Pubdate: Wed, 08 Aug 2012
Source: High Country News (CO)
Copyright: 2012 High Country News
Note: High Country News is a bi-weekly newspaper that reports on the 
West's natural resources, public lands, and changing communities.
Author: Matt Jenkins



One evening last October, I met with Anna Hamilton in the Northern 
California town of Garberville. A singer-songwriter with a barbwire 
voice, Hamilton is known locally for her radio show, Rant and Rave, 
Lock and Load and Shoot Your Mouth Off -- which, it turns out, is a 
pretty good description of her approach to life.

"I'm a little gutterballer from the beach," she said. "And I get 
nervous around too much normalcy."

We sat by the front window in a bar called the Blue Room, shielding 
our eyes from the sun while a pair of hippies attempted to maneuver 
their minivan into a parking space. As a dreadlocked woman passenger 
gently upbraided him, the scrawny, bearded kid behind the wheel 
struggled to line up between the two white lines on the pavement. The 
entire operation seemed to unfold in slow-mo. Hamilton watched in disbelief.

"Don't let anybody tell you," she growled, "that pot makes you a 
better driver."

The hippies were among a wave of migrants that appear each fall to 
help with the harvest. And on those still-warm October days, 
Garberville and its neighbor, Redway, a couple miles down the road, 
felt like the forward operations base for a hard-core gardening cult. 
Citizens stormed local garden centers, loading up last-minute 
supplies and hauling them over a tangle of dirt roads into the 
surrounding hills.

Out in that wild country, concealed behind private gates in the draws 
and gulches that lace the rumpled landscape, lies the heart of what 
may be the biggest false-fronted economy in the United States. 
California produces nearly 40 percent of the country's marijuana; 
worth an estimated $13.8 billion, it is by far the state's biggest 
cash crop. The longtime hub of the business is here, in Humboldt and 
neighboring Mendocino and Trinity counties -- the legendary Emerald Triangle.

Despite the drug economy's pervasiveness, locals observe a kind of 
winking discretion that goes back four decades, when the hill culture 
first retreated from the reach of authority. As one grower put it, 
"We all are keeping each other's secrets, and there is kind of a 
community because of that."

But Hamilton has pushed for more candid talk about Humboldt County's 
economic reliance on marijuana. The formerly logging-dependent 
counties on the North Coast have struggled economically for years, 
and the money weed generates is real. Still, the marijuana business 
is an extremely complicated creature. In 1996, California became the 
first state to legalize marijuana for medical use. Yet the majority 
of the marijuana grown in the Emerald Triangle goes to recreational 
markets, and roughly 90 percent is sold outside the state -- where it 
has been very, very illegal.

That, however, is changing. A raft of other states have passed 
medical marijuana laws, and last fall, California voters took up the 
question of whether to legalize pot for recreational use as well. 
Despite seemingly broad support, Proposition 19 narrowly lost at the 
polls, receiving 46.2 percent of the vote. But in the aftermath of 
its failure, marijuana's slow roll towards legitimacy has continued, 
if somewhat more sluggishly.

Over the past year, trade organizations and the other institutions of 
commerce by which entrepreneurs of all stripes sustain themselves 
have spontaneously emerged. Marijuana growers have begun negotiating 
the complicated realities of regulation, launched lobbying campaigns, 
and even enlisted government support in fighting for market share. 
The county government is itself trying to delicately navigate its way 
into tapping an industry that is still mostly illegal.

That could soon pit the county against the federal government -- but 
it also may be the only practical thing to do. After all, Hamilton 
said, "it's stupid to not just flatly admit that marijuana is what's 
holding this county's underwear up."

The Emerald Triangle has long been isolated by distance and 
geography, holding itself consciously aloof from the rest of 
California. Until the 1920s, the main way to reach the North Coast 
was by ship, and the timber industry was king, sustained by redwoods 
that grew enormous in the coastal fog. By the late 1960s, however, 
when the area appeared on the psychic maps of disillusioned hippies 
desperate to escape from San Francisco and elsewhere, much of the 
land was logged over -- and cheap.

"They could come here and live off of welfare and peanut 
butter-and-banana sandwiches," says Charley Custer, a transplanted 
Chicagoan, "and just kind of scrounge along."

