Pubdate: Sat, 05 May 2012
Source: Sacramento Bee (CA)
Copyright: 2012 The Sacramento Bee
Author: Peter Hecht


ARCATA - The pot market is crashing in California's legendary Emerald Triangle.

The closure of hundreds of marijuana dispensaries across California 
and a federal crackdown on licensing programs for medical pot 
cultivation are leaving growers in the North Coast redwoods with 
harvested stashes many can't sell.

Some pot cultivators who sought legitimacy through the medical market 
are fleeing to the black market. So much cheap weed is getting dumped 
in the college town of Arcata, some local dispensaries say business 
is down 75 percent. Even the region's itinerant and colorful bud 
trimmers are going broke.

By the scores, people have long trekked into the marijuana fields and 
indoor greenhouses of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties. 
Workers used to earn as much as $200 a pound meticulously cutting 
leaves from marijuana buds, prepping them for display at dispensaries 
or for sale in a purely illicit market.

These days, a 47-year-old man called Mover, a dreadlocked migrant 
from Ohio who is a fixture in downtown Arcata, says the tedious work 
isn't worth his trouble as the per-pound pay rate has dropped to $100 
or often just a few nuggets of pot.

"I got paid in weed," Mover, who refused to give his real name, said 
of his last trimming job. "It's worthless here. You can't give it 
away. And I'm not going to transport anything. I'm too old, and I 
don't want to go to jail."

The region's pot pilgrimage had accelerated in recent years as people 
were drawn by local cannabis traditions and dreams of cashing in on 
the medical marijuana market. They planted marijuana in the backwoods 
and in rewired houses with high-intensity grow lights.

But the saturation of pot growers set off a price tumble by 2010, as 
a pound of prime Emerald weed slipped from $5,000 to the $3,000 range 
for marijuana grown indoors and to the $2,000 range for product grown 
outdoors. Lately, prices are in free-fall.

"Last I heard, a pound of marijuana is $800 for outdoor grown," said 
Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman in Ukiah. "That's plummeting. You 
might do better with tomatoes."

The marijuana meltdown could have major regional effects. In Humboldt 
County, a recent study by a local banker estimated marijuana accounts 
for more than a fourth of the county's $1.6 billion economy.

In recent years, many locals already thought the influx of pot 
growers exceeded demand in the state's sanctioned medical pot market. 
When U.S. authorities in October announced a crackdown on medical 
marijuana businesses that they contended were profiteering in 
violation of federal and state laws, it darkened growers' fears.

Raid heightened fears

Lelehnia Du Bois, 41, was one who thought she had found a safe niche. 
A former fashion model in Southern California, Du Bois started 
growing marijuana indoors in Eureka after rupturing her spinal cord. 
She supplied her unused home-grown "Sweet God" to a Eureka 
dispensary, earning $5,000 a year on top of her disability income, she said.

Du Bois had spent her childhood in Trinity County and remembers 
growers having "a big potluck" meal after the outdoor marijuana 
harvest. She said the weed culture changed markedly as indoor growers 
in Arcata and Eureka competed for access to the medical market  and 
many went into illegal trafficking.

As indoor pot prices dropped as low as $1,800 a pound, "People 
started taking risks. All of a sudden, people were not farmers. They 
were drug dealers," Du Bois said.

Last year, months before federal prosecutors began targeting 
California dispensaries for closure, Du Bois got out of the pot 
business and moved out of Humboldt County. She now lives in Utah.

At Arcata's Humboldt Patient Resource Center, a dispensary that grows 
its marijuana on site, cultivator Kevin Jodry said fewer people are 
coming to buy seedlings for this year's outdoor marijuana crop or 
quarterly indoor yields.

"Many people distributing in the medical marijuana market didn't get 
into it for the risk situation," he said. "The people who were 
formerly in the black market were able to stay functioning. People 
who were not criminals can't move their product."

Pressures on growers intensified after federal Drug Enforcement 
Administration agents raided a marijuana farm that had been licensed 
by Mendocino County and was considered a model for establishing local 
compliance rules for medical cultivation.

The raid prompted Mendocino County supervisors in January to rescind 
a program that allowed the sheriff to enforce a 99-plant limit on pot 
farms by attaching $50 zip ties to each plant and inspecting the 
gardens of nearly 100 growers who provided documentation to show they 
were serving medical pot users.

The program, which also offered cheaper tags for smaller quantity 
growers, brought in $630,000 in county fees in two years.

Sheriff Allman said it allowed his department  which spends 30 
percent of its $23 million budget on pot enforcement  to target major 
cultivators who he says are illegally growing thousands of plants, 
diverting water and fouling the environment.

Humboldt County had sought to put a similar program in place last 
summer as District Attorney Paul Gallegos called for licensing to 
ensure "sustainable and responsible cultivation." After the federal 
government launched its crackdown, supervisors tabled work on the 
plan, and Eureka and Arcata placed moratoriums on new dispensaries.

Outdoor growers struggle

Among the most worried cultivators are the outdoor growers who 
increasingly struggle to compete with the exotic strains produced in 
climate-controlled indoor grow rooms.

Alison Sterling Nichols, executive director of the Emerald Growers 
Association, which seeks to protect the Emerald Triangle's sun-grown 
pot traditions, said outdoor growers were most directly affected by 
the collapse of local licensing programs. The group backs legislation 
to regulate medical marijuana statewide as long as it would preserve 
growers' ability to supply dispensaries.

"People shouldn't have to sleep with one eye open," Sterling Nichols 
said. "People should be able to move from the black market into the 
light. We haven't been able to bridge that gap. We have hills of 
healthy outdoor product we can't take to the market."

Meanwhile, many worry that the Emerald Triangle will go back to being 
the hub of California's illegal marijuana trade.

Last month, authorities in Pennsylvania arrested the former operator 
of a Humboldt dispensary for allegedly shipping more than 25 pounds 
of pot in heat-sealed packets to a home he was visiting. State 
officers in Nebraska also stopped a Mendocino County man and a 
companion with 62 pounds of weed stuffed in duffel bags.

On consecutive days in late February, Humboldt authorities conducted 
two separate raids on growers suspected of criminal distribution, 
seizing nearly $700,000 in cash and 7,000 plants.

In Mendocino, Allman said his officers last year eradicated 642,000 
plants, some loosely tied to Mexican trafficking networks but most 
involving Californians or residents from other states who secretly 
grew on public lands and private property.

With a federal crackdown and a shrinking market, Allman said, many 
out-of-towners may leave and "everything is going to go underground."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom