The Cannabis Frontier
Every animal and plant has its unique environmental niche, a particular set of conditions that promotes growth, survival, and reproduction. Cannabis species are generalists: they don’t have many climatic restrictions. Farmers grow it industrially from Russia to Australia, and I’ve found a wild cultivar among the amaranth, yarrow, and other weeds in irrigation ditches in the Great Plains. Like other fast-growing plants, it does well in full sun and with plenty of water. Unlike most generalists, though, it doesn’t grow just anywhere.
Drive north from San Francisco, through the Redwood Curtain, turn east away from the coast and the fog belt, and you will find some of the best land for growing cannabis in the country. This is the Emerald Triangle, the parts of Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity Counties nearly impossible for law enforcement to patrol. Species like cannabis that thrive away from the gaze of the state have a particular story to tell—about ecology, but also about the limits of state power, the way our economy works, and the small frontiers left in America.
I moved from Berkeley to Eureka with my wife in 2012 to start teaching ecology at Humboldt State. It took some time for us to notice how the pot economy saturated the region’s lives and landscapes. What we did not need time to notice was the isolation. Up here, the only high-speed Internet line is buried along the road, and when it was cut—deliberately, I’ve heard, by a disgruntled AT&T employee—credit card systems across the county went down. There used to be a railroad, but the floods in the Eel River drainage took care of that, floods helped by erosion thanks to a century of timber harvest and overgrazing. You can still buy an Amtrak ticket, but you’ll end up on a bus. Humboldt Bay, the only deep-water port between San Francisco and Coos Bay, Oregon, lay undiscovered by Europeans until 1806. The hills on the other side of the Bay were just high enough to appear, through the fog, like a continuation of the North and South spits. What I’m saying is, it’s hard to get into and out of here.
This isolation is central to cannabis production. Understanding pot’s role in the local culture—a culture that the state’s voters appear poised to upend—requires sifting through rumors and myths and hearsay, so let me first offer just a few facts. The Emerald Triangle is about 10,000 square miles. It’s the size of Massachusetts, but Massachusetts doesn’t have mountains 8,000 feet high. My guess is if you stretched out the available land surface from this region into a flat plain, you’d get something more like Kansas. (Somebody should ask John McPhee.) The census counts about 236,000 people living here, or 23 people per square mile. That places us between Nebraska and Idaho for human density, but still doesn’t capture the ups and downs of the Coast Range or the Marble Mountains or the Trinity Alps, or the “cities” of Eureka (pop. 27,000), Arcata (17,000), or Ukiah (16,000). The Bigfoot story is unimaginable for most people who know every road in their town. How could mammalogists miss something so large? It wasn’t until this decade that Hoopa, California (3,000), got standardized road names and address numbers from the U.S. Postal Service. Other places still go without.
It should be obvious why this became the destination for the back-to-the-land movement. The dream was to buy a little parcel of land nestled into the Coast Range north of Petrolia, where you could find good growing conditions, nice weather, and Big Sur views without the Big Sur gawkers. When people started to learn how hard it was to subsist, the isolation offered a safe opportunity to cultivate cannabis, a cash crop protected from competition by the very laws designed to prevent its growth. I’m told many growers in those days came to find moral purpose in their work, seeing themselves as providing a palliative that many people desperately needed but were unfairly denied. From these humble beginnings emerged the nation’s cannabis capital.
Is pot legal today in California? Not really. Its cultivation, distribution, and possession are, of course, federal crimes. And, in 2010, California rejected Proposition 19, an effort to legalize recreational cannabis, by a margin of 53-47 percent, with Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity Counties all voting “no.” But back in 1996, voters approved Proposition 215—the nation’s first medical marijuana program. Seven years later, Governor Gray Davis signed Senate Bill 420 (yes, seriously) to create ID cards for patients. Under state law, it’s legal to grow and possess cannabis for personal use if you have a card, but the growth and distribution system is a mess. Legal growers must have a card, supply only a collective of card-carrying buyers, and sell to dispensaries. Few satisfy those requirements, though one can spot a few on Google Earth, their greenhouse roofs spray-painted “215 LEGAL” for the sheriff’s planes flying overhead in lazy circles.
Even fewer growers comply with the local, county, and state environmental regulations. Resource managers take pains to distinguish between private grows and trespass grows. Private land was cheap in the Emerald Triangle for a long time. On private grows, environmental violations are mostly related to timber removal and water use—taking water that’s not yours and dumping soil and fertilizer that shouldn’t be there. Eat lunch on the patio of the Benbow Inn on a summer day and, through the oaks, you will spot a steady stream of big rigs hauling pallets of fertilizer and empty water-storage tanks north. Get gas in Willow Creek early enough in the morning and watch them pull into the gardening store and unload directly into the back of people’s pickups. You can’t swim much in the Eel River anymore because it’s mostly dry by August and the few remaining holes are covered in toxic blue-green algae. (Algae, too, has its own niche: warm water high in nutrients, like those supplied by agricultural runoff.)
Other growers have ranged into the heart of our public lands. The Mendocino, Shasta-Trinity, Six Rivers, and Klamath National Forests form a continuous strip in some of the most remote parts of the region, but you can’t simply hike ten miles into the backcountry, cut down an acre of trees, and put up a greenhouse. On public land, plants are grown under the shade of big trees. Small mammals and deer are a nuisance—they will eat the leaves and the roots of the plants, they gnaw on the irrigation lines, and when they’re not interfering with garden infrastructure, they go for your food. Building fences is impractical, so trespass grows rely on astonishing amounts of Brodifacoum and other heavily regulated or banned rodenticides, which then seeps into the food chain. Researchers have documented it in woodrats and the spotted owls and fishers that eat the rats.
Cannabis thrives in the crevices of state power, and it’s all crevices up here. Estimates are hard to come by, but given the state of the timber and fisheries economy, I don’t think it would surprise anybody if cannabis were the number one employer in the region. Unlike legal businesses, which provide troves of data to the state about employment and revenue, there are no systems in place to understand exactly how much money comes from, or how many people work in, the cannabis industry. Where traditional measures have failed, the state has increasingly turned to new technology for monitoring. California Department of Fish & Wildlife employees relied on Google Earth to map outdoor grows and greenhouses in four watersheds in the area, estimating 20,000 to 30,000 plants in each watershed, and a reduction in streamflow of over 20% (although comments on our local on-line gossip rag took issue with some of their estimates). Now mapping grows from aerial and satellite imagery has become a game, Weed or No Weed.
Although the state has little access to reliable measures, the patterns of this economy aren’t hard to detect in daily life. Last week I was driving down US-101 by Garberville and kept getting intermittent whiffs of pot. I was quite confused until I realized there was a U-Haul, driven by a young man with headphones on, keeping pace. When some friends moved recently, the rental van they picked up also reeked of weed, so they phoned the U-Haul office to make sure they didn’t get blamed. U-Haul’s response: “Call me when you get one that doesn’t.” We’ve grown inured to the smell, as well as to bizarre headlines: “Second K-9 Officer Stabbed While Working Trinity County Marijuana Raids.” The two major billboards as you enter Willits advertise, first, organic soil and, second, the detrimental impacts weed can have on developing brains. Our local summer-league baseball team had to hire a new manager when the old one was arrested for cultivation. A husband and wife team of ecologists studying the effects of the pesticides growers use lost their dog when somebody tossed a piece of steak dipped in Brodifacoum into their backyard.
The hardest of the economy’s signals to miss is the legal war. The Obama Administration promised a stand-down on cannabis prosecutions in states that had approved medical marijuana. Yet in 2011, U.S. District Attorneys in California charged people across the supply chain, from growers to dispensaries. Prosecutions don’t just happen at the federal level. County sheriffs, in cooperation with state and federal authorities, spend most of their summers raiding illegal grow sites. Because nobody knows what a legal grow site looks like, every grow is vulnerable. Most people estimate that about 1% of grows are raided every year, and that vulnerability isn’t spread evenly through the system. Law enforcement says that they’re focusing on the largest grows, but I don’t have any reason to think that this system is exempt from the typical ways that political and economic power often protect particular classes from prosecution. We need scholarship on the extent to which the area’s large Latino, Hmong, and Native communities, among others, are disproportionately targeted.
