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Trinity County Pot Farmer 'Comes Out of Closet' to Test New Law

Drugs: Voter-passed initiative permitting marijuana use for medicinal purposes emboldens grower to take public stand. He tells Board of Supervisors about his crop.

May 25, 1997|MARTHA IRVINE | ASSOCIATED PRESS

DENNY, Calif. — Just about everyone for miles around this Northern California town has known for years that B.E. Smith was raising marijuana in the backwoods.

And if they didn't, they do now.

Smith brazenly announced that fact--and his intention to plant more than an acre of marijuana for medical purposes by midsummer--to the somewhat bewildered Trinity County supervisors in April.

"You could say I'm coming out of the closet," said a chuckling Smith, a self-proclaimed freedom fighter and avid pot smoker who has twice run for county sheriff.

In November, California voters legalized the cultivation and possession of marijuana for medical use. And now, the 50-year-old pot farmer envisions the day when marijuana will be grown in wide-open fields, "like hay" or any other legal cash crop.

"We could do for marijuana what Napa Valley has done for wine," Smith said, standing on the small plot where he plans to grow his crop.

Few growers are willing to speak as openly as Smith. But he's not the only one who thinks medicinal marijuana will reshape the "Emerald Triangle," the Northern California pot-growing region of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties.

For years, the region's dense forests and steep hillsides have provided the perfect cover for clandestine marijuana patches.

Pot is so common that locals say bags are traded for groceries or even a country doctor's advice. It is widely considered the Emerald Triangle's top cash crop and ranks with tourism as one of the region's major industries.

Proposition 215, as the marijuana referendum was known, gives dope growers "a place to stand and walk from," a 26-year-old Eureka pot grower says.

This particular grower has contracts to sell most of his harvest to a new club in nearby Arcata that distributes plants and marijuana to patients. But his wish to remain anonymous illustrates the confusion over just who may grow the otherwise illegal drug under the new law.

"It's a wide-open situation," said Ray Raphael, a Humboldt County writer and the author of "Cash Crop," a sociological analysis of Northern California's pot industry. "Nobody knows what will happen."

Prosecutors in the Emerald Triangle say they're not interested in going after legitimately ill people growing their own pot. But they don't believe Proposition 215 allows just anyone to produce medicinal marijuana.

Did Proposition 215 "in fact mean that Californians wanted a general relaxing of marijuana laws?" asked Terry Farmer, Humboldt County's district attorney. "If that's going to be true . . . they need to say so. Right now, we have to take them at their word."

Jim Woods, a deputy district attorney in Trinity County, said the law allows growing marijuana by patients or a caregiver, someone designated to look after the patient's "housing, health or safety."

Regardless, cannabis club organizers statewide are operating under the assumption that they are caregivers--and San Francisco's Cannabis Cultivator's Club has gotten a lower court judge in Oakland to back them up.

With the recent federal raid on San Francisco's Flower Therapy pot club, authorities show few signs of giving in. But even some state agencies admit that the issue of growing medicinal marijuana is tricky. That includes the California Department of Justice, which helps oversee the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, or CAMP.

Each summer, teams of law enforcement officials descend upon the Emerald Triangle in helicopters, ripping up marijuana plants. Last year, they destroyed 94,000 plants statewide.

But would the state Department of Justice consider leaving B.E. Smith's pot alone? Agency spokesman Michael Van Winkle hesitated.

"What does that mean on a case-to-case basis? I'm not sure we've had enough cases to know," Van Winkle said.

More than anything, law enforcement officials say they don't want to see a return to the violence that once plagued the Emerald Triangle, which led one law enforcement official to describe Denny, where Smith lives, as "the most lawless town in America."

Some wonder, for example, whether a call to lower the price of marijuana for patients might cause problems. Right now, marijuana sells for about $5,000 a pound, a price that has long boosted a Northern California economy hurt by the dwindling timber and fishing industries.

Smith and other growers who have contracts with cannabis clubs statewide say they will sell it to them for as little as $500 a pound.

"We don't get greedy up here," said Smith, who plans to grow 1,000 pounds of pot. "We just make a living."

Raphael doesn't see the price-slashing as causing any problems.

"Marijuana growing is so decentralized, it lends itself to zero mob activity," he said. ". . . So if there is any pressure, it'd be very idiosyncratic and done by a few raving individuals."

In fact, he said, most marijuana growers voted for Proposition 215. In Honeydew and northern Humboldt County--areas rife with pot farms--nearly 80% of voters favored the measure.

For his part, Smith said, he decided to grow medicinal marijuana to ease his conscience and to appease his wife, Mary, who says growing pot for recreational uses "is not something a Christian would be involved in."

"I'm sick of it," Mary Smith said as she sat in the couple's two-story cabin. "I've seen good people go to jail that were just trying to make a living and live in the mountains."

Smith smiled and took a hit off a loosely rolled joint, part of a daily ritual that he says converts him from "a John Wayne to a Timothy Leary."

Despite his habit, this skinny mountain man still intends to be sheriff one day. But for now, he wants to offer pain relief--instead of an end to all pain, promised by a well-known Michigan doctor.

"Call me instead of Dr. K," Smith said, tipping his black cowboy hat.

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