Cannabis is a highly persuadable plant. It thrives in Afghanistan; it grows beautifully in Mexico. It can prosper indoors or outdoors, in contained environments or expansive ones. Even on the essentials, like soil, light, and water, accommodations can be made. Cannabis in the wild will flower only once a year, early in the fall, but it can be tricked. Indoors, artificial light can be timed to mimic the patterns of the early sunsets of autumn, seducing the plant to bud; outside, the same effect is achieved by laying parabolic tarps, each shaped like the St. Louis arch, over the crop to obscure the sun. Nor does cannabis require expert botanists. There is a pattern that has been showing up in the criminal courts of Northern California in which a day laborer, often an illegal immigrant, is picked up for work, driven to tend a marijuana garden growing deep in Mendocino National Forest, and told that he is now in the employ of the Mexican Mafia. The guess, locally, is that the Mexican Mafia is not really involved, that this is just a ghost story to make sure the laborers stay put. But still, an untrained day laborer hired at Home Depot is all you need to manage a large crop. He’ll do fine.
Marijuana has remained mostly illegal, even as many Americans have come to consider it harmless and normal, and so it now occupies a uniquely ambiguous place in American law and life. There are a few places in the United States that have been known for decades for marijuana—far-northern California, Kentucky—where people are comfortable with sedition, and willing to live outside of the law. But during the last decade, as growing and selling marijuana began to edge out of the shadows, these places have become the sites of this country’s first experiments with tacit decriminalization. And so the business has shifted, too. “We have to face facts,” says a veteran California grower named Anna Hamilton. “We are in a commodity business.”
The full implications of this first became clear to Kristin Nevedal one day a few years ago, when some neighbors of hers in southern Humboldt County, four hours north of San Francisco, noticed a rainbow, discolored and distended, rising over their yard. This part of California is gorgeous, and hallucinatory, but even here a weird rainbow is an unusual sight, and so they investigated. Next door was a large indoor growing operation, and when they walked over, they saw an abandoned generator leaking fuel into Hacker Creek. Soon there were diesel rainbows up and down the stream. “The gentleman who owned the property was in Thailand,” Nevedal says. Nevedal helped found the association of cannabis growers in Humboldt, and she is a bit of an idealist about pot. Everything about the episode—the use of diesel, the indoor growing, the recklessness, but mostly the absenteeism—seemed an affront. She says “Thailand” the way a Sufi mystic might say “Dubai.”
That Humboldt County has remained so much a culture apart has something to do with the origami folds of its canyons and hills, which permit a certain isolation, but something more to do with pot. Driving through Myers Flat once, I saw a dreadlocked blonde girl, obese and braless, filling a van with male hitchhikers, like a cross between a community bus and a gender-reversal Manson Family. Most other back-to-the-land communes of the seventies eventually packed up and retreated, their members quietly reabsorbed into the suburban belt. The hippies in Humboldt had cannabis, which meant that though they were in many ways beyond the reach of government, they could pay for their own schools, for fire departments and private roads. They could see a future, and so they stayed.
Still, reminders of their alienation were everywhere. By the early eighties, the California law-enforcement agencies were conducting annual raids (called by their acronym, CAMP). You would walk onto your deck, on a sunny south slope, and suddenly a helicopter would be hovering there, cops with rifles scanning the valley below. Camouflaged swat teams jumped out of forest groves pointing guns. “People here can be a little paranoid anyway—there were an awful lot of Vietnam vets here early on,” one longtime grower says, and the raids made paranoia seem reasonable. But there were side benefits to this armed form of prohibition. One joke here is that the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting was actually the Campaign to Appreciate Marijuana Prices. If you were savvy enough to dodge through the forest with helicopters overhead, carrying plants on a canvas stretcher, if you knew how to trim a tall tanoak in the forest so that its topmost branches protected the crop from view while still letting in just enough sunlight, then you could really make it. By 1996, marijuana here was going for $4,000 a pound.