Gourmet marijuana: a tale of boom and bust?
Alexander Cockburn: Pot could be legal in California by the end of the year. But growers should beware
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 per lb, 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 3lb sale was a relatively big deal.
There was a side benefit, in the form of decent organic vegetables. The back-to-the-land folk of 1974-79 were learning to grow vegetables as well as marijuana. Just as the early pot was puny and weak, so were the vegetables. The organic/natural food store in Eureka typically stocked baskets with five withered carrots or some sad looking turnips. A potato farmer once told me that in that era he took the ugliest, most knobbly and pitted potatoes and threw them in the 'organic' box.
But just as the pot boomed in quality, so did the vegetables. The local co-op in Arcata became a vast enterprise. The present Whole Earth emporia, with their piles of vegetables more lush than anything in Renoir, are testimony to the astounding transformation of the pot flower.
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 per lb. The $100 bill was becoming a familiar local unit of cash transactions. In 1982 a celebrated grow here in the Mattole Valley yielded its organiser, an Ivy League grad, a harvest of 1,000lb 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, with roadblocks provided 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 defence 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. Checking that little box "have you ever been charged or convicted of a felony" eliminates many government jobs (like teaching school) or government loans.
There are 32 people serving life sentences in California on a third-strike marijuana conviction. In 2008, 1,499 were in prison on marijuana convictions; in 2007, 4,925 in county jails. (Nationally, between 1990 and 2005 there were 7,200,000 marijuana-related arrests - one 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 per lb.
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 2lb 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 LA. By 2005, with increasingly skilled production, the price was cresting between $2,500 and even $3,500 per lb for the grower. These days, in San Francisco and LA (the latter still fractious legal terrain), perfectly grown and nicely packaged indoor pot - four grams for $60, ie. $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 - 14 so far, plus Washington, DC - that give marijuana some form of legality. Remember, in the US there is federal law and there are state laws. Federal law trumps state law, but it's still up to the US 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 a state initiative to legalise marijuana and allow it to be sold and taxed, no small fiscal allurement in budget-stricken California. (Many growers, zealous not to get on the wrong side of the IRS and the state tax board declare "agricultural" revenues. The feds and the state are happy to take the money and, as a rule, not ask questions. The state utility, PG&E, is similarly happy to rake in large sums from growers using huge amounts of power to run their indoor grow lights and electric fans.)
The California initiative will be on the November ballot. Various polls last year indicated such a measure enjoyed a 55 per cent 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 legalisation 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, the trucks will stop being late-model. There'll be less money floating around.
The New Deal began with an end to the prohibition of alcohol across the United States. The individual small producers of bourbon - some good, a lot awful or downright poison - shut down and the big liquor producers took over, successfully pushing for illegalisation of marijuana in 1937. 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? ·
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