The economy of the rural Northern Californian region is dominated by marijuana, and many growers are worried that when pot becomes legal, prices will plummet and they'll lose their livelihoods.
A weed-grow operation in Humboldt County, California. Photos by Emily Brady
Populated by a mix of hippies and rednecks, Humboldt County, California, is one of America’s most unique farming communities, with around 30,000 people (more than a fifth of Humboldt's population) involved in growing marijuana. One popular definition of "Humboldt" on Urban Dictionary describes it as a "weed haven in Northern California... [with] some of the best buds in the world." What North Carolina is to tobacco, Humboldt is to wacky tobacky—and residents would like to keep their most famous product away from legal markets.
In the run-up to the vote for California’s cannabis regulation bill in 2010, which would have largely legalized the drug, there was a sticker plastered on trucks, shacks, and homesteads in this secluded, densely forested wilderness area that said, "Save Humboldt County—Keep Pot Illegal." That attitude is based on simple, rational economic reasoning: Experts predict that if weed were to be legalized in California (which is very likely to happen by 2016 at the latest), the price of Humboldt weed would plummet, taking down local businesses with it.
The plants have become so entwined with the local economy that economists estimate a quarter of all the money made in Humboldt comes from marijuana cultivation. And because many of the growers don't pay taxes (or even use banks; they bury their money underground in plastic tubes and glass bottles), local services are maintained by marijuana money, which has been used to buy fire engines and set up a local radio station, two community centers, and small schools.
The bumper stickers that residents of Humboldt County were sticking on their cars in the run-up to the 2010 weed-legalization ballot measures
The world behind the "Redwood Curtain," as locals refer to it, is unique in the US. Shops and restaurants admit their survival depends on the cash that weed brings to the area, and nail salons have been set up to cater to the area’s emerging group of young women—known as "pot princesses" (or, behind their backs, "potstitutes")—who date the rich marijuana bosses. As one grower put it, "The legalization of marijuana will be the single most devastating economic bust in the long boom-and-bust history of Northern California."
Of course, there are problems with basing an entire economy around an illegal activity. Police raids, although less frequent than they were in the 1980s, can sweep up a family’s entire harvest, and there's plenty of opportunities for gun-toting thieves who prey on grow operations. In one recent raid, a couple in their 60s were relieved of seven pounds of processed marijuana—along with several guns and thousands of dollars in cash—when gunmen turned up at their home. Of the 38 murders that occurred in Humboldt between 2004 and 2012, 23 were drug-related.
To find out more about this secretive narco-economy, I spoke to journalist Emily Brady, who spent a year living behind the Redwood Curtain for her book, Humboldt: Life on America’s Marijuana Frontier.
A grow op in Humboldt.
VICE: How did Humboldt become so dominated by weed?
Emily Brady: During the late 60s and early 70s, some of the young, counterculture hippies from Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco got into the "back-to-the-land" movement, which was all about migrating out of the city, growing your own food, and building your own homes. A lot of them moved to Northern California. When they got to Humboldt they found this beautiful place where land was cheap, and they built little shacks. The hippies liked to smoke pot, and some took the seeds from their Mexican weed and put them in the ground alongside their vegetables.
Around this time, the US government sponsored a marijuana crop-spraying initiative in Mexico, where most of America’s weed supply came from at the time. So the hippies began to grow weed, first for themselves, and then to sell to their friends back in the city. Humboldt’s marijuana industry started just as the area’s logging industry was going into decline. At first, most of the hippies were broke and living on welfare.
When did it turn into the large-scale operation that we know it as today?
What really changed Humboldt’s fledgling marijuana industry was the introduction of the sinsemilla ("seedless" in Spanish) growing technique, where you pull out all the male plants. What happens is the females get sexually frustrated, so to speak, and produce lots of resin in hopes of catching the male pollen. The resin contains THC, which gets you high. Sinsemilla is stronger, and you get more money for it, so soon everyone started growing it. There wasn't a lot of blowback from the government in the 1970s because the war on drugs hadn't started, so people thought it was an easy way of making a living in the woods.
Many of the ranchers and loggers migrated into the marijuana industry because they could see it was a good opportunity. At first, there was this culture clash between the relatively clean-cut, churchgoing rancher types and the hippies with their long hair and seemingly loose morals. But then you started to see bumper stickers on pickup trucks saying, "Another Logger Gone to Pot." A lot of the loggers still wanted to be loggers, but there was no work, so growing pot was a way to stay in the area they loved.
A marijuana grow in one of Humboldt's forests
What’s Humboldt like?
It’s a beautiful, wild, sparsely populated faraway place. When you drive north from San Francisco, you go through a redwood forest, and you really feel like you have crossed the frontier. A lot of the people there are super independent—they live outside of the electricity grid, use solar panels and wind power. They built their own schools; some are volunteer teachers. They even minted their own money. It’s not really in use, but there was a movement to have their own coins. It is the most independent place I have found in the States.
