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Bringing Humboldt's shadow economy into the light


by Matt Jenkins - High Country News

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, lays the heart of what may be the biggest false-fronted economy in the United States. California produces nearly 40 per cent 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.

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