Growers come in all shapes and sizes. At a coffee shop in downtown Garberville a few months ago, I stood in line behind a man in his early forties who looked better equipped to run a couple of bars in Brooklyn. With a well-trimmed beard and expensive t-shirt and jeans, he was ordering iced coffee and on the phone advising somebody about how to get the right water permits. Three young men joined him in line, speaking French to each other and English to the cashier about where to take the bucket of Ecstasy they had. Two of them competed to pay the bill from their thick roll of cash. The one who lost left a $20 tip. Conspicuous consumption must be difficult for a generation of cannabis executives. It’s fun to watch the folks in flip-flops at Costco buying a couple of flat screen TVs with fifteen crisp hundred dollar bills, but these purchases don’t quite shape the community here like those of the last boom time.
Money is to an economy what nutrients are to an ecosystem. The more robust or diverse an ecosystem is, the longer those nutrients are shared across a complicated food web, and the longer it takes for them to be flushed downstream. So it goes with cash in the economy. The timber barons who lived in Eureka built things locally: museums, theaters, and public libraries. During a downturn in San Francisco construction, one redirected his idle loggers to building the extraordinary Carson Mansion. It’s hard to say where the money flows from cannabis, but apart from those brief trips to Costco, it’s not being taxed. The industry has embarked on an enormous private works project over the past two decades, building roads, damming rivers, digging irrigation canals, subdividing timber and ranch parcels, grading hills. All of this has necessarily taken place beyond the purview of the state. All of this is literally off the map. The economics and the infrastructure of this place is an experiment in libertarian ideals.
So what’s actually going on this November? There will be an initiative on the ballot to fully legalize cannabis in California. Perhaps in anticipation of this—or perhaps embarrassed by the progress other states have already made—California has finally decided to modernize its medical marijuana laws. Each county has been tasked with drafting a commercial medical marijuana ordinance. Humboldt County is launching a farm-to-vaporizer track and trace program using encrypted stamps on each unique shipment. This ordinance, like most, was developed in a hurry. The one major requirement was that it not require a full review under the California Environmental Quality Act—something that would take years and millions of dollars, something that everybody in the county knew would put the industry behind other counties in the state in promoting the cannabis economy. Make the ordinance too strict and grower organizations would either sue or, worse, ignore it entirely. Too loose and the environmental organizations would file suit.
So, here we are. Growers are being asked to apply to the county for permits for their cultivation sites and apply to natural resource agencies for permits for timber removal, road construction, and water use. There’s a strong grandfather clause in the legislation to encourage early adopters: you can continue to grow in ways that may not be approved for cannabis in the future (on land zoned for timber production, for example) as long as you register before the deadline and demonstrate you’ve been doing so in the past. As California begins to normalize the weed economy, those involved will have to judge whether they trust the system enough to come into compliance.
And it all sort of seems to be working. The county is receiving so many permit applications that the planning department complains about understaffing. Over the summer, employees sent a signed letter about being overworked to the point of mental and emotional duress. These applications are not easy to review. Site visits ensure compliance, but most of the permit applications include, at best, addresses that don’t even exist, or vague descriptions based on local landmarks. How do you get to a grow when the road has never been documented? Go on Google Maps and identify the newly built ribbon of dirt, load it onto your phone, and hope there are no locked gates or major ditches designed to keep people out. Ensuring people follow the regulations they promise to follow is another matter.
The fear in northern California is that we’re undergoing a state change in our economy. Despite the violence, despite the harm to the environment, the cannabis economy has provided a relatively stable engine for the past four decades. Legalization in other states has caused greater demand. Nobody knows what’s going to happen when the medical ordinance takes full effect or if—let’s be honest, when—recreational marijuana is legalized in California, let alone at the federal level. Our hope, a cliché, is that we become the “Napa of weed.” Another path is industrialization. The only benefit to growing cannabis in northern California is its isolation, away from the seeing eye of the state. Remove that advantage, and what do we have? A history and a culture that might sell well with certain demographics, and an impressive array of experts at cultivating strains and processing secondary products. But the experts can relocate for the right price and anything can be labeled “Humboldt Grown.” A Los Angeles-based company just recently registered a trademark on its “hmbldt” brand.
You can see this anxiety and concern yourself. Humboldt County posts its public hearings online, dozens of hours of video that will be invaluable documents for some historian—sooner rather than later, I hope. Watch as a steady stream of growers come to critique the ordinance. The growers’ understanding of the market and their interest in getting it right is astounding. Every detail, from the precise number of square feet of industrial growing space allowed to whether cannabis could be classified as a forest product (and thus eligible to be grown in Timber Production Zones), was debated at packed public hearings.
