By Peter Hecht, published in The Sacramento Bee
Joey Burger was 14 when his naturalist parents moved from Santa Cruz to settle in the coastal forest of Humboldt County.
Local hippies and homesteaders welcomed the new kid in the woods. They schooled him in the regional art – growing marijuana.
“It was never looked upon as a bad thing,” Burger said.
Except before the fall harvests, when helicopters full of narcotics officers whipped through the sky. Neighbors rushed “to call their friends to make sure they were OK,” he said.
These days, it isn’t just helicopters that frighten Humboldt County’s pot culture.
America’s most renowned bastion of illicit marijuana growing is threatened by cavernous, city-taxed cultivation warehouses soon to be licensed in Oakland. It is alarmed by cities from La Puente to Berkeley to Sacramento that approved taxes on dispensaries or endorsed medical marijuana cultivation, sanctioning a weed economy wider and more competitive than ever.
So now Humboldt seeks to save itself by going legit.
In an area where marijuana growers typically evade attention, Burger is the public voice of the new Humboldt Growers Association. Aligned with a Sacramento lobbyist, it is working for county approval to license and tax outdoor pot plantations of up to 40,000 square feet.
The proposal – for local growers who can confirm that they have contracts to supply weed to California medical pot shops – is attracting serious attention. But the plan riles small marijuana farmers, pits indoor vs. outdoor growers, and stirs up fears that Humboldt’s legendary marijuana brand could lose its character to industrialization.
Humboldt, which already permits local medical pot patients to grow up to 100 square feet of plants, is expecting to begin work next month on a more liberal cultivation ordinance.
“Doing nothing is not an option,” said county Supervisor Bonnie Neely, who supports the Humboldt growers’ plan in concept but is uncertain how large a scale of growing the county should allow. “This is a major part of our economy. I just don’t think we can let Oakland or anyone else just become the leader.”
Regulate or lose out?
The idea of taxing and regulating marijuana in Humboldt – where pot growing is considered a natural right – isn’t an easy sell.
Kim Nelson, a shaggy-haired, mustachioed carpenter who grows weed outside his cabin above Garberville, supports local pot taxes and oversight. But Nelson, secretary of the local Medical Marijuana Advisory Panel, says other growers express “anger and rage over getting a permit to grow marijuana.”
Burger fears Humboldt, which long ago saw its timber and fishing industries wither away, will lose out again if it doesn’t take proactive steps to legitimize its pot trade.
Now a 28-year-old businessman with early flecks of gray in his hair, Burger runs a gardening supplies showroom and supervises a well-tended outdoor orchard of marijuana that sends its product to medical dispensaries elsewhere in the state.
He looks warily at municipalities elsewhere in California levying taxes and capitalizing on medicinal growing.
“They are taking market share from people who spent a generation risking their lives and their land,” Burger said. “We want to see people who paid their dues get a chance. We want to come out and compete legally.”
Max Del Real, a Sacramento lobbyist working with the Growers Association, said its proposed ordinance could generate $10 million a year in county tax revenues. The plan would impose annual county fees of $20,000 on a quarter-acre outdoor pot garden and $80,000 for an acre.
Neely is skeptical of the tax revenue projections. But she considers the plan a reasonable proposal in a county where pot is so entrenched in the culture, economy and politics that supervisors four years ago drafted a letter petitioning Congress to legalize marijuana.
Pot culture at crossroads
In Humboldt, population 138,000, it is more common to ask who doesn’t grow pot than who does. As open-air gardens and greenhouses bloom in the mountains, average citizens supplement their income growing under shimmering lights at home.
Adam Hineman, 31, toiled long hours in the restaurant business until he began growing pot in a modest suburban house. The registered medical marijuana patient provides his “Big Bud Train Wreck” to pot shops in Humboldt and Santa Barbara counties. And he builds on a Humboldt dream – of someday buying property in the country and sustaining his family with marijuana flowering in the open sun.”You couldn’t make it in Humboldt without weed,” he said.
Lelehnia Du Bois, 40, learned to trim neighbors’ pot plants in nearby Trinity County when she was 9.
After moving to Southern California, becoming a fashion model and a department store buyer, she returned to the pot-growing region when her mother, then a Humboldt resident, fell ill. In 1999, while working as a nurse in a senior care facility, she caught a falling patient and ruptured her spinal cord.
Now Du Bois is on disability and supplements her income in the craft introduced to her as a little girl. Her “Sweet God” marijuana strain “goes right to the spine” to ease her pain. She makes medicinal pot tinctures and lip balms. She hopes to market them if new Humboldt regulations “support the small farmer,” indoors and out.
But she fears Humboldt may go too far in industrializing its trade.
“I don’t want our town to be taken over,” she said. “It won’t be a community anymore. It will be a factory town.”
Time to go legit, DA says
Humboldt County District Attorney Paul Gallegos, the only prosecutor in California to publicly endorse Proposition 19, the initiative voters defeated Nov. 2 that would have made recreational pot legal, says it is time that Humboldt legitimizes the trade “that permeates our society.”
Gallegos prosecutes more than 1,000 marijuana cases a year – mostly for grows exceeding 99 plants. Authorities also deal with robberies and home invasions at pot sites. In August, a grower was arrested on suspicion of shooting two laborers, killing one.
While pot sustains the economy, growers have purchased fire trucks and paid for emergency medical training for local volunteer fire crews.
Recently, in the town of Redway, an anxious meeting took place over how to protect the local trade.
Robert Sutherland, an environmentalist known as “Man Who Walks in the Woods,” submitted a proposal declaring that the county must “work … to guard the worldwide reputation of Humboldt County marijuana.”
Dennis “Tony” Turner, a former school counselor who runs a dispensary in Arcata, pitched a regional brokerage to market small growers’ weed to pot shops statewide.
Another advocate proposed a local “cannabis council” including pot farmers, a human rights advocate and an expert “in weights and measures.”
An informal poll taken at the event showed more support for licensing smaller marijuana grows – 2,000 square feet instead of 40,000.
But Del Real, the Sacramento lobbyist, ebulliently pitched the Growers Association plan. It could sanction local growers who cultivate for hundreds of medical marijuana users or allow scores of small growers to share cultivation space. “The revolution is starting here,” he said.
As attendees stepped outside for contemplative marijuana tokes, one pot spiritualist began to cry over the mere idea of taxing and regulating Humboldt weed. “This herb is a sacrament,” he protested.
Nelson, the local grower and medical marijuana advocate, called for protection of small cultivators and the county’s pot-growing lifestyle. But he hailed the Growers Association for pitching a path to sustainability.
“I think it’s time,” he said, “to stand up for who we are.”