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What Will the End of Secret Marijuana Mean for Growers in Humboldt?

In Humboldt County — the weed-growing capital of America — some growers are hoping that greater transparency (and more legal protections for farmers) can make the marijuana industry safer, better, and more honest.

By Zach St. George


Humboldt’s cannabis industry began in the 1970s. Originally planted as a way to make extra money on the side, cannabis eventually grew to be what is likely the county’s biggest industry. (Photo: Zach St. George)

Kym Kemp says that she frequently gets people asking her to call the cops for them. “They’ll call and say, ‘Hey Kym, there’s a guy in the grocery store who’s on the most-wanted list — can you call law enforcement?’” she says. Kemp is an independent reporter in southern Humboldt County, where her blog — Redheaded Blackbelt — is one of the main sources for local news. As a reporter, she talks regularly with the police, which sets her apart from many of her neighbors. “They’re basically good citizens, and they care about the community,” she says of the callers. “But they do this one thing: They grow marijuana.”

Kemp’s informal role as police liaison, though, may slowly be coming to an end. Encouraged — and pushed — by new state and local laws, people here in Humboldt are beginning to venture out of the woods, speaking openly for the first time about an occupation that many of them have held for decades. This summer, Humboldt residents submitted more than 2,000 registration forms to the Humboldt County Building and Planning Department’s Cannabis Services Division, the first step in setting up a legally approved cannabis-related business in the county. As reported by local news blog the Lost Coast Outpost, the list of registrees included a planning commissioner, a harbor commissioner, a prominent local construction company, an accountant, a realtor, and a farmer whose sheep bear champion wool. Although some of the names were a surprise, the list mostly confirmed what residents have long known to be true: Here in Humboldt, growing weed is normal. But for the people who have been at it for decades, it’s also meant living as a criminal.

The county’s cannabis business began in the early 1970s, when hippies, activists, and environmentalists from the Bay Area and elsewhere flocked to Humboldt’s lumber towns, looking for a simpler, rural life. Growing weed was originally a side gig, a means to an end, says Sunshine Johnston, whose family arrived from San Luis Obispo County in 1980. “People I grew up with took their money from growing and saved redwoods,” she says. “It paid for their activism, paid for their artwork.” Money from growing cannabis allowed her mom to stay home while Johnston was young, she says. “It was about creating a better society and culture and world.”

But for many people, it became the main occupation. In an ironic way, it was the United States’ global war on drugs that transformed cannabis from a garden supplement into Humboldt’s major export crop, as University of Washington political geographer Dominic Corva wrote in a 2014 paper — law enforcement’s success at squashing cannabis production elsewhere boosted its price in Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity counties. This, in turn, made growers there a target.

In 1983, California launched its Campaign Against Marijuana Planting. Funded principally by the Drug Enforcement Administration, CAMP was a coordination of previous drug eradication efforts by the Forest Service, the Internal Revenue Service, the California Highway Patrol, Fish and Game, the Bureau of Land Management, and other state and federal agencies. Every year, for eight weeks beginning in August, the CAMP helicopters would descend on the Humboldt hills. The raids mirrored the militaristic approach of drug eradication efforts in Central and South America, Corva wrote, and helped cement the region’s distrustful mindset. People in the area could get greedy, Johnston says, sometimes criminally so. “There were people in our neighborhood that really should’ve been called out,” she says. But growing weed meant that community members were on one side and the police were on another. People either dealt with problems among themselves or tried to ignore them.

In 1996, California voters passed the Compassionate Use Act, better known here by its legal shorthand, Proposition 215. An amendment to the state’s health and safety code, the law legalized the medicinal use of cannabis, and started Humboldt’s growers on the road to legality. But the law created more questions than it answered, says Steve Lazar — questions such as who was allowed to grow cannabis, how much they could grow, where they could grow, how it would be distributed, and so on. “Two-Fifteen didn’t have all those devilish details,” he says. Lazar is a senior planner at the Humboldt County Planning and Building Department, and is head of the newly formed Cannabis Services Division. Over time, the answers were filled in through case law, he says, but the piecemeal result left the county in a hard position, wary of getting sued for trampling people’s right to their medicine and unable to effectively regulate cultivation.

Neighbors often alert one another when an outsider drives into the area, sometimes aided in this effort by metal detectors they’ve buried in the road.

Prop 215 similarly clouded the situation for law enforcement. Medical recommendations didn’t necessarily prevent the police from cutting down people’s crops or seizing their stash, but it often made it harder to prosecute them for it. “It used to be, if there’s marijuana, it’s a felony,” says William Honsal, second in command at the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office. “We’d go in and arrest people. Now with Two-Fifteen, there’s always that defense — ‘I had one thousand plants because it’s my personal medicine.’” Further squeezed by tight budgets and over-crowded prisons and jails, enforcement and prosecution of cannabis-related crime slowed. Though the Humboldt County Drug Task Force continued to seize thousands of pounds of cannabis every year, along with hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, fewer people were doing time; the incentive for law enforcement to give chase fell away even as the black market remained intact.