But the hippies were idealistic, too -- dreamers who hoped to leave 
mainstream America behind and create a different reality. Some began 
using their new land to grow pot on the side. They weren't the only 
ones. The timber industry, battered by environmental regulations and 
unfavorable economics, was wheezing a death rattle: In the two 
decades after the hippies arrived, logging in the county declined by 
60 percent. Meanwhile, a single marijuana plant could fetch as much 
money as an entire redwood. Even the old-guard loggers who would 
rather cut a tree than hug it saw the practical benefits of the new crop.

"Now it's hard to tell who's who," says Eric Kirk, a Garberville 
attorney, "because when the mills all closed down, everybody got into 

Even as early as the '70s, it was clear that a new age had dawned. 
Itinerant hippies brought in specimens of Cannabis indica, a highland 
champion, from Afghanistan, and crossed it with Cannabis sativa, the 
Central American species that had long been the mainstay of U.S. 
growers. The plants that resulted were hardier and produced a more 
potent high. Then came the discovery that unpollinated female plants 
- -- called sinsemilla -- are richer in THC, the active chemical in marijuana.

The new stuff practically sold itself, and Humboldt County became a 
slightly grubbier realization of the classic California dream. "I've 
heard stories about local kids who went away to college, and were 
living on Top Ramen diets. They came back, and their buddies who 
didn't go to college are driving around big rigs with expensive 
stereos," Kirk says. "And they're thinking, 'What the hell am I doing?' "

That kind of entrepreneurialism is hard to hide, and the government 
took notice. In 1983, the Reagan administration created the Campaign 
Against Marijuana Planting, or CAMP, a multi-agency SWAT team that 
bills itself as the nation's largest law enforcement task force. 
Practically everyone who lived in southern Humboldt in the late '80s 
and early '90s remembers frantically dialing neighbors to warn of 
impending busts, and women and children streaming out of the hills to safety.

CAMP estimates it has removed nearly 25 million marijuana plants from 
California since its creation. But there was a flip side. Many people 
jokingly refer to CAMP as a price-support program for marijuana. By 
the mid-1980s, with busts limiting supply, pot was going for prices 
that have not been matched since -- as much as $6,000 a pound, wholesale.

The high-risk, high-reward nature of the business only sharpened the 
local spirit of self-reliance, daring and innovation. Certain 
handymen began specializing in the construction of plywood platforms 
for marijuana in tree canopies, hidden from helicopter-borne drug 
agents. The community radio station, KMUD, doubled as an 
early-warning system, broadcasting the position of law-enforcement 
vehicles headed into the hills.

Then, things began to change. California's legalization of medical 
marijuana in 1996 raised the curtain on an elaborate pantomime that 
continues to this day. With a doctor's recommendation, a patient 
could either grow limited quantities for personal use, or purchase it 
from dispensaries. Some 2,100 dispensaries have sprung up throughout 
California, and the medical marijuana revolution has spread to every 
Western state except Utah, Idaho and Wyoming. Two years ago, the 
federal government issued its own imprimatur of sorts, when Deputy 
U.S. Attorney General David Ogden directed federal prosecutors to 
leave alone "individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous 
compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of 

With time, the Emerald Triangle's marijuana growers have begun acting 
more like real farmers. Today, many have contracts to supply medical 
dispensaries in the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento and Los 
Angeles. A few growers even receive IRS reportable-income forms from 
the dispensaries they sell to, and pay federal tax. An entire cloud 
of supporting businesses has also emerged, from attorneys who 
specialize in ensuring legal compliance to labs that analyze and 
certify the product's purity. A company called Statewide Insurance 
Services offers marijuana crop insurance, including a special "raid 
coverage" option. The availability of insurance has, in turn, raised 
the prospect that growers who supply dispensaries may someday be 
eligible for crop loans from banks, just like tomato farmers.