And what’s a "hipneck"?
This is the name for the amazing hybrid of hippie and redneck, the children of hippies and loggers, who have become more common since the marijuana industry helped bridge the cultural divide. A typical hipneck is a country boy or girl with a name like Sunny Sky or Rainbow, who wears branded jeans and drives a pickup truck to their very large marijuana grow.
How embedded is marijuana in everyday life there?
It was a real surprise for me that there was this place where the economy was entirely dependent on pot. Old grannies, housewives, whole families make a living farming pot. In Humboldt, the currency is cash or marijuana. It’s everywhere. I went to a school fundraising event, and they were auctioning off bubble bags (which are used to make hash from plants) along with knitted scarves and baskets of tomatoes. It’s such an ingrained part of the culture some of the schools and the fire department even give out marijuana plants for community members to grow to raise money for them. One big grower I spent time with, a volunteer fireman, worked for a man who earned about $1 million a year from pot. Years back, even a former deputy sheriff of Humboldt County was caught growing a load of pot in his retirement. But people aren’t stoned all the time there—it’s mainly the tourists and seasonal workers who are getting stoned.
Police seizing a big bunch of weed.
I’ve heard that even the local radio station is in on it?
Yes, the radio station, KMUD, broadcasts community-service announcements for the growers whenever anti-drug police have been spotted in the area. When someone spots police helicopters or a convoy heading up a dirt road, they call into the radio station to report it, and the announcer will broadcast the exact time and location the police have been spotted. A lot of the adverts on KMUD are for things like products to take resin off your fingers, and there’s a lot of chat about growing techniques.
You met Bob, southern Humboldt’s straight-laced sheriff. What did he think about all the weed in the area?
It’s accepted by the local police, including Bob, that growing is what people do there. But Bob tried to stick to the rules and seize plants from people who couldn't show a medical marijuana growing license. Everyone knows that growing for the medical market is mostly a ruse in California, because it’s mainly for the black market. Bob would get frustrated with people taking advantage of the medical law in front of his eyes. "I’m so sick of dealing with this pot shit!" he would tell me. You have this strange situation in Humboldt where the cop, Bob, wants legalization, but most of the growers are against it.
Who distributes the crops outside Humboldt?
Dealers are respected members of the community. They are seen as ambassadors to the outside world. They deal with the person from the city and take the risk of being busted, or cheated, or worse. When one of Humboldt’s main dealers died a few years back, there was a huge outpouring at the funeral because he was the one who moved the pot and helped bring money into the community. One dealer I know is a former logger, an honest, kind, and generous man whose father is a decorated World War II veteran in his 80s who also grows pot.
Local weed being processed
What effect would legalization have on Humboldt?
As long as it’s illegal federally, there will always be a black market. Since growing plants for medical marijuana became legal, the market has become flooded and pot prices have gone down. But full recreational legalization would mean the price would fall even farther. A friend of mine made $6,000 a pound in the early 90s, and now earns about $1,200 a pound. If the black market that Humboldt relies upon disappears, there is speculation that pot could go as low as $500 a pound.
Is everyone against legalization?
No, the community is divided. About 60 percent voted against it, and 40 percent for it. One woman I met, who moved to Humboldt as part of the back-to-the-land movement in the 70s and took up marijuana farming, voted for legalization because, although it was her livelihood, she wants the plant to be freed from the law. But her son voted against it, because he’s totally dependent on it for a living and he doesn’t know what else he would do; he’s never had a bank account, paid taxes, or trained in anything. All he knows is how to grow good weed.
What will people do if it’s legalized?
Many people are freaked out that the economy and the market are going to crash, and they don’t know what they're going to do for money. People fear that this industry—which they have built with their hands, literally scraped out of the earth—is going to be taken from them, just like alcohol production was taken away from the moonshiners after alcohol prohibition. They are worried they won’t have a place in this new legal world. They're scared they will have to move back to the city and abandon their homesteads and their land. Some will keep growing pot, because that’s what they know and they’ll have to grow more and it will be harder to earn a living.
Others are really excited about the opportunities for branding and tourism that would come with legalization. Some people can’t wait to hang a little sign in front of their house saying “Marijuanarie Open for Business.” They aim to capitalize on Humboldt’s storied history and its brand. I also think some of the big growers will find a way to position themselves to benefit from the legal system and remain successful.
But for the sake of most of the growers in Humboldt, I hope there is a market out there for the organic, outdoor grown marijuana that made them famous, because it’s difficult to make a living in rural America these days. They are the wealthiest farmers in history, but only because what they farm is illegal.
Max Daly is the co-author of Narcomania: How Britain Got Hooked on Drugs. Follow him on Twitter: @Narcomania