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What California's Illegal Pot Farmers Think About Legalization

Some veteran pot farmers fear Wall Street and Silicon Valley swooping in to kill their way of life, and many seem determined to press on no matter what.

by Max Cherney
Sep 14 2016, 7:16pm

Harvested bud from northern California's Emerald Triangle. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat via AP)

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After decades of supplying stoners across America with primo weed, outlaw farmers in Northern California are bracing for what now seems almost inevitable: legalization.

The Golden State is set to vote on a Sean Parker–backed initiative to tax and regulate weed this fall, an effort that has raised plenty of cash and appears, at least according to most public surveys, to have the popular support needed to pass. Meanwhile, legislators have already transformed the state's half-baked medical regime into a coherent system, one that's on track to approach a record $1 billion year in taxable weed sales, according to numbers provided to VICE by California's Board of Equalization. Big business, along with Silicon Valley–tied venture capital cash, is beginning to pour into the sparsely populated rural region, long renowned for off-the-grid personalities—and of course off-the-charts weed.

It's tough to say exactly how much pot farmers grow in Northern California, though according to DEA data, about 60 percent of the nation's illegal weed is seized somewhere in the state. Given estimates of 4,000 to 10,000 farms in Humboldt County alone—out of what the California Growers Association suggests are perhaps 50,000 statewide—it's fair to say the area known as the Emerald Triangle (Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity counties) is producing a significant chunk of America's bud. And interviews with growers, experts, and activists suggest that even if legalization does pass, outlaw growers will hold out as long as they can.

"Obviously there is a financial incentive to stay in the black market," one grower who has been in the Triangle for more than three-quarters of his life—and requested anonymity for fear of law enforcement reprisal—told VICE. "Financially, it makes sense to stay in it, if you're not paying fees, and eradication budgets are stretched so thin. For a lot of people, it's a numbers game, and a lot of my friends, the people I talk with, are going to stay in it."

For many farmers, growing on the sly—and without pesky limits on production, as called for in the ballot initiative—is a way of life that they aren't willing to give up. There are perks, after all, and not just the lack of a boss or taxes. "We were outlaws for a long time," said another farmer who's been in the game for more than 30 years. Even after California granted patients limited protection from criminal prosecution in 1996, farmers were still leading clandestine lives. "We chose to live a lifestyle. For a lot of us, it was more about camaraderie, and the us-versus-them mentality. The money, when there was money, was spent locally, saved locally. We were the dopers up in the hills."

Indeed, that Northern California weed life rests on the threat of arrest and prosecution—a threat that has been baked into local wisdom. As another source put it, "We've been dealing with CAMP [Campaign Against Marijuana Planting] for years, and even that was weakened after the financial crisis of 2008 with budget cuts."

As legalization seems destined to push forward, and ambiguity abounds in the interim between the law's passage and its implementation, experts have questions about how the authorities will conduct enforcement operations. "With the new medical marijuana regs and if the Adult Use of Marijuana Act [Parker's legalization bid] were to pass, what are regulatory agencies going to do with grows up north? Turn a blind eye, or ramp up enforcement?" wonders Beau Kilmer, senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation.

When asked about proposed changes in the state's pot laws, DEA spokeswoman Casey Rettig told VICE in an email, "Outside of DOJ's priorities, our directive is to rely on state and local law enforcement agencies to address marijuana activity through their own regulatory structures to prevent the illegal diversion of product, along with the enforcement of their own narcotics laws." (CAMP, the umbrella statewide entity for illegal marijuana enforcement in California, did not respond to requests for comment.)

As November approaches, ignorance among farmers about legalization is a factor, too—willful or otherwise. "None of them really seem to give a shit. The attitude is like, 'They're not going to bring the National Guard, so who cares,'" one source connected to dozens of clandestine grows who identified himself only as "D" told VICE. D estimates that maybe 70 percent of farmers he comes in contact with, especially "old school ranchers, and some of the biggest growers, have no fucking clue what's going on. No idea, and I don't know if they care."

Veteran farmers aren't the only ones who either hope or expect outlaw grows to persist, of course. "Legalization in California is not going to mean anything to outlaw growers because their markets are not here," Paul Trouette, CEO of Lear Asset Management Corp., told VICE. Lear is a private security company that works with local, state, and federal law enforcement to eradicate illegal marijuana grows. "There's going to be an increase in production by California outlaw growers after legalization," Trouette added. "The only thing that's going to be affected is that they're going to shift their grows into private properties, and that will overwhelm law enforcement operations. They're going to continue the game and hide the product among legal production."

To be sure, some farmers and industry leaders think the romanticized life of the outlaw grower is an anachronism, and that legalization spells serious trouble for them. "I came out and endorsed Sean Parker," founder of the annual Emerald Cup cannabis competition, Tim Blake, told VICE. "We might as well legalize it. We are over the top of the roller coaster, but the black market is going to have two or three more years and then dry up."

Blake has his reservations about the legalization. "When you get into politics, you find out that it's all about compromise," he said. But the activist thinks the writing is on the wall. In fact, a segment of farmers is already calling for appellations—that is, fancy, hyperlocal names—for weed, which they hope will protect small farms. Justin Calvino, one of the appellation effort's organizers, told VICE that farmers are moving toward responsible water and environmental use, and perhaps more importantly, that the black market is already showing signs of evaporation. "The world as we know it has gone away, and we have to change," he said.

Still, Calvino acknowledged, "I think I'm looking at the majority of farmers that aren't willing to wake up and play the game, especially farther north."

So even as some voices in the community are calling for growers to go legit, farmers insistent on doing their thing unmolested by New York bankers and Silicon Valley tech bros are edging minute-by-minute toward twilight.

"It's not like in the future it's going to be a helicopter, or a raid," the farmer "D" told me. "Fish and Wildlife or the Water Bureau are going to fine you for water, for permits, and soon you'll owe a quarter million in fines. Then they'll take your land."

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