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Bringing Humboldt's shadow economy into the light


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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 marijuana."

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