Life in cannabis county

In bucolic Northern California, the author's pot-growing neighbors are facing a new fear: Legalization

WHEN MY WIFE and I bought a house last year in the little town of Ukiah, Calif., the first person to offer us advice about growing marijuana was our Realtor. The house was a stolid 1909 prairie box that had been partitioned into four units, with a front porch, green trim, and a couple of fruit trees in the yard. It was charming, but we probably would have settled for a yurt. What mattered most to us was having a foothold in Mendocino County, a place we had long ago decided was the most beautiful in America.

Our Realtor, however, drew our attention to the house’s electrical meters. There were four in total, one for each unit. If we ever wanted to grow a few indoor pot gardens, he said, we had an ideal setup. I laughed and thanked him for the tip.

Then the advice kept coming. A neighbor offered to help me get started with a few plants whenever I was ready. The owner of a local hydroponics supply store shook my hand and encouraged me to visit his warehouse. “We’ll set you up,” he said. Ukiah, I realized, was weirder than I thought.

I’d always known that pot was a huge part of the county’s livelihood—accounting for two-thirds of the local economy, by some estimates. But in eight years of visiting the place with my wife, I’d never so much as set eyes on a seven-fingered leaf. Then, last year, I began exploring the region’s cannabis economy in earnest, setting out for dirt roads in the hills and basements in Ukiah, occasionally wearing a blindfold.

Gradually a new picture of Mendocino County began to emerge. Neighborhoods in town were dotted with light-flooded outbuildings packed with plants, quietly paying the mortgages of those who tended them. And the county’s amber and green hills were full of homesteaders who’d come for the land decades ago and managed to stay because of marijuana. Many had built their own off-grid homes and outfitted them with elaborate solar arrays, potbellied stoves, and well-tended gardens. In an age of homemade baby food, fire-escape agriculture, and home-brew chic, they’d achieved an almost mythical ideal: economic independence derived from a small piece of earth.

The rub, of course, was that these paragons of yeoman virtue were often antisocial, paranoid wrecks. Marijuana’s high price under prohibition made it possible to earn a living from a small patch, but someone was always losing a crop, fleeing into the woods, or going to jail. “It’s like the sharks come in and just eat a few people,” one grower told me. Mendocino County, in short, is as tortured by prohibition as it is dependent on it. But what agonizes the county even more these days is the thought that it might someday come to an end.

On Nov. 2, California voters rejected Proposition 19, a ballot measure that would have legalized the possession and cultivation of pot in small amounts for adults. Had it passed, the Rand Corp. predicted, the price of marijuana would have fallen by as much as 80 percent. But polls show that Californians’ views about legalization are only becoming more positive over time, and a new marijuana reform initiative will almost certainly reach the ballot in 2012. The edifice of prohibition is crumbling, and that’s making many people in Mendocino County nervous.

LAST OCTOBER, NEWS of a major storm approaching from the west rousted a throng of dusty vehicles from the hills of Mendocino, causing traffic jams and long lines at supply stores in Ukiah, the county seat. The backcountry’s marijuana growers, hurrying to prepare for a forced harvest, were out in full strength.

I happened to be riding shotgun in one of those dusty vehicles, a creaking white delivery van driven by a blue-eyed, ponytailed marijuana grower named Matthew Cohen. A lanky 32-year-old with wraparound shades and a goatee, Cohen had agreed to show me the ropes of harvest season.

The inland hills of Mendocino County reliably see no rainfall between the months of May and October, an interval during which the sun blazes, as one 1880 history of the area put it, “as if fully determined to prove to mankind that it can shine more fervidly today than it did yesterday.” That plenitude of sun, which is shared by Mendocino’s neighbors, Humboldt and Trinity counties, has helped cement the region’s status as the capital of American cannabis production—known collectively as the “Emerald Triangle.” Topography has also helped. The region is essentially a crumple zone emanating from an offshore junction of three tectonic plates. A shatter pattern of canyons, occasional valleys, and arcing slopes, the area is virtually unpoliceable.

With full sun, healthy marijuana plants in Mendocino County can reach heights of 15 feet. But fully grown specimens—gangly things—break up in wet weather. The outdoor cannabis growing season thus becomes a race to bring one’s crop to maturity before the first heavy October rains, whose forecast each year ordains a rare moment of synchronicity in an otherwise atomized trade. Every farmer with plants in the sun has to bring them down at the same time.

Like most of his peers, Cohen was on his way into town to pick up supplies for his trimmers, the laborers who break the resinous crop down into so many perfect little buds. At a Safeway, we ran into an unusual product display just inside the automatic doors. “Turkey bags,” Cohen said. “You ever heard of these?” A turkey bag, I learned, is a Reynolds product designed for roasting poultry. It also happens to be the industry-standard container for transporting pounds of pot. The chemical properties that keep a plastic roasting bag from melting in a 350-degree oven also make it impervious to the skunk smell of marijuana. “I’ve seen guys buy cases of ’em,” said the checkout clerk, dragging two boxes of turkey bags for Cohen across the infrared scanner. He looked up with a grin. “I mean, I guess they could use them to cook turkeys.”