But the enthusiastic pursuit of what is still largely an unregulated 
industry has generated fallout, too, drawing unwelcome attention to 
the whole enterprise. Illegal diversions of water for marijuana 
gardens, together with indiscriminate use of fertilizer and 
pesticides, have choked important salmon streams. The widespread use 
of rat bait took a toll on birds of prey. And the CAMP assaults 
literally drove some growers underground: Buried shipping containers 
with high-intensity lights powered by diesel generators -- their fuel 
tanks holding as much as 2,000 gallons -- proliferated in the hills.

Hamilton and other like-minded residents took to the airwaves on KMUD 
and began proselytizing against the "diesel cowboys" who ran such 
operations. Diesel dope's carbon footprint would give Al Gore a case 
of the fantods: According to some calculations, it consumes about 75 
gallons of fuel and releases more than two tons of carbon dioxide per 
pound of pot produced. Some growers dumped used crankcase oil from 
their generators straight into the ground. Poorly maintained 
generators caught fire in the middle of the woods. And they leaked -- 
sometimes a lot. In May 2008, 1,000 gallons of diesel-grow fuel 
poured straight into Hacker Creek, which provides habitat for salmon 
and drinking water for the watershed's residents.

But an even bigger problem has emerged recently. Criminal cartels, 
mostly with Mexican ties, have begun moving onto federal, state and 
private timberland and setting up monster grows with tens of 
thousands of plants. Last year, CAMP arrested 182 people in 
California, seized more than 5 million plants and shot at least seven 
people; the vast majority of the raids were aimed at cartel grows.

All this has helped shape an unusual social code in the Emerald 
Triangle. Practically everyone, including the police, distinguishes 
between "outlaws" -- the mom-and-pop, reformed-hippie operators who 
grow a little dope to make ends meet and put their kids through 
school -- and "criminals." And smart growers, while they may 
technically be breaking the law by growing for recreational markets, 
meticulously observe a certain set of rules that, at least 
theoretically, put them in compliance with the state's medical 
marijuana law. If a grower has fewer than 100 plants, the federal 
Drug Enforcement Agency generally leaves the decision to prosecute up 
to the local sheriff. And as long as the grower's not too flashy and 
doesn't go around brandishing guns, the sheriff will usually leave him be.

There are, after all, much bigger fish to fry. "Our priority now," 
says Humboldt County Sheriff Mike Downey, "is definitely the cartels."

Scrupulous observance of the law is, although officials hesitate to 
say so, tempered by a very practical concern. If local sheriffs were 
to crack down on the outlaws, they would destroy a significant chunk 
of the regional economy -- and their own budgets.

Just how important marijuana is to Humboldt County's economy may be 
as unknowable as the ineffable Tao. One Humboldt State University 
economist suggests that a quarter of the county's economy -- roughly 
a billion dollars -- is marijuana money. Conventional wisdom suggests 
that, particularly in southern Humboldt, the percentage is much higher.

Ernie Branscomb is a genial, fifth-generation Humboldter who owns 
Garberville's version of Sears. With his white mustache, bald head 
and easy banter, he would seem at ease behind a barber's chair. He's 
part of the unreconstructed Old Guard here, at least technically. 
"I've never grown marijuana," he said. "I've never even used 
marijuana. I'm afraid I'll like it."

Branscomb's store has given him a front-row view of the business, so 
I asked him how big a part of the local economy he thought marijuana 
is. He pondered for a moment. "In my opinion," he said, "it's about 
80 percent."

I laughed and said that was impossible. Branscomb looked at me like I 
was an idiot.

"Look around you," he said.

A couple of days after I talked with Anna Hamilton, I met up with a 
grower alongside a frontage road in southern Humboldt. I'll call him 
Robert Grant. He wore logging boots, cargo pants and a T-shirt, and 
had the wiry build of someone who spends a lot of time on the move 
outside. We followed a labyrinthine route along dusty roads to a 
piece of land perched halfway up a pretty draw full of oaks, golden 
meadows and firs, with sweeping views of the surrounding hills.

Grant originally came from Southern California to chase the surf on 
the coast nearby. He slowly worked his way into the marijuana scene, 
careful not to disturb the local detente. It has served him well. At 
this particular spot, 60 plants were perched in the sun, standing in 
long raised beds and a handful of blue plastic kiddie pools. The 
leafy plants were as tall as apple trees; together, they were 
probably worth about half a million dollars, wholesale.