Modernization can be jarring. In the early 1800s, New York hired John Randel Jr. to survey and set out a grid of streets for the burgeoning city. The locals living in the rural parts of Manhattan above Houston Street were not happy. They threatened Randel and his team, threw melons at them, and at least once imprisoned them. The work of making this country legible to the government is, unbelievably, not yet finished in northwestern California. The economy itself is illegible. The people involved are unknown. The streets they live on unnamed.
This is not a story about college students who want to get stoned—although it is that, too. This is a story about the ways the state envelops anything useful to it. Cannabis normalization here is a wedge by which the counties and the state can finally modernize and understand the rural landscape. Restrictive drug laws that have been useful as tools of oppression are, locally, more useful as a driver of economic activity. We don’t have much up here except for natural beauty. The tourists come to stretch their legs, and their necks, beneath the tall trees. And then they leave. Resource extraction—salmon, gold, trees—has always put people to work. Cannabis, the resource that thrived on isolation, might finally close our frontier.
Featured image: A dried cannabis bud. Image from Creative Commons.
Tim Bean is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Wildlife at Humboldt State University. He combines time-honored natural history approaches with novel spatial methods to understand the past, present, and future of where species occur and why. Website. Twitter. Contact.
Fantastic piece and writing, Tim.
You move between a livelihoods perspective that critiques legalization with an ecological one that challenges the impacts of unregulated production. This mixed interpretation is a good representation of the different opinions and challenges that abound on this issue. Also, your ecology-to-economy metaphors are lovely.
However, you weave a “sad loss of a wild frontier to government subjugation” narrative throughout the piece (beautifully, and effectively, I’ll add), starting and ending with this thread, but I don’t see anything in your piece that validates such a position besides the need to give place names that allow registration. Is that really too high a cost, and too much a loss of wilderness, for the removal of cartels, unregulated poisons/pesticides/fertilizers/water diversion, feral dogs, and the widespread fear of hikers to leave a trail in state and national parks in NorCal?
Thanks, Justin. I guess I don’t totally think that a loss of “wilderness” is necessarily a sad thing (or, of course, a dichotomy that’s always realistic). I do want to think about the ways that violence, disorder, and just plain old wackiness are often tied to a lack of government oversight – and, conversely, the fact that government regulation often reduces many of the negative things you bring up. In an earlier, longer, draft of this piece, I discussed the fact that this region has been marred by violence for a long time, well before cannabis made its way to the region. I think that violence is tied into the way we think about frontiers in America, regardless of how accurate that narrative is.
I’m also interested in how we conceive of wilderness here. The hills are much more densely settled than the state thinks they are. There are more roads than the TIGER lines database thinks there are. There’s more electricity (mostly generators) and water storage than we think there are. Is it still a wilderness just because we haven’t mapped it? What kind of wilderness experience does a hiker get if they’re afraid to leave the trail? The recent papers mapping pot farms are eye opening for exactly that reason: the places in the state that we thought had been set aside thanks to a century of environmental action turn out to have been converted to highly productive farmland. The rate at which we map things is often tied into our economic interest in doing so.
I see two futures. There’s one in which the cannabis economy continues to be the economic engine for the region, but now the government participates with the money it takes in from taxation. That money would contribute in a more traditional way to building a modern supply chain – not just naming roads but paving them, increasing the electrical, water and information infrastructure, improving airport access for tourists, etc.. Without all of the things that create an efficient delivery system, I don’t see how this area could compete with better connected agricultural areas in the state. Phillip Morris is not delivering cartons of cigarettes by U-Haul. You see that in the current debate up here over whether to vote for Prop 64, where opponents are arguing that growers need even more economic protectionism to keep the industry viable (ignoring the decades of tax-free profits they’ve already received). The other future, then, is one in which cannabis leaves the area. In that case, the infrastructure that has been built will, eventually, be consumed back into the earth. And, in a pretty classic American tale, what was once “wilderness” becomes so again.
My shorter answer is that I think isolation is a critical ingredient in this illicit markets but poisonous for a vibrant, state-sanctioned one. I don’t think the Emerald Triangle can remain both isolated and competitive.