By now I was beginning to recognize the signs of harvest everywhere. At Home Depot, just down the road, bins near the checkout lanes heaved with Fiskars pruning snips—small florist’s shears that are the tool of choice for marijuana trimmers. On Highway 101 on the way out of town, Cohen and I zoomed past several hitchhikers—would-be trimmers—stationed along each of Ukiah’s dry brown interchanges. One of them, thumb out, wore a pair of pruning snips on a piece of twine around his neck.

THE FIRST MARIJUANA growers in Mendocino and Humboldt counties were urban castaways who went “back to the land” in the 1960s and ’70s, many of them chasing a latter-day version of a Jeffersonian ideal. They came to “unplug” from the ignobility of consumer society, to find an existence that was less fragmented, more self-sufficient. The Redwood Empire was an obvious destination: The region’s fishing and timber industries had collapsed, and property was cheap. “We bought 300 acres for $60,000,” says John Schaeffer, a white-bearded homesteader who arrived in Mendocino County in 1971. “This was at a time when you had people from New York, Los Angeles, the Bay Area all moving in here.” At first the latter-day Jeffersonians barely got by; they built houses with salvaged timber, sometimes from old redwood chicken coops, then scraped together subsistence incomes however they could. Many lived off the power grid, raising their families by kerosene lamp. “Everyone was struggling,” says Schaeffer. “No one had any money.” Meanwhile, in their fields, along with all the food they were growing, they sowed marijuana.

At the time—the height of marijuana consumption in America—almost all of the country’s commercial supply came from Mexico and Colombia. “Homegrown” was regarded as something akin to bathtub gin. Then, beginning in the mid-1970s, the Mexican government began spraying marijuana fields in the Sierra Madre with Paraquat, an herbicide poisonous to humans. When tainted pot found its way into the American supply, panic ensued.

The drug trade needed a new source, and in Mendocino County, the marijuana that people were already growing in their gardens suddenly began wholesaling for $1,000 a pound. Almost overnight, the back-to-the-landers—who had just dropped out of consumer society—found themselves blessed with an abundance of purchasing power.

Unfortunately for those in the hills, the marijuana boom didn’t just bring disposable income; it also brought government helicopters. The crackdowns of the 1980s forced some homesteaders out of the marijuana business, but others just got more creative: While the risks had shot up, so too had the drug’s price, which reached $5,000 a pound that decade.

The cannabis gold rush changed the culture of Mendocino. Despite the risk of law enforcement busting down the door, the high price of pot brought unprecedented new waves of migration to the Redwood Empire. And in 1996, when California voters passed Proposition 215, legalizing medical marijuana, the “green rush” began drawing people from all over the world. Lifestyles of hardscrabble subsistence gave way to private schooling for kids and vacations in Bali. Today, in some towns, marijuana is the only major business, and what other businesses there are can offer no comparable wage. Everyone seems to have a story of some enterprising high school student who managed to earn $50,000 or $100,000 growing pot over summer vacation. One resident of the Humboldt hill country told me that out of 300 families in her community, only five don’t grow pot.

OVER THIS PAST summer, the mood among North Coast marijuana growers was bleak. The previous year’s harvest had fetched some of the lowest prices since the 1970s, and fewer buyers were coming up from the cities. In Humboldt and Mendocino, locals had gathered in the spring at grim public meetings to discuss “life after legalization.” The 2010 growing season was also shaping up to be the most violent in recent memory, with five deadly shootouts between police and organized-crime growers on public land by August. And regardless of how the vote on Proposition 19 went, the coming year promised to be rough. Many pot growers had planted double or triple what they did last season, and the bumper crop seemed bound to depress prices even further.

Matthew Cohen was more optimistic than most in Mendocino County. In his bid to weather the transition to a post-prohibition business, Cohen had forged ties with members of local government and launched a medical marijuana cooperative called Northstone Organics, which delivers sustainably grown cannabis “farm direct” from Mendocino County to the Bay Area.

As time went on, Cohen hoped, other small organic growers would join the cooperative, put aside their paranoia and longstanding differences with county authorities, and form a bloc that would stand to compete with the big players that are emerging in the increasingly mainstream pot economy. Ultimately, in a post-prohibition era, he wanted to see the county bloom with scores of “cannabisseries”—roadside farms with tasting rooms pitched to the day-tripping connoisseur. “As you’re driving the 128 through Boonville, tasting champagne,” he enthused in his farmhouse office, “you’ll be able to roll into a facility that’s processing 500 pounds of cannabis a year—a nice little microbrew, they specialize in a specific varietal of Bubba Kush.” In his vision, the entire county would be branded under the line “Small farms, strong communities, sustainable living.”

“You know,” he said with a mildly embarrassed laugh, “every good value that exists in this county is what we’re gonna try to embody in a tourist trap.”

By John Gravois. From a longer story that appears in the current issue of The Washington Monthly. Used with permission. All rights reserved.


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