A Brief History Of Pot On The Northcoast

by Alexander Cockburn, July 10, 2013

Marijuana was by no means the first boom crop to delight my home county of Humboldt, here in Northern California, five hours drive from San Francisco up Route 101. Leaving aside the boom of appropriating land from the Indians, there was the timber boom which crested in the 1950s when Douglas fir in the Mattole Valley went south to frame the housing tracts of Los Angeles.

In the early 1970s new settlers — fugitives from the 1960s and city life — would tell visiting friends, “Bring marijuana,” and then disconsolately try to get high from the male leaves. Growers here would spend nine months coaxing their plants, only to watch, amid the mists and rains of fall, hated mold destroy the flowers.

By the end of the decade, the cultivators were learning how to grow. There was an enormous variety of seeds — Afghan, Thai, Burmese. The price crept up to $400 a pound, and the grateful settlers, mostly dirt poor, rushed out to buy a washing machine, a propane fridge, a used VW, a solar panel, a 12-volt battery. Even a three-pound sale was a relatively big deal.

There was a side benefit in the form of decent organic vegetables. The back-to-the-land folk of 1974-79 were learning to grow pot at same time as all other vegetables. Just as the early pot was puny and weak, so were the vegetables. The organic/natural food store in Eureka typically stocked baskets with five withered carrots, some sad looking turnips… A potato farmer once told me that in that era he took the ugliest, most knobbly and pitted potatoes and threw them in the “organic” bin. But, just as the pot boomed in quality, so did the vegetables. The local coop in Arcata became a vast enterprise — and the present “Whole Earth” emporia, with their piles of vegetables more lush than anything in Renoir, parallel the astounding transformation of the pot flower.

The 1980s brought further advances in productivity through the old Hispanic/Mexican technique of ensuring that female buds are not pollinated, hence the name sin semilla — without seeds. By 1981, the price for the grower was up to around $1,600 a pound. The $100 bill was becoming a familiar local unit of cash transactions. In 1982, a celebrated grow here in the Mattole Valley yielded its organizer, an Ivy League grad, a harvest of a thousand pounds of processed marijuana, an amazing logistical triumph. Fifteen miles up the valley from where I write, tiny Honeydew became fabled as the marijuana capital of California, if not America.

That same year, the “war on drugs” rolled into action, executed in Humboldt County by platoons of sheriff’s deputies, DEA agents, roadblocks by the California Highway Patrol. The National Guard combed the King Range. Schoolchildren gazed up at helicopters hovering over the valley scanning for marijuana gardens. War, in this case, brought relatively few casualties and many beneficiaries into the local economy: federal and state assistance for local law enforcement; more prosecutors in the DA’s office; a commensurately expanding phalanx of defense lawyers; a buoyant housing market for growers washing their money into legality; $200 a day and more for women trimming the dried plants.

A bust meant at least a year of angst for the defendant and at least $25,000 in legal fees, though rarely any significant jail time. All the same, it did usually produce a felony conviction, several years of probation, and all the restrictions of being an ex-felon. Checking that little box, “have you ever been charged or convicted of a felony?,” eliminates many government jobs, like teaching school or government loans. There are 32 people serving life sentences in California on third-strike marijuana convictions. In 2008, 1,499 were in prison on marijuana convictions; in 2007, 4,925 in county jails. (Nationally, between 1990 to 2005, there were 7,200,000 marijuana related arrests — one out of every 18 felony convictions.)

By now, the cattle ranchers were growing too. Along the little county roads in front of my house where once you’d see battered old pickups rattling along, now late model stretch-cab Fords, Chevys and Dodges thundered by. Ranch yards sported new dump trucks and backhoes. Dealerships were selling big trucks and Toyota 4-Runners, purchased with cash. By the mid-1990s, the price of bud was up around $2,400 a pound.

Best of all, the war on drugs was a sturdy price support in our thinly populated, remote Emerald Triangle of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties. Marijuana remained an outlaw crop.

