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Prop. 19 spurs hand-wringing in pot country

It’s marijuana harvest season again on the North Coast, as if you couldn’t tell.

By John Simerman
Contra Costa Times

Posted: 10/29/2010 07:55:52 PM PDT

It’s harvest season again on the North Coast, as if you couldn’t tell.

Grubby teens squat along rural Highway 101, trying to get $20-an-hour 
work clipping leaves and stems off beer can-sized marijuana buds. 
Roadside billboards tout bulk sales of turkey oven bags — good for 
holding in moisture and pungent odor.

Across the famed “Emerald Triangle,” more than a few storefronts stay 
shuttered. These days, things in town get a little slow.

    “October is when all the business owners are operating their own cash 
registers,” said one Laytonville merchant, echoing a lament over the 
loss of hired help. “(If) you’re paid $12 an hour to sit behind a 
register and your sister’s crop is ready and you need to fix your 
teeth — what are you going to do?”

It’s a different sort of farming economy in the nation’s storied 
hotbed for marijuana, where a modern-day Gold Rush has only grown 
stronger and bolder in the evolving wake of Proposition 215. So it’s 
no surprise that Proposition 19, which would legalize recreational 
pot use, has local residents, growers and law enforcement 
preoccupied, and in some cases deeply ambivalent.

“I don’t think the average person has any idea how huge the industry 
is,” said Morgan Gibson, a local grape grower stopping for lunch in 
Covelo, a tiny valley town in the shadow of the marijuana-laden 
Mendocino National Forest.

Gibson shakes his head at the young men who roll loud in their 
jacked-up trucks with the “Got Pounds?” bumper stickers — the newer 
breed drawn to the county’s relatively permissive stance on 
marijuana. He sees the out-of-state license plates and the rise of 
bamboo fences and tarps in towns filling with backyard grows and the 
proliferation of billboards touting hydroponics gear and head shops. 
“Embarrassing,” he said.

But Morgan also notices the recent expansion of a supermarket in 
Covelo thanks to spendthrift growers, one of many ripples from an 
industry that has gained in stature against the steep plunge in local 
timber production and a more recent lapse in salmon fishing on the 

“I pay taxes. My dog is neutered and licensed. (Prop. 19) is one 
chance for vengeance,” said Gibson, 50. “But on the other hand, will 
it destroy my economy? It could.”

Just how vital marijuana growing is to the region is hard to 
quantify. Erick Eschker, an economics professor who tracks the 
Humboldt County economy, said there’s no good way to know. But few 
doubt its impact. Legitimate businesses up and down the North Coast 
— not just hydroponics stores and head shops, but restaurants and 
art galleries — are bankrolled and supported with pot profits, 
locals say.

“The elephant in the room, in the more established community, is that 
it’s what drives this economy,” said Jeff Schwartz, an Arcata defense 
attorney and former Humboldt County prosecutor who supports Prop. 19, 
calling it a step toward more sensible use of law enforcement 
resources. “Without it, it’s welfare offices, health departments and 
other public offices.”

Rumors abound among growers in the region that tobacco giant Philip 
Morris is poised to launch industrial marijuana farming if Prop. 19 
passes — even that the company has taken an option on hundreds of 
acres in the county. The company did not respond to a reporter’s 

Weed country

Still, local supporters of the measure tout the prospects for a kind 
of Napa-fication of the region. With the right marketing, they say 
the region’s reputation can draw tourists to tasting rooms for 
“boutique” marijuana, farming tours, “ganja boot camps” for would-be 
cultivators and coastal “bud-and-breakfasts.”

It could take some time, Schwartz said. “People aren’t used to 
putting a marketing energy into it.”

“We want to be a tourist draw,” said Marv Levin, who is helping to 
open a pot farmer’s collective at Area 101, a marijuana-themed 
community center and sanctuary at a highway pulloff north of 
Laytonville. On its 145 acres, people smoke, wander and lounge on 
ratty couches around a fire pit. Area 101 hosts concerts and, each 
December, the Emerald Cup awards ceremony for the region’s best 
marijuana strains.

Levin, himself a grower, expects that price declines under Prop. 19 
would weed out less talented growers and may dampen the local economy 
in the short term. But he’s all for it, figuring it will help 
undermine a troubling national drug war.

“It’s flawed. It could be better. But I do believe in the overall 
effect it’s going to have in the world. It’s going to start a chain 
reaction. I don’t believe there’s any reason to be fearful from it.”

But the impression among other growers is that Prop. 19 is an 
unwelcome, abrupt change in the makeshift local rules developed over 
the nearly 15 years since Prop. 215 legalized marijuana for medical 
use, but largely ignored outside production. Most growers seem to 
fear the uncertainty surrounding a new threat to an industry built on 
the value of risk.

One Humboldt County grower said he opposes it on principle, as a 
cynical regulatory scheme and tax strategy. “We’re so far up the 
hypocrisy scale. They’re calling this thing legalization, when it’s 
further from legalization than anything,” Jeff Dugan said.

Threat of the feds

In the Mendocino County mountains, a self-described “pot elder” tends 
to a patch of 25 plants in full view. He has documents linking the 
plants to medical marijuana patients, to safeguard against law 
enforcement raids. In the county’s view, he’s come correct, or 
correct enough.

But fear of the feds remains, reinforced by Attorney General Eric 
Holder’s announcement last month that federal authorities would crack 
down on recreational marijuana if Prop. 19 passes. The idea that 
longtime pot growers would fill local coffers with tax dollars and 
risk the wrath of federal authorities is silly, said the farmer, who 
insisted on anonymity.

“There’s a hornet’s nest that’s been stirred” with federal officials, 
he said. “They can’t even get the rules straightened out with the 
medical thing. Who’s coming to weigh this stuff? Who’s stamping it so 
it can be sold? … The more illegal it is, the better everybody is 
up here.”

Man in the middle

According to the state’s Campaign Against Marijuana Planting 
eradication program, Mendocino County leapt this year to the top of 
the ranks in pot seizures by the state-led teams, with nearly 983,000 
plants. So widespread is the area’s pot-mecca reputation, the 
sheriff’s department arrested people from 14 countries on 
marijuana-related crimes last year, said Sheriff Tom Allman, who 
opposes Prop. 19.

“I joke about setting up a satellite office of the United Nations,” 
said Allman, whose 47 deputies patrol 3,500 square miles of 
marijuana-laden landscape, with a population less than 90,000. “The 
old hippies are not our problem.”

Some locals credit Allman with frging a loose pact of convenience: 
Longtime pot growers avoid complaints, and he goes after abusers — 
large commercial grows, pot farms on public lands, illegal water 
diversion and chemical runoff into cherished waterways such as the 
Eel River.

“He knows how much we need this,” one longtime grower said about the 
local economy.

Under regulations passed by county supervisors, medicinal pot growers 
can cultivate up to 25 plants on a parcel — or as many as 99 plants 
with a variance that allows more oversight. It’s a strategic number, 
growers say, falling below the 100 plants that trigger federal focus.

According to one grower, there are doctors who will write marijuana 
recommendations to match the limits. “That’s not a prescription,” he 
joked. “That’s a business license.”

The county’s creative solution: Pot growers with paperwork from 
medical patients can pay $25 each for official “zip ties” to protect 
their plants from seizures, and to make money for the county. Allman 
said it drew $110,000 last year, a figure he hopes to triple. One 
sore spot: Federal agents recently seized the crop of the first 
person to complete the paperwork, a Covelo woman.

“There goes my business plan,” Allman said, laughing.

Prop. 19 won’t solve the abuse of public lands, where marijuana 
growing remains illegal, and it won’t stop marijuana-related violent 
crimes, Allman insists, because it won’t strip greed from the 
equation. Conflicts with federal law, pot laws in other states and 
the potential for different regulations among the state’s 58 counties 
linger. Allman said he envisions car stops at the state borders if 
Prop. 19 passes.

“Is our freedom of travel in America going to be changed because the 
left coast has said marijuana is legal, we’re the land of milk and 
honey?” Allman asked.

For now, the economic cycle continues. By December, sales of new, 
tricked-out pickups and other big-ticket items will rise, thanks to 
early profits from this year’s crop. It can get obnoxious, said Matt 
Gibson, 26, of Ukiah, who drives a 1998 Chevy pickup and can no 
longer find work felling timber. But the benefits trickle down: He 
can get cheap, hardly used rims that pot growers scrap for new ones.

“And I got my dog bathed and groomed for $25, because it’s a front 
company,” he said. “The town would not run the way it runs without 

Contact John Simerman at 925-943-8072.


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