Among them were strains with names like Blueberry, Amazing Haze and 
Armageddon. But Grant was most excited about a new twist on one 
called Super Silver Haze.

"We've been working on it for nine years," he said, reaching to pull 
down a bud that glistened with silvery resin. I took a deep whiff, 
and my head filled with the plant's breathy, arresting allure.

Grant saw my eyes widen.

"Yeah," he laughed. "That's ... that just rocks."

Breeding marijuana is its own kind of magic. Grant talked about the 
elusive quest to balance a body high with a head high; to blend the 
perfect combination of looks, aroma, flavor and THC; and to encourage 
resistance to mold, an incessant problem with the coastal fog. 
Breeding and growing styles can border on the occult. One breeder 
meticulously tracks each plant's parentage in his quest to produce 
super-potent "stupid dope." Others drive nails through the plants' 
stalks, on the theory that torture will produce more THC. And one 
group of ritualists grows weed that's beyond hand-crafted, observing 
elaborate precautions to avoid touching the buds during harvest -- 
the better to preserve their sanctity.

Grant's pot patch reflected the evolving state of the Northern 
California marijuana business. His cannabis was contracted to a 
medical marijuana dispensary in Sacramento. In the middle of the 
garden, angled toward the sky, was a white board painted with a red 
cross. An attached bundle of paperwork noted his compliance with the 
state's medical marijuana law.

"That's for the helicopters," Grant said. He had little fear of a 
raid. The helicopters appeared once earlier in the summer and then 
stayed away. And now it seemed the entire industry was poised to come 
further out of the shadows.

In 2009, with the California budget going up in smoke, then-Gov. 
Arnold Schwarzenegger -- no dummy about his constituents' yen for 
dope -- began to consider legalizing recreational use of marijuana, 
and then taxing it, as a way to stem the state's looming fiscal 
crisis. The state tax office estimated that a $50-an-ounce levy on 
marijuana could, when coupled with increased sales-tax revenue, 
generate $1.4 billion for state coffers. The legalize-and-tax mantra 
was subsequently taken up by Oakland entrepreneur Richard Lee, who 
created Oaksterdam, a sort of vo-tech school for aspiring pot 
growers, and almost single-handedly turned the city into a 
medical-marijuana mecca.

When I met with Grant, Californians were within weeks of voting on 
Proposition 19. Many growers opposed legalization because it was sure 
to drop prices, although they hesitated to say so on the record. 
Others, like Grant, felt differently.

Despite the spreading legalization of medical marijuana, the profit 
margin has stayed fat: For a grower like Grant, it typically costs 
$400 to $500 to grow a pound of marijuana that will go for $2,000 
wholesale. And with full legalization, he explained, "you're talking 
about a lot more consumption." Even if prices were to fall to $1,000 
per pound, he said, "I'll take that. Absolutely."

 From Grant's perspective, full legalization seemed, at some point, 
inevitable. Several fellow growers had recently formed the Humboldt 
Growers Association, in essence a lobbying group to help growers 
shape -- and get out in front of -- the regulations that legalization 
was sure to bring. The Growers Association had begun drafting its own 
proposed regulations to submit to the Humboldt County board of 
supervisors, which would govern the manner and extent to which 
marijuana was grown, and allow the county to collect taxes and fees.

"Everything's tracked. Everything has a permit number that tracks it 
right down to the farmer," Grant said. "It's just like lettuce, just 
like tomatoes, just like strawberries."

After years of keeping their heads down on the outlaw fringe -- where 
politics meant little more than supporting the local road-maintenance 
association -- growers were taking a big step into a new and complicated realm.

"There's a lot of uncertainty in the air," Grant said. "But a lot of 
entrepreneurs are really excited about the potential."

To a large extent, growers' worries these days aren't all that 
different from those of the folks at any local chamber of commerce. 
There is the issue of brand protection, for instance. Last September, 
a couple of hustlers moonlighting as monks showed up at the 
International Cannabis and Hemp Expo in San Francisco, hawking what 
they claimed were bona fide Humboldt seeds.

In response, local growers proposed an ordinance to protect the 
county's good name, which has acquired a special cachet over the 
decades. A fellow named The Man Who Walks in the Woods drew up a 
draft resolution freighted with 11 "whereas"es, one "be it resolved," 
and a "be it further resolved," and called for amending the county 
code to note: "The name 'Humboldt' as it expresses or implies or 
suggests Humboldt County, California is hereby reserved for the 
permanent and exclusive benefit of the legal residents of Humboldt 
County, California." Other enterprising souls began researching the 
feasibility of trademarking the Humboldt name, which sparked some 
nervous speculation that one or another local faction might lock up 
the appellation.

People also worried about the Emerald Triangle's distance from its 
main markets. There had been some recent discussion about using 
refrigerated semis to haul tons of weed down Highway 101 to the Bay 
Area. Somebody proposed repurposing an old armored car as a 
dope-delivery vehicle. ("I saw the thing, in Redway," Anna Hamilton 
told me, slightly incredulous. "It's an old dusty Brinks truck that's 
been sitting in somebody's yard for the last 10 years.")

Behind all this was a much more serious debate: how to bring Humboldt 
County's shadow economy into the bright light of government-regulated 
industry. For many growers, that's a pretty radical change. The black 
market is, in many ways, the ultimate free market. "The irony is that 
the most progressive community in the nation has been living Ronald 
Reagan's wet dream," Hamilton told me. "It's going to be a hard sell. 
A lot of people don't understand why a third of their income should 
go to taxes. They have never had to share their money with anyone. " 
But big shifts are already happening in the business landscape. After 
four decades, the Humboldt growers, who had perfected the high art of 
lying low, are being edged out by an explosion of upstart, indoor 
growers in big cities like Oakland. "The rural counties that grow 
outdoor weed are getting left behind," Hamilton said.

That profusion of new supply has been pushing prices down, a trend 
that would be sure to continue with wider legalization. That would 
undercut Humboldt County's economic basis -- and that suggested a 
natural alliance between Humboldt marijuana growers and the county 
government. "The county," Hamilton said, "is a vested partner in the 
stability of the price."

Two camps emerged in the debate over how to shape the future. One 
grew out of Hamilton's crusading, and became the Humboldt Medical 
Marijuana Advisory Panel, or HUMMAP, a loose affiliation of locals 
including Hamilton and The Man Who Walks in the Woods. Some HUMMAP 
members were small growers who also belonged to the newly formed Tea 
House Collective, which is attempting to ride the wave of a new era 
of discriminating tokers -- namely, those Whole Foods devotees in the 
Bay Area with enough of a paycheck left over for boutique bud.

The other camp was the better-capitalized and more ambitious Humboldt 
Growers Association. While the HUMMAP types drove slightly 
dilapidated Toyotas and Volvos, the Growers preferred lifted Dodge 
pickups. Joey Burger, who owns a local business called Trim Scene 
Solutions -- best known for selling a power weed-trimming machine 
called the Twister, which looks like a gleaming jet engine on wheels 
- -- was their main ambassador.

The Growers proved far more adept at politics than Hamilton's crew. 
Last year, members of the group contributed at least $14,750 to the 
re-election campaign of a county supervisor named Bonnie Neely, plus 
$13,000 to Paul Gallegos, the county's district attorney. But it 
wasn't until they held a press conference last October, to unveil 
their proposed regulations for how the county might regulate and tax 
marijuana, that it was clear just how successful the Growers had been 
in making the drug business a respectable issue for elected officials.

A day earlier in Eureka, 50 miles north of Garberville, HUMMAP had 
unceremoniously trotted out its proposed regulations in the time 
allotted for audience comment at the end of a county supervisors' 
meeting. The Growers, in contrast, rented a building with views of 
the Eureka waterfront, invited the press, and rolled out their 
proposal with a formidable show of support from the county's 
political bigwigs. Neely emceed the event; District Attorney Gallegos 
and another county supervisor named Mark Lovelace were also 
prominently in attendance.

Gallegos has never hidden his belief that the war against marijuana 
is, for the most part, a waste of time and money. "We don't see 
people smoking marijuana with a whole lot of initiative to go out and 
commit crimes," he told me a couple of days beforehand. "Generally, 
what we see on marijuana is people being stoned."