Then, in 1996, came California’s Compassionate Use Act, the brainchild of Dennis Peron, who returned from Vietnam in 1969 with two pounds of marijuana in his duffel bag and became a dealer in San Francisco. In 1990, when his companion was dying of AIDS, Peron began his drive for legal medical use of marijuana.

It was the launch point for greenhouses, big enough to spot on Google Earth, plus diesel generators in the hills cycling 24/7 and lists of customers in the clubs down south in San Francisco and LA. By 2005, with increasingly skilled production, the price was cresting between $2,500 and even $3,500 a pound for the grower. These days, in San Francisco and LA (the latter still fractious legal terrain), perfectly grown and nicely packaged indoor pot — four grams for $60, i.e., $6,700 a pound at the retail level — can be inspected with magnifying glasses in tastefully appointed salesrooms.

The age of Obama saw Attorney General Eric Holder tell the federal DEA to give low priority to harassment of valid medical marijuana clubs in states — 14 so far, plus Washington DC — that give marijuana some form of legality. Remember, in the USA there is federal law and there are state laws. Federal law trumps state law, but it’s still up to the US attorney general to decide on priorities in enforcement.

On March 25, 2010, California officials announced that 523,531 signatures — almost 100,000 more than required — had been validated in support of a state initiative to legalize marijuana and allow it to be sold and taxed, no small fiscal allurement in budget-stricken California. (Many growers, zealous not to get on the wrong side of the IRS and the state tax board, declare “agricultural” revenues in some form dependent on the creativity of their accountant or lawyer. After all, to get a bank loan, a college loan, you need a healthy looking return. The feds and the state are happy to take the money and, as a rule, not to ask questions. The state utility, PG&E, is similarly happy to rake in large sums from growers using huge amounts of power to run their indoor grow lights and electric fans.

People here in Humboldt County reckon legalization is not far off and that it spells the end of the 30-year marijuana boom, which was under stress anyway because of one of the oldest problems in agriculture — oversupply. The local weekly, the North Coast Journal, has made a somewhat comic effort to construct a silver lining for the county. It talks hopefully of branding the Humboldt “terroir,” of tours of “marijuanaries.”

Dream on.

Down south there’s more sun, more water, and very capable Mexicans ready to tend and trim for $15 an hour. The smarter growers reckon they have two years at most. Here on the North Coast, the price of marijuana will drop, the price of land will drop, the trucks will stop being late model. There’ll be less money floating around.

The New Deal began with an end to prohibition of the sale of alcohol across the United States. The individual small producers of bourbon — some good, a lot awful or downright poison — shut down, and the big liquor producers took over, successfully pushing for illegalization of marijuana in 1937. How long will the small producers of gourmet marijuana last before the big companies run them off, pushing through the sort of regulatory “standards” that are now punishing small organic farmers?

Drug War Out Of Control (1999)

All those present in a federal courtroom in San Francisco in mid-May were edified by the sight of a federal prosecutor getting off to a faltering start by having to admit that the government's prime witness and lead investigator -- Drug Enforcement Agency special agent Mark Nelson -- had committed perjury.

The object of special agent Nelson's probe has been John Dalton, brought to the courtroom from the federal detention center in Dublin, Calif., to hear his lawyer, Tony Serra, argue before Judge Susan Illston that the DEA's case against Dalton be dismissed for "outrageous government conduct." Among such outrageous conduct must undoubtedly be included the fact that special agent Nelson's perjury stemmed from his efforts to conceal the precise date on which he commenced an amorous relationship with Dalton's wife, Victoria Horstman.

Here, in other words, is a saga that gives us the government's war on drugs at its ripest malevolence, for which I'm indebted to Mark Heimann, who compiled the incredible tale from court documents for a recent series in the Anderson Valley Advertiser, the weekly newspaper in Mendocino County, Northern California.

