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Bringing Humboldt's shadow economy into the light


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People also worried about the Emerald Triangle's distance from its main markets. There had been some recent discussion about using refrigerated semis to haul tons of weed down Highway 101 to the Bay Area. Somebody proposed repurposing an old armored car as a dope-delivery vehicle. ("I saw the thing, in Redway," Anna Hamilton told me, slightly incredulous. "It's an old dusty Brinks truck that's been sitting in somebody's yard for the last 10 years.")

Behind all this was a much more serious debate: how to bring Humboldt County's shadow economy into the bright light of government-regulated industry. For many growers, that's a pretty radical change. The black market is, in many ways, the ultimate free market. "The irony is that the most progressive community in the nation has been living Ronald Reagan's wet dream," Hamilton told me. "It's going to be a hard sell. A lot of people don't understand why a third of their income should go to taxes. They have never had to share their money with anyone. " 
But big shifts are already happening in the business landscape. After four decades, the Humboldt growers, who had perfected the high art of lying low, are being edged out by an explosion of upstart, indoor growers in big cities like Oakland. "The rural counties that grow outdoor weed are getting left behind," Hamilton said.

That profusion of new supply has been pushing prices down, a trend that would be sure to continue with wider legalization. That would undercut Humboldt County's economic basis -- and that suggested a natural alliance between Humboldt marijuana growers and the county government. "The county," Hamilton said, "is a vested partner in the stability of the price."

People in California 's marijuana business refer delicately to what they call a "lack of alignment" between state and federal policy. Today, a medical marijuana garden that is legal under state law can, under federal law, still be prosecuted as a major felony. And the gap between the state and federal worldviews is widening again, causing a distinct sense of unease that the feds may see the defeat of Proposition 19 as a mandate to finally bring the state to heel.

Indeed, this year federal officials have taken a more aggressive stance. The city of Oakland, never a place to tiptoe around a social issue, has been preparing to issue licenses for several indoor medical-marijuana farms, each bigger than a football field. In February, Melinda Haag, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California, wrote to Oakland's city attorney to remind him that the federal government still views marijuana as a Schedule I drug - the bad kind. Haag warned that "we will enforce (the Controlled Substances Act) vigorously against individuals and organizations that participate in unlawful manufacturing and distribution activity involving marijuana, even" - in a seeming reversal of the federal government's position - "if such activities are permitted under state law."

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