At the press conference, Gallegos led off the speakers, saying, "My 
feeling on this is we're a decade late."

Eventually, the microphone came round to the Growers' not-so-secret 
weapon: the magnificently pomaded Max Del Real, a glad-handing 
cannabis lobbyist from the state capital whose very name was spoken 
with awe -- or perhaps a kind of disbelief. Del Real promptly dialed 
up the grandiloquence to 11.

The Growers, he reminded the audience, "are your neighbors. These are 
the same people who sit on your PTAs, coach your soccer teams.

"These," he said, "are good Americans."

Del Real emphasized that, to qualify for a permit under the Growers' 
proposed regulations, any applicant would have to have been a 
Humboldt County resident for at least two years. "The key term here, 
people, is localism," he beamed.

The proposed regulations, like HUMMAP's, required growers to minimize 
their environmental impact, and obtain state water-rights permits for 
irrigation diversions from rivers or creeks. Both proposals would 
have excluded violent felons from the business. But the Growers were 
also lobbying for bigger grows than HUMMAP was. Whereas the HUMMAP 
proposal allowed grows up to 2,500 square feet, the Growers' proposal 
allowed ones up to 16 times bigger.

Each of those -- roughly an acre -- would bring the county $80,000 in 
permitting fees. Del Real pointed out that the Growers' proposal 
would, at a minimum, bring $10 million into Humboldt County's 
coffers. Then he hinted -- obliquely enough, but darkly nonetheless 
- -- that three counties elsewhere in the state were already 
considering pot-friendly regulations designed to establish themselves 
as the next Humboldt County. "They're looking at jobs. They're 
looking at revenue. They're looking at bottom lines," he intoned. 
"Humboldt County needs to move quickly on this particular issue."

With that, Del Real roared to a Hollywood finish. "I don't think the 
road ahead is complicated, and I don't think it's long.

"Thank you," he said, "and God bless you, Humboldt County."

Despite a strong showing in pre-election opinion polling, Proposition 
19 was defeated by 53.5 percent of the vote last November. Pundits 
are still dissecting the exact cause of the measure's demise. But 
Prop 19's very appearance on the ballot, Mark Lovelace told me when 
we first met last fall, "was a point that, to me, made this situation 
much easier to talk about."

This January, Lovelace, a former environmental activist who cut his 
teeth fighting to save old-growth redwoods here, became chairman of 
the county board of supervisors. He is soft-spoken and slightly 
buttoned-down. He hardly qualifies as a cannabis crusader, but he's 
frank about the realities in this part of the world.

Humboldt County faces one of the classic conundrums of rural areas 
throughout the West. Its government services are subsidized by people 
in urban centers elsewhere in the state. Only 16 percent of the 
county government's revenue comes from local taxes; nearly 70 percent 
comes from the state and federal governments. That has put the county 
in a tight spot as those budgets have imploded over the past two years.

Right now, marijuana money shows up on the county's books only in 
roundabout ways -- primarily as sales tax when a grower buys 
groceries, or fertilizer, or a new truck, or ducks into the gas 
station for a Mountain Dew. "I don't think we need to have a firm 
number to know that it's an important part of our economy," Lovelace 
said. "And we also don't need to know that number to know that there 
are issues we need to regulate."

As such, the county is continuing to develop regulations specifically 
for medical marijuana. Those will likely require growers to comply 
with everything from product labeling to workers' compensation, and 
set up a structure for taxes and fees. Lovelace is the first to admit 
that such far-reaching oversight isn't always welcome.

"Being illegal has been a wonderful barrier to regulation," he 
laughed. "There are going to be a lot of people who are going to be 
pining for the good old days, when the only thing they had to worry 
about was getting busted."

But growers would benefit from the bargain, too. Humboldt is home to 
a thriving microbrew industry, and Lovelace is fond of pointing out 
that the government had helped breweries in their efforts to market 
their products to an outside world thirsty for craft beer with a good 
story behind it. With pot, the county could essentially give a Good 
Housekeeping Seal to local growers who follow good farming practices. 
"The folks that want to be good growers? Those are the people we want 
to work with," Lovelace said. "We'll be doing what we can to try to 
support them as an export product that's compatible with our values."

