Rising Controversy Over Marijuana Cultivation in California’s Emerald Triangle

By S.E. Smith |  Published in TruthOut.Org

Grow rooms can be professionally built and inspected by city officials but prohibition makes it difficult for elected officials to create that process.

The debate over marijuana legalization is heating up across the United States with numerous legalization or decriminalization attempts in recent years and growing numbers turning out in support of reforms to America’s drug policies.

The war on drugs costs the United States billions of dollars annually, funds which come especially tight in a period of economic turbulence, leading people to wonder if drug enforcement should continue to be a priority, particularly in the case of marijuana.

What often doesn’t come up in these discussions is the social impact of marijuana in communities where marijuana culture is a way of life: the homes converted for cultivation, the state parks that become impassable in harvest season, and the other community-based problems.

The crime-focused debate is to the advantage of prohibition supporters, who argue that legalizing the drug would create a criminal element run rampant, but in some California communities, many of the concerns around marijuana are based on more pressing issues like environmental degradation, housing problems, poverty and public safety, which don’t see as much media coverage.

Many of these issues are also awkward subjects for legalization proponents, who sometimes dismiss them instead of taking them head-on.

They also fail to consider that social problems caused by marijuana may actually be a compelling argument for legalization.

Legal crops don’t cost California counties substantial sums and manpower annually in interdiction and cleanup operations, for example, nor do they clog the prison system with people serving long terms under mandatory sentencing laws.

Living conditions in the infamous Emerald Triangle of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity Counties include high poverty rates, at almost 20 percent in all three counties, paired with limited local industry.

In Mendocino County in particular, the cost of living has skyrocketed in recent years and hasn’t been accompanied by improvements in standards of living. Local jobs are primarily service industry based, offering poor wages and no benefits, making it difficult for residents to afford housing, food and utilities.

As a result, growing numbers began turning to marijuana cultivation with the economic recession that began in 2008. Local growers as well as newly arrived outsiders assumed the work would be easy and learned that it often wasn’t, especially when prices started crashing, pressuring them to produce larger and larger crops in order to keep pace.

Far from being a good way to strike it rich or transition out of poverty, growing can be hard, dangerous work with low rewards, except for those with the money to buy high-quality equipment for cultivation in vast quantity.

The consequence of falling prices and an increase in cultivation were growing criminal problems associated with marijuana, including break-ins, kidnappings and shootings, but the issues didn’t stop there.

Environmentally, marijuana comes with substantial social costs due to the need to cultivate covertly, rather than openly. Grow operations in state parks, particularly in Northern California, are a significant issue that infringes upon public safety in addition to creating environmental concerns.

Growers routinely pollute with agricultural chemicals and leave garbage behind at their illicit operations, for instance, requiring the parks to pay for cleanup. Meanwhile, state parks become dangerous places to tread during the fall harvest season, thanks to militant defense of operations worth millions of dollars.

Law enforcement operations to tackle outdoor grows periodically end in violence, with police shootings in multiple California counties related to grow operations and periodic deaths linked to disputes at remote grows.

Residents nervous about venturing onto public lands in some parts of the Emerald Triangle, as well as neighboring Sonoma County, have struck back at growers; in 2010, one vigilante sparked public debate when she invaded a garden on her own land to make a point to law enforcement.

Regions famous for their wine are also becoming famous for their marijuana and not always in a positive way.

Many of these grows are run by out-of-town growers, some of whom may be linked with Mexican cartels, although other research suggests they may actually be refugees from cartels. They involve high volumes of crop that may vary in quality, but because of the sheer quantity produced, they can be immensely profitable, if the grows aren’t raided before the harvest; and growers post armed guards to reduce the chances that this will happen.

Billions of dollars worth of product leaves the Emerald Triangle every year, but local governments don’t receive a penny in tax revenue, even as their ability to provide social services flounders as the state cuts benefits and local sales and property tax revenues drop.

Socially, this means that in counties where many people are living below the poverty line, local governments are ill-equipped to provide meaningful public assistance to low-income residents.

Mendocino County, for example, has slashed its mental health services, particularly in Coastal Mendocino, and has gutted its library program. All three counties have problems with basic infrastructure like road maintenance, keeping parks and recreation centers open and wastewater treatment. These services are normally funded by tax dollars, but with an untaxable black market, counties have nowhere to turn.

Perhaps nothing symbolizes the social problems and controversy associated with marijuana cultivation more than the grow house. Grow houses, as they are known, range from properties with a single outbuilding or room converted for marijuana cultivation to homes or industrial facilities utterly gutted to accommodate as many plants as possible.

Unexpectedly, this creates a housing issue related to marijuana cultivation, as growers turn indoors for profits. Indoor cultivation has a number of advantages, especially with recent falling prices.

Growers cultivating indoors are less subject to the vagaries of the climate, which means they don’t lose crops to unexpected weather, as happened in Northern California this fall when unexpectedly early rains devastated not just the grape, but also the marijuana harvest.

Indoor cultivation also allows for year-round cultivation and harvesting, resulting in more profits for growers, who are increasingly pressed for money as prices drop.

Any kind of indoor grow is a cause for concern among prohibition advocates, who argue that no one should be cultivating anywhere, but it’s the full house conversion that’s a big concern for Northern California communities, pro-legalization or no. Conversion of housing units for marijuana cultivation equals fewer units available for rental, a pressing problem in areas like Coastal Mendocino, where the cost of living is high and wages remain low.

While the impacts on affordable housing are sometimes overstressed, it is a recognized issue.

There’s also a risk of fire, a concern for fire chiefs across the region struggling to keep pace with grow operations.

Indoor cultivation can require substantial modifications to electrical systems to power grow lights and fans, particularly in whole-structure conversions. These modifications are rarely performed to code and involve, as Chris Marks*, a Mendocino County real estate agent, put it: “overloaded circuits … extension cords everywhere,” a classic recipe for not just skyrocketing energy usage, but a serious house fire.

House fires directly linked with marijuana cultivation have occurred in a number of California counties, illustrating that this is no specter haunting overzealous fire chiefs who have trouble staying asleep at night. Fire doesn’t just pose a risk to the homes themselves, but also to neighboring structures, making it an important community issue for cities and towns with fire departments that are running out of funding.

Scott J. Mayberry, chief of police in Fort Bragg, California, points out that they can also become a community nuisance.

As residents of the Emerald Triangle are well aware, marijuana cultivation can be a smelly, messy business that depresses property values and leads to complaints from neighbors. Since foreclosures and other low-value homes are often used for grow houses, this has a disproportionate impact on low-income homeowners, who may experience declining property values because of grow houses in their neighborhoods.

They also have trouble selling homes to buyers who may be reluctant to purchase with a grow house next door. Under these circumstances, tensions and resentments tend to build between growers and nongrowers.

That community nuisance issue is one reasons many growers once preferred more remote housing. Marks said that in the heyday of the real estate market in 2007, the most sought-after homes in Mendocino County were those located at the ends of remote roads, where a limited number of wealthy growers flush with cash from high prices would pay a premium for advertised “end of the road privacy,” a term that became almost a euphemism in regional real estate listings.

Taking advantage of lax lending laws, growers would purchase homes with 0 percent down financing, taking out as many mortgages as possible to purchase arrays of properties, with some homes valued at close to one million dollars. When they got “bored,” as Marks put it, they’d walk away from their homes, leaving a mess behind.

While Marks didn’t personally encounter gutted or destroyed homes as a consequence of marijuana cultivation, other real estate agents did and many were familiar with the problems Marks did encounter: garbage and substandard electrical wiring. While homes would be stripped of grow lights, fans and other potentially valuable accouterments, growers would often leave electrical legacies behind, including modified circuit panels, exposed wiring, and other problems that became the responsibility of new owners or banks tasked with cleaning up a foreclosure to make it salable.

These problems started to bleed from outlying rural areas into cities and towns as the real estate market tightened. Yards filled with exhausted soil, spent fertilizer pellets and garbage related to cultivation, for example, became a common problem at bank-owned properties in the city of Fort Bragg, located on the coast of Mendocino County.

The community impact of grow houses has been exaggerated in some media, but it is an undeniable problem and matters grew to a head in Fort Bragg in 2009, when the City Council passed an ordinance attempting to regulate grow houses.

It was the culmination of mounting blowback in Mendocino County over marijuana cultivation and sales; the passage in 2000 and subsequent repeal in 2008 of Measure G, which mandated that marijuana become a “low law enforcement priority,” for example, highlighted social attitudes in the community.

Once permissive about growing, some residents were starting to get angry, but the police were powerless when they received complaints about grow houses, because the crops were, by state standards, legal.

Chief Mayberry, formerly of Redding, California, is familiar with the community issues created through marijuana cultivation and struggles to address the problem while balancing conflicts among federal, state and local legislation: “Now I have a city ordinance, state law and federal law. I’m supposed to decipher and weave through this maze.” Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman shares the frustration as he attempts to meet mandates from the community while still doing his job.

Under Fort Bragg’s new ordinance, grows under 100 cubic feet don’t require a permit, but larger operations do. The main concern, according to Marie Jones, who drafted the original version of the ordinance, is fire.

Creating a permit system allows the city to inspect operations for signs of code violations and other fire hazards to address community safety concerns. It also creates a mechanism for processing complaints from members of the public, allowing police officers to respond to reports and cite homes that violate the ordinance, mandating that tenants get into compliance or vacate. Previously, they were powerless to act as long as growers carried the appropriate 215 cards (medical marijuana license) to legitimize the grow.

Curiously, according to Chief Mayberry, the city has done little to enforce the ordinance since it was passed, something he hopes changes in the future.

Those changes may be underway, said Jones in October. Fort Bragg attracted national attention in August with the slaying of a city council member, Jere Melo, while he was allegedly inspecting remote forest lands in response to a report of a grow operation on behalf of his employer, Campbell Timber Management.

The shooting sparked a multi-agency manhunt for Aaron Bassler, identified as the shooter by Melo’s companion in the woods. It ended when a Sacramento-based SWAT team shot Bassler in late September, after weeks of stress for community residents. The crime was originally believed to be linked to drugs and this sparked an increase in public sentiment against marijuana cultivation in Fort Bragg and the surrounding areas.

Jones suggested the result would possibly be increased reporting of ordinance violations and better enforcement thereof.

What’s happening in Northern California has important implications for the rest of the nation, where many arguments both for and against prohibition cite events in the Emerald Triangle. Fort Bragg’s grow house ordinance illustrates the struggles occurring in many Northern California communities as they attempt to address dictates from the state and residents, with the continued federal conflict.

*Name changed to avoid jeopardizing client relationships.

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