Letters + Opinion » The Week in Weed

Out of the Shadows



There's not a multi-celled organism on earth that could evolve much in 25 years. But perhaps there's an argument that the cannabis plant, through its symbiosis with humans, has changed as much in the last two and a half decades as any species could. Well, except the ones that have gone extinct.

Aiding that shift is our endless fascination with and reverence for the plant, and few places harbor such a deep knowledge network about weed than Humboldt County. So what's changed?

Perusing the Journal's first issue, as staff has been doing for the last several weeks in preparation for this 25th anniversary issue, it became apparent there was something missing.

For all of the economic predictors and state of the county reporting and opinionizing, there was not one single mention of marijuana, a subject that has risen to the social, cultural and economic gravity to earn a weekly column in our pages.

It's not like pot wasn't around in 1990. Back-to-the-landers had been quietly establishing a foothold in Southern Humboldt for 20 years. Discreet horticultural practices had been circulating their way through the county for decades. CAMP's stalk-chopping raids were frequent front page news. So why no mention when it came to the future of the county?

Probably because not enough was known. When Steve Hackett took a faculty position in Humboldt State University's economics department in 1994, he said his colleagues already wanted to know what marijuana was contributing to the county's economy.

"Of course we had a cannabis economy 25 years ago," Hackett said. "People were interested, as I recall, and people knew it was significant. ... I think its role relative to other sectors has grown pretty considerably in the last 20 to 25 years."

But quantifying that role has remained difficult. Until economist Jennifer Budwig released a study in 2011, no one had done much more than bar-napkin tabulations of the industry's impact. Budwig valued the sales of marijuana in Humboldt County at more than $1 billion.

That's a long way from nary a mention, in just 20 years.

In the 1990s, marijuana was underground. Probably just as many people smoked it as do today, but, at least in the North County where I grew up, there wasn't the assumption that every third person you passed on the street was involved in the industry.

By middle school, most people in Arcata knew about Humboldt County's worst-kept secret. By high school, scoring pot was easier than buying alcohol. Everyone had a friend who'd throw a seedling into a swampy, shady far corner of his family property in hopes it would return something smokable.

Everyone had a friend whose parents invited folks down for a big, autumn party in the hills west of Redway. By college, if you stuck around, getting high took on a ferocity only matched by the Mad Max level of dystopian gadgetry dreamed up to get the job done.

These were people not cut out for the real work required to grow marijuana — they were hobbyists, experimenting with the most abundant and accessible mild drug they could get their hands on. Kids, in other words.

Everyone knew someone who had a couple plants in the closet, in the pursuit of cheap pot. But by the mid-2000s, 10 years after the passage of Proposition 215, Arcata had blown up. McKinleyville and Eureka, too. There was lots of money to be made. Marijuana horticulture was sophisticated, and the infrastructure was in place to support cheap startups. The district attorney's office wasn't doing much. Marijuana went indoors on a large scale. Whole houses were converted into grows.

Then, a tipping point. Arcata made friendly with dispensaries, supporting the models that worked, and began to fight back against the grow houses, most notably with a steep tax for high electricity users.

Somewhere along the way, outdoor began to regain its cachet. Land was cheap. New techniques like light deprivation ensured faster growing seasons. Emboldened by weakening derision of pot, people began to say "Look, if this is gonna happen, let's do it right."

"Stewardship" and "farmer" became the buzzwords du jour.

Humboldt County residents, through fastidious breeding, evolved the cannabis plant. But weed has evolved humans, too. At least socially, slightly, in this little corner of the world.

Pot's a daily topic. Some things haven't changed much (see mountain top raids), but others have. Mendocino County's sheriff told a panel last week that hippies were the good guys. Law enforcement concerns have shifted, at least outwardly, from DARE-era prohibition to environmental protection. California finally has legal boundaries on its decades-old medical marijuana quagmire.

And pot, folks, is probably going to be legal in a year. That could be a really good thing for Humboldt County. Or a really bad thing. There are a lot of unknowns.

Twenty-five years ago, economists knew timber's reign was coming to an end. They called for diversification — new industries, more manufacturing, investments in the culture, recreation and natural beauty that would attract tourists. No longer would a few large companies support the people and governments of the region.

Sound familiar?

Hackett is the first to admit that little about the marijuana industry is quantifiable. But it's clear that Humboldt has traded one single-sector economy for another. And that's risky.

Humboldt County only became prime marijuana growing country because of its seclusion. That works against the county when legalization strikes. The commodity producers? They're going to move to better farmlands.

But it's not all doom and gloom.

"I think that there's going to be a lot of effort in differentiating our product up here," Hackett said. It's all about quality over quantity and like our burgeoning, albeit small, food industry, Humboldt's farmers may be able to make their buds stand out. "Those folks are going to continue to be successful."

Have things gotten better in 25 years? Is it a wash? We'll let you tally up the scores and check back in 2040.

California Cannabis Voice Humboldt has relinquished control of its land use and excise tax ordinances, offering them as templates for the county to use in a public process, the Lost Coast Outpost's Ryan Burns reported as the Journal went to press.

The the political action committee had previously said it would introduce the ordinances as voter initiatives, which would have forced the board to adopt them as written or put them to a countywide vote. It's unclear precisely why CCVH abandoned that idea, but the group was running out of time to get them on the books before state medical and recreational marijuana laws are likely to change next year.

Environmental groups — which have been at odds with CCVH since its formation — thanked the group for turning the laws over to the public process.

But supervisors and staff shared concerns about whether the county would be able to draft and approve ordinances by March 1 of next year, which is when the state's new medical marijuana laws will go into effect if signed by Gov. Jerry Brown. The local ordinances would have to be on the books before then to have precedent over the new state law. Still, the board voted unanimously to get the ball rolling.

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