The Growing Divide is an online documentary project that uses photography and a series of 25 interviews with residents, marijuana growers, police officers and government officials to tell the story of the marijuana boom in the rural community of Hayfork, California.
With photographs by Talia Herman and Brian Gossman, and with support from California Humanities, a nonprofit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Humboldt Area Foundation, the result is a multi-faceted look at the marijuana industry in the microcosm of a small, rural community. Read on for excerpts from this project, and view it in its entirety online at: www.thegrowingdivide.com.
The Marijuana Industry Goes Boom
In the rural town of Hayfork, California, marijuana has become a defining element. Marijuana gardens are almost as numerous as people, with cultivation so prevalent that gardens are visible from most roads. It is the primary source of employment, and the reality of black market income is culturally commonplace. Here, the impacts of marijuana are amplified by the realities of rural living. Isolation, a lack of resources and poverty have created the space for marijuana to become a major economic, political and social driver.
Hayfork is located in the mountains of Trinity County. Spanning 3,208 square miles, the county is dominated by U.S. Forest Service land that occupies 80 percent of the territory within its borders. The population logs in at just over 13,000. The communities are small, isolated and sprinkled through the vast stretch of forest like the stars of a constellation.
For law enforcement, the geographical realities of this rural county, combined with a severe lack of funding, limit the ability to manage marijuana farming, creating a mood and reality of relative lawlessness. The Trinity County Sheriff's Department currently operates with one to four deputies serving the county at any given time. The travel time between communities is anywhere between 40 minutes to two hours. This means response time for law enforcement can be up to two hours, depending on where you are. In some circumstances, law enforcement may not have the capacity to come at all.
Hayfork has endured a high rate of poverty for decades. As of the most recent U.S. Census, the estimated population is 2,480. An informal survey of existing jobs in Hayfork counted a total of just 424 in 2015. Of these, only 216 were full-time, with 108 part-time jobs and another 100 seasonal jobs. Of the 216 full-time jobs, 137 were in the retail or service industries, which typically pay minimum wage, and are unlikely to offer healthcare benefits.
Employment outside the retail sector includes only a handful of options, such as the school district and the U.S. Forest Service, or requires at least a 40-minute commute to towns outside the valley. Self-employment alternatives typically consist of odd jobs like construction, landscaping and farm work, or work tied to logging, such as tree falling and firewood sales. These self-employment options are often seasonal, don't offer full-time work and generally don't provide an income that will lift someone out of poverty. As of 2013, nearly a quarter of the population — 26.9 percent — lived below the poverty line.
When Proposition 215 passed in 1996, ushering in the medical marijuana era, Hayfork was suffering from a severe economic depression. In this environment of reduced legal risk and limited job options, more and more locals began growing and selling marijuana. At the same time, people began traveling into the mountains of Hayfork seeking a way to earmark a portion of weed money. It eventually earned a reputation as a place that offered inexpensive raw land with good growing conditions and greater freedom for the outlaw. More and more people began arriving in Hayfork, purchasing land and setting up marijuana farms. The marijuana growing population got bigger but the capacity of law enforcement stayed the same. In effect, the more people who were growing weed, the less risky the business became.
In a town with a population of 2,368, the sheriff's department estimates that there are currently 2,000 individual marijuana grows in Hayfork, although estimates from other agencies suggest the number is actually a bit smaller. The industry is booming, bringing with it a complex variety of benefits and drawbacks that are altering the trajectory of the town and shaping its future.
While top-down marijuana policy has been slowly brewing for decades, Hayfork residents are already living another reality shaped from the bottom up. As California continues to sort out the terms of marijuana legislation and how it can function in the state economy, Hayfork is enacting it in exaggerated terms. All this policy is borne out in the community, where people are enmeshed in this evolving industry. With the regulatory mood tipping toward a future of legalization, the outcome could bring drastic changes, leaving the community in uncharted territory.
The Growing Divide
Growing marijuana is so commonplace it's become brazen. Driving into the Hayfork valley, gardens populate the stretch of rolling hills on either side of the road, visible between houses and popping up behind makeshift fences. Late in the growing season when plants are budding, pungent marijuana scents the air, detectable to those driving through town. Along State Route 3, the sole main road through town, a windshield survey counted 42 plainly visible marijuana gardens in a 7.4-mile stretch of road.
Marijuana is a part of everyday life here. Participation in a black market drug trade is woven into the fabric of the community and has become somehow ordinary. Evidence of growing is easily gathered and also taken for granted. People speak with openness about what they're doing because there is an underlying assumption that most people are involved in the industry in some capacity or another. In this tiny mountain town, marijuana gardens have risen like a slow tide, saturating the neighborhoods, the remote mountains and valleys, the intimate landscape of this place.