Government "support" of good growers would also include diverting 
even more of the law-enforcement muscle away from locals and onto the 
large-scale Mexican grows. "If they do it right," one prominent 
grower explained to me, "we can cut the cartels out."

Lovelace said as much himself. If recreational marijuana use was 
legalized, he pointed out, the massive Mexican pot ranches carved out 
of remote public lands and out-of-the-way private timber holdings 
"will be every bit as illegal as they are today. And all of a sudden, 
you have a legal industry that is saying, 'We want you to go after 
those guys, because that's our unfair competition.' "

People in California's marijuana business delicately refer to what 
they call a "lack of alignment" between state and federal policy. 
Today, a medical marijuana garden that is legal under state law can, 
under federal law, still be prosecuted as a major felony. And the gap 
between the state and federal worldviews is widening again, causing a 
distinct sense of unease that the feds may see the defeat of 
Proposition 19 as a mandate to finally bring the state to heel.

Indeed, this year federal officials have taken a more aggressive 
stance. The city of Oakland, never a place to tiptoe around a social 
issue, has been preparing to issue licenses for several indoor 
medical-marijuana farms, each bigger than a football field. In 
February, Melinda Haag, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District 
of California, wrote to Oakland's city attorney to remind him that 
the federal government still views marijuana as a Schedule I drug -- 
the bad kind. Haag warned that "we will enforce (the Controlled 
Substances Act) vigorously against individuals and organizations that 
participate in unlawful manufacturing and distribution activity 
involving marijuana, even" -- in a seeming reversal of the federal 
government's position -- "if such activities are permitted under state law."

The Department of Justice followed up that letter with a barrage of 
similar messages to Colorado, Montana, Arizona and Washington, and in 
March, federal agents raided several marijuana dispensaries in 
Montana. To make sure the point was clear, in June, Deputy Attorney 
General James Cole issued yet another memorandum, about the Justice 
Department's position nationwide, writing: "Persons who are in the 
business of cultivating, selling or distributing marijuana, and those 
who knowingly facilitate such activities, are in violation of the 
Controlled Substances Act, regardless of state law."

The Treasury Department, meanwhile, has begun dismantling the basic 
business infrastructure that medical marijuana dispensaries rely on. 
This spring, banks holding accounts for dispensaries received a wave 
of letters threatening to revoke their FDIC insurance, and big banks 
such as Wells Fargo have since been closing such accounts.

As Humboldt County officials slowly move forward with their medical 
marijuana regulations -- an effort that will likely take at least 
another year -- some wonder whether they should see the Justice 
Department's recent statements as a warning to hold off. When I 
talked with Lovelace again in July, he sounded exasperated. "Frankly, 
the federal position isn't doing anything to actually help us with 
the issue," he said. "I just don't think they get it."

Anna Hamilton, for her part, has become disillusioned with the 
slowness of the process, and with HUMMAP, the group she helped to 
start. In fact, when I spoke with her this summer, she had 
practically become a cheerleader for the rival Growers Association. 
"They're putting thousands of dollars into political campaigns up 
here," she said. "And HUMMAP, meanwhile, can't raise 40 bucks at a 
meeting with 60 people."

Indeed, the Growers do seem to be building steam. After Bonnie Neely, 
the county supervisor, lost her re-election bid last fall, they hired 
her as a consultant. Paul Gallegos, the district attorney, won his 
re-election campaign, but ended up $47,000 in debt; this July, the 
Growers co-sponsored a fund-raising dinner for him in Sacramento.

The road ahead is undeniably longer and more complicated than Max Del 
Real predicted. But Humboldt's growers are used to biding their time. 
They've been doing it for 40 years.

Robert Grant is keeping a close eye on the Growers Association's 
progress. After Proposition 19 was defeated, the Growers scaled down 
their proposed regulations to apply only to medical marijuana. But, 
Grant points out, their proposal is carefully written so that if -- 
or when -- recreational use is finally legalized, it can easily apply 
to a much bigger market.

"It's so seamless," he says, "it's beautiful."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom