Marijuana was by no means the first boom crop to delight my home county of Humboldt, here in Northern California, five hours’ drive from San Francisco up Route 101. Leaving aside the boom of appropriating land from the Indians, there was the timber boom, which crested in the 1950s when Douglas fir in the Mattole Valley went south to frame the housing tracts of Los Angeles.
In the early 1970s new settlers–fugitives from the 1960s and city life–would tell visiting friends, "Bring marijuana," and then disconsolately try to get high from the male leaves. Growers here would spend nine months coaxing their plants, only to watch, amid the mists and rains of fall, hated mold destroy the flowers.
By the end of the decade the cultivators were learning how to grow. There was an enormous variety of seeds–Afghan, Thai, Burmese. The price crept up to $400 a pound, and the grateful settlers, mostly dirt poor, rushed out to buy a washing machine, a propane fridge, a used VW, a solar panel, a 12-volt battery. Even a three-pound sale was a relatively big deal.
The 1980s brought further advances in productivity through the old Hispanic/Mexican technique of ensuring that female buds are not pollinated, hence the name sin semilla–without seeds. By 1981 the price for the grower was up around $1,600 a pound. The $100 bill was becoming a familiar local unit of cash transactions. In 1982 a celebrated grow in the Mattole Valley yielded its organizer, an Ivy League grad, a harvest of a thousand pounds of processed marijuana, an amazing logistical triumph. Fifteen miles up the valley from where I write, tiny Honeydew became fabled as the marijuana capital of California, if not America.
That same year, the "war on drugs" rolled into action, executed in Humboldt County by platoons of sheriff’s deputies, DEA agents, roadblocks by the California Highway Patrol. The National Guard combed the King Range. Schoolchildren gazed up at helicopters hovering over the valley scanning for gardens. War in this case brought relatively few casualties and many beneficiaries into the local economy: federal and state assistance for local law enforcement; more prosecutors in the DA’s office; a commensurately expanding phalanx of defense lawyers; a buoyant housing market for growers washing their money into legality; $200 a day and more for women trimming the dried plants. A bust meant at least a year of angst for the defendant and at least $25,000 in legal fees, though rarely any significant jail time. It did produce a felony conviction, several years of probation and all the restrictions of being an ex-felon. There are thirty-two people serving life sentences in California on a third-strike marijuana conviction. In 2008, 1,499 were in prison on marijuana convictions; in 2007, 4,925 in county jails.
By now the cattle ranchers were growing too. Where once you’d see a battered old pickup, now late-model stretch-cab Fords, Chevys and Dodges would thunder by. Ranch yards sported new dump trucks and backhoes. Dealerships were selling big trucks and Toyota 4Runners, purchased with cash. By the mid-1990s the price of bud was up around $2,400 a pound.