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

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.

Engrossed in a conversation over by the stage was the event’s mastermind, Anna “Banana” Hamilton. Hamilton was an outspoken folksinger in her sixties who hosted a monthly talk show on KMUD called Rant and Rave. She normally tooled around town in jeans and a baseball cap, but on this evening, she was dressed up, in a lavender velvet top and pearls.

The irony was that every table was now full except for the growers’ table, where only two brave souls had claimed a seat. One of them was Mare’s neighbor Syreeta Lux, a sturdy blonde who wore an enormous grin. Lux had lived in the community for decades and figured it was impossible to have a conversation about the future of the marijuana industry if growers were still invisible. It’s now or never, she figured, as she pulled her chair up to the empty table. Lux quickly waved over a friend, and wrote “medical” above the word growers, to try to get people to feel more at ease. Like Mare, she recognized many faces of friends, neighbors, and other community members in the crowd who were also growers, but still no one else joined her.

It may have seemed strange that fourteen years after California passed the nation’s first medical marijuana law, which allowed people to grow pot legally with a doctor’s recommendation, America’s most infamous marijuana growers might be hesitant to claim their heritage, but this was a community that had paid a price for its decades-long rebellion. It had endured annual government raids, and the army itself had once invaded. Then there was the lawless side of the business, the home-invasion rip-offs, and the occasional murder. For decades, to announce oneself as a grower would have been like painting a big target on one’s back. The times were indeed changing, but they didn’t change quickly in Humboldt.

The event was about to begin, and Syreeta Lux decided to take things a step further. She stood up, held the “Growers” sign high above her head, and commanded the room’s attention.

“If anyone is looking for a place to sit, there’s lots of room at our table to grow,” she announced in a loud, booming voice.

And then she grinned even wider.

From her spot by the fireplace, Mare figured she would let Syreeta represent the female growers. After years of living in the shadows, Mare had no intention of claiming a seat at that table. She had glanced around the room and realized that regardless of where people were sitting, the majority were what she called marijuana moonshiners, just like her. But when Syreeta stood up and encouraged others to join her, it was as if Mare’s feet had a mind of their own, and just like that, she found herself stepping forward. In front of her family, friends, community, elected officials, local and national media, and maybe even the FBI, Mare shuffled toward the growers’ table.

And she wasn’t the only one.

“Come on!” Syreeta Lux shouted for others to join them, and they did.

Like some kind of illicit farming coming-out ceremony, more growers stepped into the light. Eventually their numbers swelled to a few dozen, and later they had to retreat to the outdoor patio to have enough space to talk among themselves. But first, from her perch near the stage, Anna Hamilton spoke the words that everyone knew, but no one had yet dared to declare publicly.

“The legalization of marijuana will be the single most devastating economic bust in the long boom-and-bust history of Northern California, impacting local businesses, nonprofit organizations, the workforce, and county tax revenue,” she said, pausing for dramatic effect to peer at the crowd over the top of her reading glasses.

As Hamilton and everyone else knew, pot farming was not only a way of life in the region; it was the foundation of the entire economy. People had grown so dependent on the lucrative black market prices that some locals referred to marijuana’s illegality as the best government price support program in U.S. history. Prohibition and suppression create risk for growers and artificial scarcity on the market, sending prices and profit margins through the roof.

But that price support system was now at risk.

The U.S. government effectively outlawed marijuana in 1937. Though it is nontoxic and there are no recorded cases in history of anyone ever dying from overdosing on the drug, since the creation of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970 the federal government has classified marijuana as a Schedule I substance. This means the government considers pot more dangerous than cocaine or methamphetamine, with no medical value whatsoever. Many American people are of a different mind. In the late 1990s, starting with California in 1996, states began adopting medical marijuana laws. By the spring of 2010, fourteen states and Washington, D.C., had passed such laws.

These new laws, coupled with a cultural shift toward the acceptance of marijuana on a national level, brought more people into the industry and caused the price of pot on the black market gradually to decline. Marijuana was now a multi-billion-dollar industry in the Golden State, and a measure to legalize and tax it for adult recreational use had just gathered enough signatures to appear on the November ballot.

As Anna Hamilton pointed out that evening, if the measure passed, it could change everything in Humboldt.

“Every member of our society holds a stake in the consequences of legalization,” she said, as she began to point to the various tables—to the landowners, educators, members of the business community, and pot growers.

“Did I skip anyone who wants to be recognized tonight?” she asked. “Any representatives from the federal government? I see someone’s sitting in that fed chair over there. Is that just a joke?!”

Apparently it was, so Hamilton continued.

If the legalization measure passed, she predicted that the price of marijuana grown outdoors in the sun, the traditional Humboldt way, could drop from its current rate of around $2,000 a pound to as low as $500. If that happened, the effects would be catastrophic. The market would bottom out, affecting growers and everyone who worked for them, which Hamilton estimated to be between fifteen and thirty thousand people in Humboldt County alone.

In a few months’ time, the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think tank, would release a study with a similar prediction. It estimated that the legalization of the production and distribution of marijuana in California could cause prices to drop up to 80 percent.

There was reason to worry in the room, and it wasn’t just about economic self-interest. Proceeds from marijuana had not only supported and sustained individuals in the community, but had also helped build local institutions, including a health clinic, the radio station KMUD, and the Mateel Community Center, where the evening’s conversation was taking place. Donating earnings from a plant or a pound to these nonprofits, and to the community schools and volunteer fire departments, was how for years many locals paid their “taxes.”

All this was poised to change.

“If the value of marijuana drops below a certain level,” Hamilton warned, “the state will be faced with the collapse of its rural economies. Businesses will be shuttered, the nonprofit community will be unable to provide services to suddenly displaced peoples, and the golden goose will be dead.”

She looked up at the crowd.

“We will all face this economic decline together. For the sake of our region, it is time to begin planning for this upheaval now, together.

“What will we do?” she asked.

There was dead silence.

“We have all the talent and all the answers we need right here in this room.”

Among the ideas that bubbled up that evening was an advisory panel of pot growers that would meet with local elected officials to discuss how to regulate their industry. One couple came away from the meeting inspired to form the area’s first collective to try to sell organic, artisanal Humboldt pot legally under the state’s medical model. Some audience members expressed the long-held fear that legalization would bring the corporatization of the industry and that the market would be flooded with cheap, mass-produced weed, and they wouldn’t be able to compete. Others, including a local government official, saw it as an opportunity to take advantage of Humboldt’s legendary brand. Across the country and beyond, the Humboldt County name had become deeply linked with pot.

“We’ve had this name association for thirty or forty years now,” County Supervisor Mark Lovelace remarked. “If this is a newly legitimized industry, shouldn’t we be looking at capitalizing on that?”

There was talk of creating an appellation, modeled after the world’s great wine-growing regions, to designate that local pot was Humboldt homegrown. The way Hamilton saw it, the future of the area was either “appellation or Appalachia.” Should marijuana become legal, Humboldt County could become the Napa Valley of Pot, complete with “marijuanaries,” where tourists could visit and sample the latest harvest. The business possibilities were endless: “bud and breakfasts,” where rooms overlooked fragrant green gardens; a marijuana museum, detailing the history of the area’s decades-long experiment in civil disobedience; food and pot pairings at local restaurants; and some kind of four-wheel-drive trolley service, like the limos of the Napa Valley, to cart intoxicated tourists up unpaved roads to tour the pot farms.

“I’m not dying until there’s a tasting room in Humboldt County!” a woman with a brown bob and glasses passionately declared.

She was greeted with an enthusiastic round of applause.

That evening, Mare Abidon wasn’t worried about the price of pot or how she might brand herself; instead, she was bursting with hope. She had always expected that marijuana would become legal one day, and when it did, she planned to plant big pot bushes in plain sight between the cherry trees around her deck. In fact, she’d never imagined it would take this long. She never really understood the whole War on Drugs, or why the government considered marijuana such a menace. She thought it was great medicine, and even safer than alcohol as a way to unwind at the end of the day.

With the coming legalization, Mare thought that all the jails were going to be emptied of people arrested for pot, and that she and her friends who grew it were finally going to become legitimate members of society. Much was discussed that night, but what Mare took away, what she’d always remember, was that giddy rush of emotion, the feeling of pure liberation as she stepped into the light and walked toward that growers’ table. “It was like crawling out from under a rock that I had been under for decades,” she later confessed.

But, of course, not everyone felt that way.


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