With all this farming, there have been changes, good and bad, and the determination varies depending on whom you ask. It is here where the bitter crack of division begins to fragment the town.
At worst, the industry is perceived as immoral and exploitive, an illegal enterprise drawing on the land and damaging the community in the name of profit. Under this rubric, the problems are personified: Growers are characterized as self-interested, greedy and indifferent to the damage they do to the community and the land. This worst version is true in some cases, but not across the board.
In practice, there is a lot of variation in what profit motive looks like. Economic hardship, or the often grim reality of the existing alternatives that prompt so many people into an illegal industry are important motivators, but they are not part of a common understanding of what's happening. The questions of why so many people are choosing the risk of a black market industry, and what this means, isn't really being asked.
As an industry that has emerged in an impoverished area, many locals identify marijuana as the economic glue holding the town together, and see it as a potential bridge to long-term economic development. It has created jobs, supplemented incomes and supported local businesses. It is also credited by many as the single draw for new arrivals, adding to the human resources and cultural diversity of the town, and supporting increased activities and new opportunities.
But these benefits come at an expense. Unregulated marijuana production has brought with it significant environmental damage in the form of water use, clearcutting, bulldozing, sediment runoff and inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides. It also imports the dangers associated with an illegal drug trade, giving more traditionally dangerous criminal types an opportunity where there wasn't one before.
The division in the community is rooted in the tangible: not having enough water, seeing the landscape around you bulldozed, or being suddenly crowded by strangers in local grocery stores when you used to know the entire town. Or, if you're farming, having access to income or the ability to secure property or buy a home, to live more comfortably, or the palpable fear of being reported and losing your entire crop. The end result has been a time of escalating contention, with citizens from all facets returning to Board of Supervisors meetings again and again to advocate for their contradictory goals.
The complicated truth is that the ability to label the industry as good or bad becomes impossible, especially in a time when its very legality is transitioning. Currently, the Trinity County Board of Supervisors is revising its own marijuana cultivation ordinances. With a polarized spectrum of voices speaking loudly and new state legislation paving the way, decisions with far-reaching implications rest in the supervisors' laps.
Shades of Green: Marijuana Growers
People have been growing marijuana in Hayfork for generations. Some have made their living this way for decades. Some have farmed to supplement their income, and some just for personal supply. In the rising arc of the weed boom, more and different types of farmers have arrived, adding numbers to their ranks and layers to their demographics.
Now such a large portion of the population is producing marijuana that growers are integrated into many, maybe most, aspects of the community — as neighbors, store owners, parents of school children, volunteers and members of clubs and organizations. The end result leaves many people straddling two worlds, living otherwise typical lives while flirting with the risks of illegal industry — farming, selling on the black market and negotiating the transport and sales of product.
Marijuana is no longer simply a trade for brazen activists or large-scale, profiteering criminals, although both are still present. An industry that was once the territory of drug cartels and illicit drug dealers is now saturated with everyday people. Marijuana growers are retirees and single moms, they provide the second income in two-income families, they are parents and grandparents. For those living it, the navigation of the black market has become domesticated.
For some, marijuana cultivation is a solution to the imposition of economic hardship, as with retirees and out of work loggers who turn to the marijuana growing industry to help supplement their income. Their circumstances don't offer many alternatives and not having access to this income would drop them into poverty.
"Instead of living, you're existing," Dan says of what his life would be like without the income provided by growing. Dan is a logger who looks to marijuana to supplement his income and to help provide work for his retired father.
"Even when I've worked, it was seasonal," he says, "and so when you work a seasonal job, you're still only gonna make something like $22,000 a year, that's not even $2,000 a month gross, and you can exist on that but you can't live on it ... growing was definitely a way to give myself some of the better things, and give myself more opportunities."
For others, it can be a way to grasp a middle-class life when it wouldn't otherwise be possible. Parents might gain the ability to provide music lessons or other opportunities for their children. Couples may gain the ability to purchase land that would have otherwise been inaccessible to them. Growers represent a spectrum of lifestyles and backgrounds — career travelers, artists, arrivals from cities seeking a way to support a rural lifestyle, or those with careers that don't pay well enough to provide financial security.
Marijuana is becoming more legitimate, and the commonality of the black market has made illegal activity in this context more acceptable. By and large, growers don't believe marijuana should be illegal: They are breaking a law they don't believe in. And this creates some comfort with the black market, even if the terms aren't ideal.
While there are many variations among farmers, all have accepted the inherent risks of life as a black market marijuana grower. The profit is burdened by the fears and stresses of getting caught, and carries with it a host of other uncertainties about future livelihood.
The profitability of the marijuana trade isn't guaranteed. As more and more people are participating, the increase in supply has dropped prices. Growers report that a pound of weed that formerly netted $4,000 sells today for much less; $1,200 is a common price and pounds can go for as little as $800, a drastic drop in profitability that prompts many to increase production and farm bigger.
Variables in output, the expense of farming, the cost of paying work crews and the ability to sell at a decent price all take their toll on profit. As any farmer knows, there are many opportunities during the raising of a crop for things to go wrong, and for your profit margin to shrink.
And as any black market grower knows, there is also ample opportunity to be outdone by the perils of illegal drug trade — busts, theft, robberies, short-changing and rip-offs are real risks. All these variables drive home an often hard-learned truth about the marijuana industry: Its profitability really varies.
Even for those who have broken into the industry and are successful, long-term economic security is still in question. How long a person can continue to make their income through black market trade is an unknown. Shifts in the political landscape translate to economy — what happens with legalization will determine the viability of the legitimate and black markets.
For the faction of community members who are advocating for farming, the response to these uncertainties is to shape the development of the legitimate pot economy. In line with the larger political scene, local voices in Hayfork are advocating for regulatory policies that will support the existing economy through legal production and create a tenable industry for small-scale farmers. How they are able to mobilize and successfully advocate for their goals will help determine what options are available to them over time.
Others are waiting it out in various ways — working to set themselves up in preparation for market crashes, growing more while it's still profitable and low-risk, or just watching to see what happens next. Their futures are tied to the unstable currents of the marijuana economy and the outcomes of regulation. For growers, it is an era of uncertainty, and they wait while their community is on the bleeding edge of marijuana policy.
The Underfunded Arm of the Law
If you are farming marijuana in Hayfork, there is relative safety in numbers. To describe the Trinity County Sheriff's department as underfunded is a wild understatement. The department estimates 2,000 marijuana grows in Hayfork and its Trinity Pines subdivision alone. Countywide, the total number of grows is estimated to be thousands more.
Currently, sheriff's deputies number just eight. Coverage for the entire county is provided by one to four officers at any given time. The department faces a hard reality: Marijuana is only one of many competing priorities, stacked against more egregious criminal activity that poses a greater risk to public safety. It doesn't always take priority.
"I have to constantly remind people that we don't just deal with marijuana," explains Sheriff Bruce Haney. "We deal with murders, rapes, assaults, domestic violence. We deal with all of that."
Haney is frustrated by the lack of capacity that prevents the Sheriff's department from managing marijuana, and from demonstrating a greater presence to the illegal growing community.
"I think the message needs to be sent," Haney says. "The reason why we're in the boat that we are in right now is because that message has never been sent to anyone."
For criminal marijuana cases, prioritization boils down to a tension between the threat to the public and circumstance. But the logistics of evidence, immediate need and situation make a systematic prioritization of the worst offenders difficult.
"It's how it falls," says sheriff's deputy Omar Brown. "What's brought across my desk for one reason or another. I don't prioritize. I would never be able to get anything done. Because why would I do a 500 plant grow when I could do a 650 plant grow, you know, so then why would I do that when there could be an 800 plant grow?"
In circumstances where so much of the population is engaging in illegal activity, it becomes harder to identify where the problems really are, to gather evidence and to address them.
Law enforcement is also just one arm of the legal system. Criminal prosecution and regulation systems require two streams of funding — one for law enforcement and one for judicial systems. The Trinity County Superior Court system falls in line with the familiar blues song of the rural and underfunded. Sinking under an abundance of cases, the court often takes a lengthy amount of time to address criminal marijuana cases and, like the sheriff's department, prosecutors need to prioritize cases that are most relevant to public safety. So even if the Sheriff's Department does take action, prosecution isn't always a sure thing. Sometimes cases don't make it to court for months or even years.
"I'm not faulting the DA because he's in the same boat," says Haney. "He has to prioritize. We have a 600-plant marijuana case that's been sitting on his desk scheduled to go to trial, but he's got three murder trials. So guess where that one's going to — the bottom of the list."
As a result of systemic funding and capacity issues, marijuana cultivation has become a creeping issue for the sheriff's department. Over time, the absence of enforcement has allowed cultivation to escalate. Not only are more people farming, but their gardens are bigger.
"There are big grows and small grows, but the average is 150 to 200 plants," says Brown. "We can't do search warrants on everything that size. We're so far behind. If we had had (more capacity) 10 years ago, we would be looking at 36-plant grows."