At the same time, it began to seem that outright legalization was around the corner. Many in the county worried that prices for their crop, already falling, would plummet. In 2010, Humboldt voted with the state against Proposition 19, which would’ve legalized recreational use, but many locals assumed it would only be a matter of time. Slackened enforcement, falling prices per pound, plus the sudden feeling that it all might be fleeting led many people to grow more plants than ever before (to “blow up,” as Humboldters say). Many newcomers arrived, too, people who saw the chance to get rich quick, many of whom didn’t share the back-to-the-landers’ environmental ideals or feelings of responsibility toward local communities. “In the last three years, it’s doubled, if not tripled,” Honsal says. People here call it the “Green Rush.”

There was always some violence around the marijuana trade, says Patrick Murphy, a longtime cannabis farmer in the northeastern part of the county — there was simply too much money floating around for there not to be. “If you don’t have a way for people to solve financial disputes through the legal system, you’re going to have — and always have had — violence,” he says. Growers have to worry not only about being raided by the cops, but being robbed for their valuable crops. Driving through rural Humboldt today, it’s easy to see the signs — driveway after driveway protected by locked gates, security cameras, and barking dogs. People I spoke with told me neighbors often alert one another when an outsider drives into the area, sometimes aided in this effort by metal detectors they’ve buried in the road.

But Murphy says the violence has gotten worse during the Green Rush. The rate of violent crime in the county has indeed ticked steadily upward since the mid-2000s, even as national and state rates trend downward — an increase that Honsal says can be at least partly attributed to the burgeoning cannabis industry. The basic outline of these crimes will be familiar to anyone who’s spent time reading local newspapers; though the specifics change from story to story, the details are mostly interchangeable — guns, body armor, piles of cash, pounds of marijuana. Meanwhile, Humboldt’s cannabis farmers have been widely blamed for the increasingly apparent environmental destruction in the county: dry streams, unauthorized clear-cuts, runoff, pesticides, and fertilizers. Adding to the list of ills, in September of this year, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Shoshana Walter published a piece that examined the sexual abuse and rape of women working in Humboldt’s cannabis economy, mostly as trimmers. “These are vulnerable people,” one grower told me, speaking about the women described in the article — out in the middle of the woods, afraid to turn to the police, often not able to demand the money they’ve earned. “The whole way the black market is set up is very spooky,” the grower told me. And it’s not even just rape. The county, Walter points out, has the highest per-capita rate of missing persons in the state.

In September 2015, the state legislature passed three bills that required counties either to draft cannabis zoning regulations before March 2016 or cede the authority to do so to the state. For Humboldt, allowing the state such a heavy hand would mean losing local control over its dominant industry, Lazar says. A massive scramble followed — meetings with the public, with the board of supervisors, hastily written drafts and late nights. “Everything developed at a frenetic pace,” he says. In the end, the county decided to let growers register their intent to complete the permitting process, as a way to establish good standing for when the permitting process actually got underway — like the people who pay extra so they get to go to the front of the line at the Matterhorn, he says.

And then, this summer, the registrations began trickling in — 2,000-plus by the August 23rd deadline, Lazar says, including both people who want to set up a new cannabis-related businesses as well as long-time growers. In a way, Lazar says, it’s strange that so many growers registered with the county, even posting aerial photographs to prove their activities. “It’s bizarre,” he says. “They’re incriminating themselves.” But registering is also a way for growers who want to do right — for those who say their only crime was to grow cannabis — to separate themselves from the more patently criminal side of the business. The bloodshed, environmental destruction, and sexual violence dealt a blow to the growers’ collective reputation; many of the people I spoke with said they were eager to move forward into the non-black market, even if that means greater scrutiny, new taxes and paperwork, and lower prices for their crop.

The new détente has led to some strange situations, Honsal says. “Guys I busted a few years ago, I’m shaking hands with in meetings,” he says. But he remains skeptical that the county’s growers are, as a group, interested in coming fully into the open. “It’s really telling, frankly, because there’s a lot of people saying, ‘I wish there was a pathway to legitimacy,’” he says. “And then the state has given them the opportunity, the county has given them a pathway forward to become legitimate businesses, and very few farmers are actually taking that opportunity.” So far, only about a dozen growers have gone beyond the registration, completing all the paperwork and becoming fully licensed with the county. Honsal says the Sheriff’s Office will offer “incentives” — by continuing to crack down on growers operating in the black market.

Even without legal prodding, Johnston says that openly acknowledging her identity as a longtime grower has been a jarring experience. “I feel like I’m being held upside down and shaken and my pockets are emptied out,” she says. For decades, when anyone outside the community asked her what she’d done, she just told them she was a “farmer,” type unstated. It was a kind of non-identity, she says — “like, I’m not doing what I’m doing.” But she says she’s confident in what she’s doing now. “I don’t have anything to hide,” she says. “I’m just a small farmer.” She never strayed from the back-to-the-land aesthetic of the early days, she says. The only thing that’s different is that now she’s doing it in the full view of the law. It takes time, though, to change old habits. If anyone gave her trouble, Johnston says, it’d still be her neighbors she’d call first — not the cops.