Tuesday, February 22, 2011

When an entire county goes to pot

I grew up in the Marijuana capital of the world: Humboldt County (“Humboldt”). Humboldt, which is part of the “Emerald Triangle,” is a region in Northern California consisting of three counties (hence the triangle reference): Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity. The Emerald Triangle has been world famous for its pot since the early 1980’s. That’s when it became one of the first places in America to grow marijuana that could compete with pot grown in places like Mexico, South America, and the Caribbean Islands.

The Pot industry in Humboldt was began by Hippy refugees who cultivated huge fields of marijuana in the most rural parts of the County. The majority of the county’s families who did not grow pot made their living by working for the thriving timber and fishing industries of the North Coast. However around the early 1990’s both of those legitimate industries had all but dried up. Now the economies in the Emerald Triangle, especially those in Humboldt and Mendocino counties revolve almost completely upon the revenue derived from exporting Marijuana.

It is no longer only the fringe elements of the region who grow enough pot to support their families. Thanks to sophisticated advancements in pot growing techniques it is now possible to grow thousands of dollars worth of pot indoors, and not just in warehouses. Now, much like in the Showtime series “Weeds” even Susie homemaker types can raise her family entirely on the money she makes by converting one of the three bedrooms in her house into an “indoor grow scene.”

Families who’s breadwinners who traditionally worked as loggers, truck drivers, and mill workers often turn to growing pot in order to get by. Much of the younger generation of Humboldt locals have grown up seeing this as one of their only options for making money. Take for example Tony Sasso now 42 and serving a 14-year sentence at the federal penitentiary in Atwater: He'd begun growing pot as a teenager in the mid-1980s, when police helicopters forced growers to hide their plants indoors.

His harvests paid for expensive trucks, skydiving in Maui, boogie-boarding in Chile and a five-bedroom home with a four-car garage. He eventually owned five ranches, including two in Oregon, and says he took in as much as $11 million a year.

"I grew up believing that the only way to make money was to grow marijuana, and I was good at it," said Sasso, Now with the production of marijuana skyrocketing in California thanks to the legalization of medical marijuana, profitability has declined sharply, and cases like Sasso’s are the minority. Now it is the average college student; high school drop-out; the single mother; the video game playing bachelor; and the young couple who all grow pot to make a living. It is conservatively estimated that one in seven homes now contains an indoor grow scene.

In urban parts of Humboldt County for example, electrical use per household has leaped 50% since 1996, when voters approved the state's medical-marijuana initiative, according to a study by the Schatz Energy Research Center at Humboldt State University.

In Arcata and unincorporated areas of the county, average electrical use rose 60% during that time -- while California's overall use remained virtually flat. This trend is only becoming more common. Unfortunately for many however, something will eventually have to give, whether that something is outright legalization; stricter county regulations; or landlords refusing to rent to anyone suspected of looking for a spot for their indoor grow or a combination of all three. What will happen to those who have no plan B? What will the economy of Humboldt County look like in twenty years? It remains to bee seen, but the trend is towards increased regulation, and decreased revenue.


Chez Marta said...

Thanks, V., for the enlightening post. My problem is with the landlord deciding that somebody is suspected to grow pot. Hmmm, just how do you suspect that? The usual suspects that you described are already not dream tenants: for example, there is rampant housing discrimination against single mothers. Are you a bachelor with no job? Don't even fill out an application, thank you. Our society does not need more pretexts to practice housing discrimination.

vlshaw said...

I agree Marta, however for landloard isuues such as: mold, electical & water damage, and crime have all become a serious reality. It is estimated that 50% of all fires in the area are as a result of someone rewiring or over using electrical circuts for thier indoor grow scene. As someone who grew up there, it is not hard to spot a probable grower. Maybe a solution would be for a landlord to have the tennant sign a contract agreeing not to grow pot in the house. The Side effect of the situation now is that rent and security deposits has doubled in the last 10 years. This makes it very difficult for those renters (like single moms) who do not intend to grow pot to affoard the inflated costs.

Caitlin said...

Piggy-backing off of V's comment, I worry that the black market Marijuana economy will create an even starker reality for those people living in these counties who do not grow or otherwise participate in the trade, but are still affected with elevating rent and higher prices for other commodities as a result. Additionally, because drugs aren't taxed, it seems likely that the large majority of a seemingly lucritive industry is going without any taxes, which could directly benefit the community at large.

Jen Wickens said...

What is most interesting to me about V.'s post is that legalization has spread the wealth and risk associated with marijuana around the Emerald Triangle. Tony made $11 million on an illegal grow, but now that medical marijuana has condoned home grow sites, many people are able to eke out a living from growing pot. Caitlin, your comment about taxes is well-taken, but the fact that one in seven households can make some money on the industry means that the proceeds are being spread around without government having to redistribute via taxes. I agree with V. that many questions remain about what will happen once the industry becomes more regulated. In the longterm, is marijuana an industry that the Emerald Triangle should rely on?

D'Arcy said...

It will be interesting to follow the economic impacts of legalizing medical marijuana in rural communities. The effect on Humboldt County may be extreme. In 2009 Dunsmuir's mayor proposed that the City start a medical marijuana plant to increase local government resources. While the idea didn't clear a Council vote, this act indicates the increasing social and legal acceptance of pot use in our region. As more rural communities in good regions for marijuana crops start looking at marijuana as good business investments instead of a social disease, competition will go up in the region. Currently, many sellers, legal and illegal bring carloads of pot back from the Humboldt coast. This practice may be changing soon.

Dusty said...

Many of my community members survive as legitimate harvesters for the Cali medical marijuana farms. This industry does really trickle and sustain the working class of Northern Cali when the other resource industries failed. I see this as just another resource extraction case. The other resource extraction industries failed in that area and so this economy picked up the burden. If medical cannabis were legalized similarly to how it were in Cali in other states losing resource extractions, it may help those rural economies too. Not only the bosses or farm owners get wealthy but the trimmers, transporters and farm help also make a generally fair living. I also wanted to bring up that the medical cannabis industry does pay and provide taxes though they are often on a dispensary level not sale per sale.