local economy, Brady tells us, depends upon it. Following four local characters during the 2010 vote on Proposition 19, which sought to fully legalize marijuana in California, Brady discovers that many of the local farmers voted against it; they wanted to keep cannabis illegal, fearing competition from the pharmaceutical companies.

While Campbell immerses himself in the culture of marijuana, Brady keeps out of her reporting, even though she was born and raised in Northern California. The author’s note in the opening pages carefully explains the work is narrative nonfiction and that “[narrated] passages expressing a person’s thoughts or feelings have been fact-checked.” Brady writes in a novelist’s idiom, almost as an omniscient narrator, without interpolating herself into the text. She keeps herself out of the story, and, it seems, out of the marijuana industry; at the book’s close, she writes that she made the deliberate choice not to work in the area’s main industry, but rather in a local jazz club. She does not set up her own marijuana farm, as Campbell does, or even intrude on the action very much at all, but keeps her focus on the residents themselves. The events unravel through the reminiscences of four Humboldt inhabitants, each representing a different segment of the community: an elderly, back-to-the-land marijuana grower; a young out-of-towner looking to make money for the growing season; the daughter of a pot grower who dislikes growing up in a black market economy; and the local sheriff.

There’s a ponderous quality to Brady’s prose that captures the slow-paced, stoned quality of life in Humboldt. She also has a knack for describing bizarre, interesting details, which bring the community she’s describing to life. “She had long brown hair and was dressed in the kind of clothes you throw on when you’re awoken by a phone call with bad news,” Brady notes of one minor character. She writes that Mare, an old-school “marijuana moonshiner” once smuggled a strain of pot called “Bubble Gum” from Amsterdam to California in what she calls her “orifice,” and that a sign at the local motel boasts wireless “enternet.” She notes that, not only does the local radio station have an astrology-themed cosmic weather report, but also broadcasts the location of cop cars and helicopters during marijuana harvest times to alert farmers of their presence. She also records outstanding examples of marijuana argot, like the “couch lock” marijuana users can experience from a particularly strong strain of  sativa, or the names of various types of marijuana crops like “Sour Diesel” and “God’s Pussy.”