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Marijuana growers upend hard-luck California town

They flock to Hayfork in Trinity County to bask in the sunny, cool climate and the looser laws on medical pot farming and possession.

November 01, 2009|Alana Semuels

HAYFORK, CALIF. — Education has long been preached as a way to keep kids away from drugs. It's the walk to school that has Supt. Tom Barnett worried.

This hardscrabble Northern California town has become a hotbed for medical marijuana farming. Kids stroll much of the year past pungent plants flourishing in gardens and alleys. The red-and-black-clad Timberjacks football team moved its halftime huddle on a recent Friday night to avoid the odor of marijuana smoke wafting over the gridiron from nearby houses. Some students talk openly of farming pot after graduation -- about the only opportunity in this depressed timber town.

"It's not a subculture here," said Barnett, who heads the Mountain Valley Unified School District. "Marijuana is drying in their houses. It's falling out of their pockets."

Los Angeles isn't the only place struggling with repercussions unleashed by its permissive medical marijuana laws. Here in Trinity County, cannabis cultivation is upending the rural culture and economy of one of the state's most hard-luck regions.

Drawn by the sunny, cool climate -- and a local ordinance permissive of medical marijuana farming and possession -- big-city refugees have brought a decidedly urban edge to hamlets such as Hayfork, about 60 miles west of Redding.

This town has no stoplights. No home mail delivery. Nearly a quarter of its 1,900 residents are poor. But that hasn't stopped outsiders from bidding up the price of real estate with sun-soaked southern exposures, all the better to cultivate plants that can grow 12 feet high or taller.

The sheriff's office estimates 10,000 plants are growing in a single remote subdivision known as Trinity Pines. Lots on its southwest-facing slope sell for as much as $50,000, up from about $3,500 five years ago, according to Steven Hanover, an area real estate broker.

Fall harvest season brings strangers with dreadlocks and cash boxes. Some farmers guard their crops with electric fences, razor wire and snarling dogs. Hikers have been threatened at gunpoint for wandering too close to where they aren't wanted.

"It's just torn the fabric of our society," said Judy Stewart, a 69-year-old retiree who has lived in Trinity County for more than 50 years. "It's pitted people against one another."

'Pot paradise'

How Trinity County, a sprawling, lightly populated area twice the size of Rhode Island, came to be dubbed "Northern California's pot paradise" by High Times magazine is a story of law, lawlessness and geography.

Just a little more than 14,000 residents are spread across its 3,000 square miles. People live as they like in its mountains thick with trees, separated from civilization by windy roads and "No Trespassing" signs. For decades, that's made it easy for some residents to grow marijuana without much interference.

Trinity County has "always been a pot county. Our climate in these little mountain valleys is conducive to great cannabis," said Mike Boutin, who runs Grace Farm, a collective in the western part of the county. He said he originally moved there to grow and sell medical marijuana on the black market. He now cultivates it legally because of California's Proposition 215.

Known as the Compassionate Use Act, that statewide ballot initiative approved by voters in 1996 allowed patients suffering from cancer, glaucoma and other illnesses, as well as their caregivers, to grow and possess the drug to ease their discomfort.

Concerns by patients and law enforcement that the law was too ambiguous prompted the Legislature in 2003 to clarify just how much pot could be grown legally. California guidelines currently allow half a pound of dried marijuana and six mature or 12 immature plants for patients who obtain a doctor's recommendation. In addition, the law gave cities and counties flexibility to adopt more generous guidelines. Trinity in 2007 upped its limits to 12 mature pot plants, 24 immature plants and 3 pounds of dried weed -- a policy that was later revoked after residents complained.

State law also permits nonprofit cultivation cooperatives where patients can, in effect, pool individual plant limits. That opened the way for large growing operations like Grace Farm, which has 20 members from across the state.

Grace Farm family

Among them is Jacqueline Patterson, 31, who uses marijuana to treat her cerebral palsy and a severe stutter. The single mother of four lives in publicly subsidized housing in Marin County. She fears she would be booted from the program if she tried to grow dope at home or buy it from street dealers. She travels to Trinity twice a year to pick up 3 pounds of marijuana, which she gets free in exchange for working for the co-op. The collective charges most patients about $170 an ounce.

The arrangement has allowed her "to acquire medicine affordably," said Patterson, who moved in 2007 from Missouri, where medical marijuana is illegal. "Grace Farm has really given me more of a family out here in California."

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