Pubdate: Thu, 08 Apr 2010
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Page: Front Page, continued on page A12
Copyright: 2010 Los Angeles Times
Author: Sam Quinones, Reporting from Garberville, Calif.
Bookmark: (Cannabis - California)
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal - U.S.)


With Legalization of Pot a Possibility, Humbolt County Ponders Its Future

In this region renowned for potent marijuana buds, many in Humboldt 
County long accepted that legalizing the weed was the right thing to do.

Now some folks aren't so sure.

A statewide initiative in November would allow cities to regulate pot 
possession and cultivation. Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) 
has proposed a broader legalization. Neither is certain to pass.

Yet as medical marijuana has spread and city and state budgets are 
being slashed, legalized marijuana is becoming more possible than 
ever. That has some people here thinking twice.

Wholesale prices have dropped in the last five years -- from $4,000 a 
pound to below $3,000 for the best cannabis -- as medical-marijuana 
dispensaries have attracted a slew of new growers statewide, Humboldt 
growers say.

Recently, "Keep Pot Illegal" bumper stickers have been seen on cars 
around the county. In chat rooms and on blogs, anonymous writers 
predict that tobacco companies will crush small farmers and take 
marijuana production to the Central Valley.

With legalization, if residents don't act, "we're going to be 
ruined," said Anna Hamilton, a radio host on KMUD-FM (91.1) in 
southern Humboldt County.

In March, Hamilton organized a community meeting in Garberville 
addressing the question "What's After Pot?" It attracted more than 
150 people, including a county supervisor, economic development 
consultants and business owners.

All this was unimaginable to the hippies and student radicals who 
came here in the 1960s and '70s, escaping a conventional world they 
abhorred. As marijuana's price steadily rose, it funded their escape. 
In time, mom-and-pop growers became experts.

The plant thrived in the tolerant climate -- cultural and geographic 
- -- of far Northern California. Small plots got bigger. An Emerald 
Triangle of premium marijuana growers formed in Humboldt, Trinity and 
Mendocino counties until, virtually alone, they supported the economies.

Following Hamilton's lead, a meeting will be held in Ukiah, 
Mendocino's county seat, on April 24 to discuss "The Future of 
Cannabis in Northern California." Speakers include the director of 
the Ukiah Chamber of Commerce.

For years the plant was only a small part of the Humboldt economy, as 
logging and fishing provided most of the jobs.

Today, harvestable redwoods are mostly gone; so, too, the sawmills. 
Salmon beds are covered with silt. Marijuana stands as a major source 
of income, even for many whose grandparents worked the sawmills and 
40 years ago railed at the pot-smoking hippies moving into their midst.

Humboldt State economists guess that marijuana accounts for between 
$500 million and $700 million of the county's $3.6 billion economy.

Though growing is widespread, particularly in southern Humboldt 
County, it remains illegal for those not connected to a medical 
marijuana collective. Every year growers are arrested and sent to 
prison. Some live in paranoid isolation, telling their children not 
to discuss their parents' work. Meanwhile, they've gotten used to 
selling a weed for thousands of dollars a pound.

Legalization could take many forms. But the conventional wisdom here 
is that fully legal weed might fetch no more than a few hundred 
dollars a pound, as more people grow it and police no longer pull up 
millions of plants a year.

Illegal marijuana "is the government's best agricultural 
price-support program ever," said Gerald Myers, a retired engineer 
and former volunteer fire chief who moved to the county in 1970. "If 
they ever want to help the wheat farmers, make wheat illegal."

On the other hand, increased demand for legal pot might buoy its price.

"If it's regulated like cigarettes, you're going to have a massive 
increase in demand for it, I would believe," said Erick Eschker, 
economics professor at Humboldt State. Either way, though, talk of 
legalization raises a question: Is Humboldt's competitive advantage 
in growing pot, or in growing pot illegally?

Plantations divert water from streams and rivers. Some growers use 
huge diesel generators to power greenhouses on mountainsides -- 
growing indoors in the outdoors. Occasional spills from these 
generators have devastated streams. Indoor growers, meanwhile, devour 
electricity. Officials estimate that 800 to 2,000 houses in Arcata 
are devoted partly or entirely to growing marijuana. Humboldt County 
is also known for its lax prosecution compared with other counties.

"That advantage, if you will, is going to be gone if it's legal," Eschker said.

Any well-designed legalization ought to ensure that "other people in 
the community won't have to pick up the tab for an industry cutting 
corners," said county Supervisor Mark Lovelace. "People would have to 
learn to turn this into a legit above-board business."

How many could do that is unclear.

At stake, many locals say, is more than a business; it's a way of 
life. The cannabis economy has spawned numerous nonprofits and 
community health and arts groups, which depend on growers for sustenance.

"It's morally right that marijuana be legal," said Kym Kemp, a 
journalist who blogs about life in southern Humboldt County. "But I 
know why they want to say, 'No, don't let this happen to us,' because 
we're going to die. It already happened with the logging industry."

But others say legalization would create a more solid, independent 
economy in the long run for the county, which has a population of 
129,000. Instead of depending on one crop, "the community would learn 
all over again about economic self-sufficiency" that the original 
hippies moved here to achieve, Myers said.

More houses and agricultural land might again find legal uses, the 
theory goes, thus making property more affordable. The county might 
actually be invigorated, said Clif Clendenen, a Humboldt County 
supervisor and owner of an apple cider business in Fortuna.

"It saps some community energy when you have your best and brightest 
out in the hills growing and not contributing in the same way they 
would if they went off to college and came back to teach," he said. 
"Whenever you have 20-year-olds making six-figure incomes, it's an 
economic house of cards."

Once legal, marijuana cultivation might well lose its outlaw glamour, 
to be replaced by the daily grind and smaller profits that farmers 
all face. Growers would have to keep books, pay taxes and abide by 
pesticide regulations.

Grocery stores, car dealers, construction-supply outlets and other 
retailers would have to adjust. So, too, would thousands of 
residents, many with full-time jobs, who make ends meet by trimming 
marijuana at harvest season for $25 an hour.

With so few voters, Humboldt is unlikely to influence what happens 
statewide. "We're better off trying to figure out what the pathway 
would be to a robust industry cluster with [marijuana] as its 
product," said Kathy Moxon of the Humboldt Area Foundation, a 
community nonprofit.

Radio host Hamilton has suggested new school curricula, urging that a 
community college satellite campus planned for Garberville offer more 
classes in accounting and business administration. Others have 
proposed classes in marijuana testing.

Moxon sees an opportunity to take business away from Oakland-based 
Oaksterdam University, which offers classes in marijuana growing, the 
science of cannabis, new methods of ingestion, even the weed's history.

"We're the place where people should come to learn to grow," Moxon 
said. "Who wants to go to Oakland to learn to grow?"

Then there is the Napa Valley model, where vintners thrive by 
focusing on premium wines, branding and wine tourism. Appellation -- 
the branding of the Humboldt name like Champagne or Bordeaux -- is a 
route people here find promising.

But achieving a Napa Valley of marijuana might require the kind of 
collective action that Humboldt weed growers have found anathema. 
Remarkably, Hamilton's "What's After Pot?" meeting was the first time 
the topic was discussed so openly and thus stunned many locals. And 
no one seems to have investigated how a Humboldt appellation might be acquired.

Still, the idea resonates.

Said Hamilton: "It's appellation or Appalachia." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake