Marijuana was by no means the first boom crop to delight my home county of Humboldt, here in Northern California, five-hours' drive from San Francisco up Route 101. Leaving aside the boom of appropriating land from the Indians, there was the timber boom, which crested in the 1950s when Douglas fir in the Mattole Valley went south to frame the housing tracts of Los Angeles.
In the early 1970s, new settlers — fugitives from the 1960s and city life — would tell visiting friends, "Bring marijuana," and then disconsolately try to get high from the male leaves. Growers here would spend nine months coaxing their plants, only to watch, amid the mists and rains of fall, hated mold destroy the flowers.
By the end of the decade, the cultivators were learning how to grow. There was an enormous variety of seeds — Afghan, Thai, Burmese. The price crept up to $400 a pound, and the grateful settlers, mostly dirt poor, rushed out to buy a washing machine, a propane fridge, a used VW, a solar panel, a 12-volt battery. Even a 3-pound sale was a relatively big deal.
The 1980s brought further advances in productivity through the old Hispanic/Mexican technique of ensuring that female buds are not pollinated, hence the name sin semilla — without seeds. By 1981, the price for the grower was up around $1,600 a pound. The $100 bill was becoming a familiar local unit of cash transactions. In 1982, a celebrated grow here in the Mattole Valley yielded its organizer, an Ivy League grad, a harvest of a thousand pounds of processed marijuana, an amazing logistical triumph. Fifteen miles up the valley from where I write, tiny Honeydew became fabled as the marijuana capital of California, if not America.
That same year, the "war on drugs" rolled into action, executed in Humboldt County by platoons of sheriff's deputies, DEA agents and roadblocks by the California Highway Patrol. The National Guard combed the King Range. Schoolchildren gazed up at helicopters hovering over the valley scanning for gardens. War in this case brought relatively few casualties and many beneficiaries into the local economy: federal and state assistance for local law enforcement; more prosecutors in the DA's office; a commensurately expanding phalanx of defense lawyers; a buoyant housing market for growers washing their money into legality; $200 a day and more for women trimming the dried plants.
A bust meant at least a year of angst for the defendant and at least $25,000 in legal fees, though rarely any significant jail time. It did produce a felony conviction, several years of probation and all the restrictions of being an ex-felon. Nationally, between 1990 to 2005, there were 7,200,000 marijuana-related arrests — 1 out of every 18 felony convictions.
By now, the cattle ranchers were growing, too. Where once you'd see a battered old pickup, now late-model stretch-cab Fords, Chevys and Dodges would thunder by. Ranch yards sported new dump trucks and backhoes. Dealerships were selling big trucks and Toyota 4Runners, purchased with cash. By the mid-1990s, the price of bud was up around $2,400 a pound.
Best of all, the war was a sturdy price support in our thinly populated, remote Emerald Triangle of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties. Marijuana remained an outlaw crop. Then in 1996 came California's Compassionate Use Act, the brainchild of Dennis Peron, who returned from Vietnam in 1969 with two pounds of marijuana in his duffel bag and became a dealer in San Francisco. In 1990, when his companion was dying of AIDS, Peron began his drive for legal medical use of marijuana.
It was the launch point for greenhouses big enough to spot on Google Earth, plus diesel generators in the hills cycling 24/7 and lists of customers in the clubs down south in San Francisco and L.A. By 2005, with increasingly skilled production, the price was cresting between $2,500 and even $3,500 a pound for the grower. These days, in San Francisco and L.A (the latter still fractious legal terrain), perfectly grown and nicely packaged indoor pot — 4 grams for $60, i.e., $6,700 a pound at the retail level — can be inspected with magnifying glasses in tastefully appointed salesrooms.
The age of Obama saw Attorney General Eric Holder tell the federal DEA to give low priority to harassment of valid medical marijuana clubs in states — fourteen so far, plus Washington, D.C. — that give marijuana some form of legality. Remember, in the U.S., there is federal law, and there are state laws. Federal law trumps state law, but it's still up to the U.S. Attorney General to decide on priorities in enforcement.
On March 25, California officials announced that 523,531 signatures — almost 100,000 more than required — had been validated in support of an state initiative to legalize marijuana and allow it to be sold and taxed, no small fiscal allurement in budget-stricken California.
The California initiative will be on the November ballot. Various polls last year indicated such a measure enjoyed a 55 percent approval rating. It will certainly be a close-run thing, though old people unable to afford prescription painkillers are turning with increasing enthusiasm to marijuana. Call the California ballot the second shoe dropping in the "health reform" drama.
People here in Humboldt County reckon legalization is not far off and spells the end of the 30-year marijuana boom, which was under stress anyway because of one of the oldest problems in agriculture — oversupply. The local weekly, the North Coast Journal, has made a somewhat comic effort to construct a silver lining for the county. It talks hopefully of branding the Humboldt "terroir," of tours of "marijuanaries." Dream on. Down south, there's more sun, more water and very capable Mexicans ready to tend and trim for $15 an hour. The smarter growers reckon they have two years at most. Here on the North Coast, the price of marijuana will drop; the price of land will drop; and the trucks will stop being late-model. There'll be less money floating around. How long will the small producers of gourmet marijuana last before the big companies run them off, pushing through the sort of regulatory "standards" that are now punishing small organic farmers?
Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through www.counterpunch.com. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.