In the end, the sheer prevalence of farming makes it impossible to address the many people doing it illegally. The inability for law enforcement to maintain a strong presence creates a sense of lawlessness, and marijuana production booms — more people farm and they farm bigger. And the eight deputies are left to do triage, doing what they can while Hayfork's hotbox of marijuana farming percolates.
Hayfork is waiting to see what happens next. In 2015, a new state regulatory framework for medical marijuana was introduced, and recreational marijuana legalization is forecasted in the future. The local government is contending with these new state policies while revising its cannabis cultivation ordinances, adding an additional layer to rules that will decide the legal size and scale of farming.
The unique conditions of Hayfork's rural context will shape the future of its marijuana boom. Rural communities witness firsthand the irrevocable marks natural resource economies make on the land: ravaged landscapes, clear cutting, overuse of land and water. They house the actors of industry, and are observers of the accumulation of damage. They live the perilous wilds of reactive land management, always arriving late without having the tools to clean up.
For Hayfork, the twin unknowns of economy and environment are the central questions that will shape the future of the community. The marijuana industry has the potential to alter the economy of the town in a positive and sustainable way, or to follow a pattern of boom and bust economics, leaving the community in a post-marijuana aftermath of environmental damage and economic collapse.
Father and Son
Tom has lived in Hayfork almost all of his 74 years. It's where he raised his three kids. He worked at a sawmill for 17 years and out in the woods felling trees for another 18. He saw two mills close and was around to watch his community slide into economic ruin when its sole industry, logging, collapsed in the early 1990s. Tom has grown marijuana since 1973, first just to grow his own smoke and later to supplement his income. Now Tom works for his 50-year-old son Dan, who is also a retired logger, on his grow operation. Here are excerpts from two interviews, the first with Tom and the second with both Tom and Dan.
Q: What was it like when the mills closed?
Tom: The first one devastated the town. Houses weren't worth a lot, people sold houses and moved away ... I couldn't move. The other (second mill closure) was devastating. There were no jobs for people.
Q: Why did you start growing marijuana?
Tom: Because it was legal and I needed the money. I only make $1,500 a month for social security, for me and my wife. That isn't good money. I had land, but I needed a new house and I had to have a way to pay. But there were no work opportunities. I had a five-way bypass heart attack. I got a defibrillator put in — keeps my heart going right. There's not much work I can do but I can sit in a chair (and process marijuana).
Q: How did you end up growing marijuana?
Dan: It's just kind of in the blood from being a kid.
Tom: They would come home (and help) and were makin' some money, too.
Dan: I trimmed as a kid (when I was) 8, 9, 10 ... 11.
Tom: (He) slept with it.
Dan: Oh (curing marijuana) would hang on lines in my back bedroom.
Tom: (laughing) That's what he smelled like going to school.
Q: (To Tom) Did you worry about your kids being around pot like that?
Tom: Nope. Because they're gonna make that choice sooner or later.
Q: Do you feel like you're contributing to the negative impacts (growing has) on the community?
Dan: Yes, I do feel like I'm part of the problem. I mean, I am part of the grow society that brings the thieves into town, and the trimmigrants into town, and the tweakers, and everything else. But personally, I do it differently. I don't include those kinds of people. I don't associate with those kinds of people ... and it's still federally illegal, but I sent the government checks for two years. On my income taxes, I got an I-9 for selling clones and they didn't send it back. They accepted it as payment for taxes, money that I made selling marijuana ...
The College Graduate
Sam, 35, stumbled into the growing industry almost by accident. He was just out of college and working a job delivering furniture and mattresses for about $800 a month. He was living on Top Ramen, studying for the LSATs, and trying to figure out a viable path for the future when a friend called, saying he needed some help in Hayfork and asking if he'd come out.
Q: And so you heard you could come work on a grow and thought you would come and do it?
Sam: I figured I would try it. I only planned to help for that one time, for that season, and I was going to be in and out, you know, and save money for whatever I did next.
Q: And then what happened?
Sam: I got stuck in the honey trap, the magnet.
Q: What's the magnet?
Sam: The magnet is the money. Because, you know, I'm not the only one. You come off a really low salary and you're living hand to mouth, and you come out here and for relatively — you know you work hard, don't get me wrong — but the compensation relative to the work is amazing. You would go from making $800 a month to $3,000 a month. Which is insane. It's an insane jump. I mean, you don't even know what to do with it at first. It's like, 'I guess I'll just eat more pizza or drink more beer.' ... You calibrated yourself to living as poor. And suddenly there is just like all this extra money pouring in.
Piper McDaniel was the Project Director for The Growing Divide. She works as the Communications and Community Outreach Coordinator at The Watershed Research and Training Center, and is a freelance journalist.