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Bringing Humboldt's shadow economy into the light


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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 per cent."

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.

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