It's harvest season again on the North Coast, as if you couldn't tell.
Grubby teens squat along rural Highway 101, trying to get $20-an-hour work clipping leaves and stems off beer can-sized marijuana buds. Roadside billboards tout bulk sales of turkey oven bags -- good for holding in moisture and pungent odor.
Across the famed "Emerald Triangle," more than a few storefronts stay shuttered. These days, things in town get a little slow.
"October is when all the business owners are operating their own cash registers," said one Laytonville merchant, echoing a lament over the loss of hired help. "(If) you're paid $12 an hour to sit behind a register and your sister's crop is ready and you need to fix your teeth -- what are you going to do?"
It's a different sort of farming economy in the nation's storied hotbed for marijuana, where a modern-day Gold Rush has only grown stronger and bolder in the evolving wake of Proposition 215. So it's no surprise that Proposition 19, which would legalize recreational pot use, has local residents, growers and law enforcement preoccupied, and in some cases deeply ambivalent.
"I don't think the average person has any idea how huge the industry is," said Morgan Gibson, a local grape grower stopping for lunch in Covelo, a tiny valley town in the shadow of the marijuana-laden Mendocino National Forest.
Gibson shakes his head at the young men who roll loud in their jacked-up trucks with the "Got Pounds?" bumper stickers -- the newer breed drawn to the county's relatively permissive stance on marijuana. He sees the out-of-state license plates and the rise of bamboo fences and tarps in towns filling with backyard grows and the proliferation of billboards touting hydroponics gear and head shops. "Embarrassing," he said.
But Morgan also notices the recent expansion of a supermarket in Covelo thanks to spendthrift growers, one of many ripples from an industry that has gained in stature against the steep plunge in local timber production and a more recent lapse in salmon fishing on the coast.
"I pay taxes. My dog is neutered and licensed. (Prop. 19) is one chance for vengeance," said Gibson, 50. "But on the other hand, will it destroy my economy? It could."
Just how vital marijuana growing is to the region is hard to quantify. Erick Eschker, an economics professor who tracks the Humboldt County economy, said there's no good way to know. But few doubt its impact. Legitimate businesses up and down the North Coast -- not just hydroponics stores and head shops, but restaurants and art galleries -- are bankrolled and supported with pot profits, locals say.
"The elephant in the room, in the more established community, is that it's what drives this economy," said Jeff Schwartz, an Arcata defense attorney and former Humboldt County prosecutor who supports Prop. 19, calling it a step toward more sensible use of law enforcement resources. "Without it, it's welfare offices, health departments and other public offices."
Rumors abound among growers in the region that tobacco giant Philip Morris is poised to launch industrial marijuana farming if Prop. 19 passes -- even that the company has taken an option on hundreds of acres in the county. The company did not respond to a reporter's query.
Still, local supporters of the measure tout the prospects for a kind of Napa-fication of the region. With the right marketing, they say the region's reputation can draw tourists to tasting rooms for "boutique" marijuana, farming tours, "ganja boot camps" for would-be cultivators and coastal "bud-and-breakfasts."
It could take some time, Schwartz said. "People aren't used to putting a marketing energy into it."
"We want to be a tourist draw," said Marv Levin, who is helping to open a pot farmer's collective at Area 101, a marijuana-themed community center and sanctuary at a highway pulloff north of Laytonville. On its 145 acres, people smoke, wander and lounge on ratty couches around a fire pit. Area 101 hosts concerts and, each December, the Emerald Cup awards ceremony for the region's best marijuana strains.
Levin, himself a grower, expects that price declines under Prop. 19 would weed out less talented growers and may dampen the local economy in the short term. But he's all for it, figuring it will help undermine a troubling national drug war.
"It's flawed. It could be better. But I do believe in the overall effect it's going to have in the world. It's going to start a chain reaction. I don't believe there's any reason to be fearful from it."
