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Bringing Humboldt's shadow economy into the light


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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 per cent 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 per cent. 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 marijuana." 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.

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