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Humboldt County afraid of being uprooted from pot perch

As legalization of marijuana grows as a possibility, the Northern California enclave where weed culture thrives ponders its future. Would its pot economy wither or does greater opportunity await?

April 07, 2010|By Sam Quinones

Reporting from Garberville, Calif. — In this region renowned for potent marijuana buds, many in Humboldt County long accepted that legalizing the weed was the right thing to do.

Now some folks aren't so sure.

A statewide initiative in November would allow cities to regulate pot possession and cultivation. Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) has proposed a broader legalization. Neither is certain to pass.

Yet as medical marijuana has spread and city and state budgets are being slashed, legalized marijuana is becoming more possible than ever. That has some people here thinking twice.

Wholesale prices have dropped in the last five years -- from $4,000 a pound to below $3,000 for the best cannabis -- as medical-marijuana dispensaries have attracted a slew of new growers statewide, Humboldt growers say.

Recently, "Keep Pot Illegal" bumper stickers have been seen on cars around the county. In chat rooms and on blogs, anonymous writers predict that tobacco companies will crush small farmers and take marijuana production to the Central Valley.

With legalization, if residents don't act, "we're going to be ruined," said Anna Hamilton, a radio host on KMUD-FM (91.1) in southern Humboldt County.

In March, Hamilton organized a community meeting in Garberville addressing the question "What's After Pot?" It attracted more than 150 people, including a county supervisor, economic development consultants and business owners.

All this was unimaginable to the hippies and student radicals who came here in the 1960s and '70s, escaping a conventional world they abhorred. As marijuana's price steadily rose, it funded their escape. In time, mom-and-pop growers became experts.

The plant thrived in the tolerant climate -- cultural and geographic -- of far Northern California. Small plots got bigger. An Emerald Triangle of premium marijuana growers formed in Humboldt, Trinity and Mendocino counties until, virtually alone, they supported the economies.

Following Hamilton's lead, a meeting will be held in Ukiah, Mendocino's county seat, on April 24 to discuss "The Future of Cannabis in Northern California." Speakers include the director of the Ukiah Chamber of Commerce.

For years the plant was only a small part of the Humboldt economy, as logging and fishing provided most of the jobs.

Today, harvestable redwoods are mostly gone; so, too, the sawmills. Salmon beds are covered with silt. Marijuana stands as a major source of income, even for many whose grandparents worked the sawmills and 40 years ago railed at the pot-smoking hippies moving into their midst.

Humboldt State economists guess that marijuana accounts for between $500 million and $700 million of the county's $3.6 billion economy.

Though growing is widespread, particularly in southern Humboldt County, it remains illegal for those not connected to a medical marijuana collective. Every year growers are arrested and sent to prison. Some live in paranoid isolation, telling their children not to discuss their parents' work. Meanwhile, they've gotten used to selling a weed for thousands of dollars a pound.

Legalization could take many forms. But the conventional wisdom here is that fully legal weed might fetch no more than a few hundred dollars a pound, as more people grow it and police no longer pull up millions of plants a year.

Illegal marijuana "is the government's best agricultural price-support program ever," said Gerald Myers, a retired engineer and former volunteer fire chief who moved to the county in 1970. "If they ever want to help the wheat farmers, make wheat illegal."

On the other hand, increased demand for legal pot might buoy its price.

"If it's regulated like cigarettes, you're going to have a massive increase in demand for it, I would believe," said Erick Eschker, economics professor at Humboldt State. Either way, though, talk of legalization raises a question: Is Humboldt's competitive advantage in growing pot, or in growing pot illegally?

Plantations divert water from streams and rivers. Some growers use huge diesel generators to power greenhouses on mountainsides -- growing indoors in the outdoors. Occasional spills from these generators have devastated streams. Indoor growers, meanwhile, devour electricity. Officials estimate that 800 to 2,000 houses in Arcata are devoted partly or entirely to growing marijuana. Humboldt County is also known for its lax prosecution compared with other counties.

"That advantage, if you will, is going to be gone if it's legal," Eschker said.

Any well-designed legalization ought to ensure that "other people in the community won't have to pick up the tab for an industry cutting corners," said county Supervisor Mark Lovelace. "People would have to learn to turn this into a legit above-board business."

How many could do that is unclear.

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