Fifty dollars worth of weed.
That's reportedly what led four young men to arrange via Snapchat a meeting with a 16 year old on the dark Arcata street. According to Arcata Police Chief Brian Ahearn, they'd planned to simply hand over whatever small quantity of black market cannabis $50 buys these days and go on their way, but the 16 year old allegedly had other ideas. He allegedly tried to rob them, ordering them to hand over the weed. When they refused, he opened fire. Taevonne Latimer, 18, was shot "several times" in the torso, according to police, and pronounced dead at a local hospital, despite the frantic efforts of bystanders and first responders to save him. Another 18 year old was shot in the leg.
Fifty dollars worth of weed.
An 18 year old killed just weeks shy of his graduation, another's life — and body — forever altered and a 16 year old facing the prospect of spending 25 years to life in prison. To some extent, this is the legacy of prohibition, the devastation that decades of the war on drugs have wrought in startling clarity, played out over the course of a few brief moments with tragic consequences.
To be sure, there are plenty of contributors to this horrific scene. Perhaps most prominent among the lingering questions is how a 16 year old got his hands on a loaded pistol. There are also legitimate questions about the apparent devaluation of human life we are seeing unfold in painful slow motion as Arcata — a once peaceful town — continues to record homicides at an alarming rate, most of them seemingly stemming from petty arguments, perceived slights or cannabis, or some combination of the above.
Some will surely be quick to dispute that this shooting has any ties to the prohibitionist policies that have criminalized cannabis for decades. After all, recreational weed became legal last year and these were essentially just high school kids who couldn't legally purchase cannabis anyway, right? Wrong. Don't believe me — tell me when the last time you recall a teenager being shot over a keg of beer or a carton of cigarettes.
The bottom line is that for decades we as a society have treated cannabis as something to be hidden, hunted and protected. We've encircled a plant with layers of risk that have inflated its value, expanding the exposure to all who come near it. The plant itself is relatively harmless but its societal baggage is one of decades of prosecutions, incarcerations, robberies and killings, as well as a legacy of unreported crimes and cultures of backwoods justice.
This is the black market's ongoing legacy: two teenagers shot, one dead and another facing the rest of his life in prison.
So pardon me when I say I don't give a fuck about your black market. Sure, you can tell me about how it protected profits and, by turn, Humboldt County's economy for decades. You can talk about how it filled our restaurants, storefronts and car dealerships after timber died. You can talk about all the wonders of the libertarian, back-to-the-land communities it enabled to thrive and point to the volunteer fire departments and nonprofits it funded.
And so much of what you'd say is true. But at what cost? Does Humboldt County's economy and subculture justify even one kid dying in the back of a stranger's car? Does it justify the dozens — if not hundreds — of people who died before him, in robberies and backwoods disputes, often left buried in shallow graves or dumped on the side of the road?
There's no longer any excuse. Cannabis is legal. Folks who want to get high can walk into a store and purchase what they need. Farmers and business owners who want to make the plant their livelihoods are free to do so. But it's time to get the black market out of Humboldt County. Forever.
Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.