But the impression among other growers is that Prop. 19 is an unwelcome, abrupt change in the makeshift local rules developed over the nearly 15 years since Prop. 215 legalized marijuana for medical use, but largely ignored outside production. Most growers seem to fear the uncertainty surrounding a new threat to an industry built on the value of risk.
One Humboldt County grower said he opposes it on principle, as a cynical regulatory scheme and tax strategy. "We're so far up the hypocrisy scale. They're calling this thing legalization, when it's further from legalization than anything," Jeff Dugan said.
Threat of the feds
In the Mendocino County mountains, a self-described "pot elder" tends to a patch of 25 plants in full view. He has documents linking the plants to medical marijuana patients, to safeguard against law enforcement raids. In the county's view, he's come correct, or correct enough.
But fear of the feds remains, reinforced by Attorney General Eric Holder's announcement last month that federal authorities would crack down on recreational marijuana if Prop. 19 passes. The idea that longtime pot growers would fill local coffers with tax dollars and risk the wrath of federal authorities is silly, said the farmer, who insisted on anonymity.
"There's a hornet's nest that's been stirred" with federal officials, he said. "They can't even get the rules straightened out with the medical thing. Who's coming to weigh this stuff? Who's stamping it so it can be sold? "... The more illegal it is, the better everybody is up here."
Man in the middle
According to the state's Campaign Against Marijuana Planting eradication program, Mendocino County leapt this year to the top of the ranks in pot seizures by the state-led teams, with nearly 983,000 plants. So widespread is the area's pot-mecca reputation, the sheriff's department arrested people from 14 countries on marijuana-related crimes last year, said Sheriff Tom Allman, who opposes Prop. 19.
"I joke about setting up a satellite office of the United Nations," said Allman, whose 47 deputies patrol 3,500 square miles of marijuana-laden landscape, with a population less than 90,000. "The old hippies are not our problem."
Some locals credit Allman with forging a loose pact of convenience: Longtime pot growers avoid complaints, and he goes after abusers -- large commercial grows, pot farms on public lands, illegal water diversion and chemical runoff into cherished waterways such as the Eel River.
"He knows how much we need this," one longtime grower said about the local economy.
Under regulations passed by county supervisors, medicinal pot growers can cultivate up to 25 plants on a parcel -- or as many as 99 plants with a variance that allows more oversight. It's a strategic number, growers say, falling below the 100 plants that trigger federal focus.
According to one grower, there are doctors who will write marijuana recommendations to match the limits. "That's not a prescription," he joked. "That's a business license."
The county's creative solution: Pot growers with paperwork from medical patients can pay $25 each for official "zip ties" to protect their plants from seizures, and to make money for the county. Allman said it drew $110,000 last year, a figure he hopes to triple. One sore spot: Federal agents recently seized the crop of the first person to complete the paperwork, a Covelo woman.
"There goes my business plan," Allman said, laughing.
Prop. 19 won't solve the abuse of public lands, where marijuana growing remains illegal, and it won't stop marijuana-related violent crimes, Allman insists, because it won't strip greed from the equation. Conflicts with federal law, pot laws in other states and the potential for different regulations among the state's 58 counties linger. Allman said he envisions car stops at the state borders if Prop. 19 passes.
"Is our freedom of travel in America going to be changed because the left coast has said marijuana is legal, we're the land of milk and honey?" Allman asked.
For now, the economic cycle continues. By December, sales of new, tricked-out pickups and other big-ticket items will rise, thanks to early profits from this year's crop. It can get obnoxious, said Matt Gibson, 26, of Ukiah, who drives a 1998 Chevy pickup and can no longer find work felling timber. But the benefits trickle down: He can get cheap, hardly used rims that pot growers scrap for new ones.
"And I got my dog bathed and groomed for $25, because it's a front company," he said. "The town would not run the way it runs without it."
Contact John Simerman at 925-943-8072 or firstname.lastname@example.org.