Let's return to 1985. Dalton is living with his first wife on an 80-acre parcel in Mendocino County, some four hours' drive up 101 from San Francisco. This is pot-growing country. About 4:00 in the afternoon, bullets start raining down on the cabin, and Dalton sneaks out to the ridge where the shots are coming from. At this point, he's bushwacked by five men in camouflage, who beat him senseless.

He comes to, face in the dirt, to find his assailants are from the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, better known as CAMP. These are teams of federal, state and local cops. They ask him if he's a marijuana grower. Dalton says no and that he will sue. Sheriff's Deputy Charlie Bone, who's dislocated his finger in the encounter, tells Dalton that they know he's a pot grower and that his troubles are only beginning.

Within eight hours of the arrest, the charges against Dalton are dropped, and though an attorney tells him he could collect big time, Dalton reckons the safe course is to do nothing.

In 1992, Dalton, a brilliant mechanic favored by the hot-rod set, embarks on a relationship with Victoria (Tori) Horstman. They are married a year later in Las Vegas.

The Dalton-Horstman menage is not tranquil. Dalton calls the police from time to time to restore order, and though Horstman claims her husband is a brute, her own 19-year-old son has testified, most recently in Judge Illston's courtroom, that John was "a very mellow man" and a good dad, and that his mother was a mean drunk.

Horstman is a wanna-be cop, consorts with cops and by 1994 is passing bank deposit slips from her husband's machine shop to DEA special agent Mark Nelson, who forthwith signs her up as a DEA source, SR3-94-0054. Horstman has also become romantically involved with agent Nelson, initial overtures having been made in a DEA safe house, where, according to a sworn statement by Horstman, "Agent Nelson gave me a beer, and later, we kissed and fondled each other. I do want to make it clear agent Nelson considered me at all times his personal possession and got angry if I ever talked with other DEA agents." Among Nelson's other possessions are three children and a pregnant wife.

Nelson successfully presses Horstman to spy on her husband. On at least two occasions, she allows Nelson to search the house while Dalton is at work. Whenever she demurs, the DEA agent threatens to charge her with money laundering on Dalton's behalf. The most vivid episode in this sequence comes in September 1994, during a big fed/state/local enforcement drive against marijuana gardens in the area of Mendocino County. Nelson and a colleague seek out Horstman with the request that she place a "special FBI tape recorder" behind the headboard of her marital bed. Dalton duly returns home and describes the raids to wife and tape recorder, with the latter instrument soon returned by Horstman to Nelson.

Despite the surveillance, the DEA never gets a shred of evidence linking Dalton to marijuana growing. Thus balked, they turn to the drug war's favored tool, a snitch. Two, in fact. Using the statements of these snitches -- one with prior convictions for perjury and fraud -- they seize all Dalton's property for forfeiture, on the grounds that such property is the fruit of illegal labor.

After the raid, Nelson oversees Horstman's separation from Dalton; he and five feds load up a U-Haul with Horstman's stuff while Dalton is out. When Dalton finds out Horstman is in Blaine, Wash., and goes north to patch up their marriage, Horstman informs Nelson, who himself hurries north with eavesdropping equipment. Horstman rejects Dalton's overtures and ultimately divorces him at the urging of Nelson, who even drives her to the lawyer's office to sign the final papers.

On Sept. 27, 1996, the Feds arrest Dalton, on the basis of a secret federal grand jury indictment, charging him with marijuana cultivation and witness tampering. Among the witnesses against him is the operator of a speed lab facing a life term but rewarded for his testimony with a 10-year sentence. Denied bail, Dalton has been in prison for nearly two years, awaiting trial. He's suing the feds for $44.8 million for outrageous conduct. The feds' last desperate throw in the dismissal suit was rich with effrontery, seeking to paint Dalton as an abusive husband. At time of writing, Judge Illston is considering whether to dismiss the case.

 

What this has to do with marijuana cultivation is unclear. Even if Illston doesn't dismiss, it's hard to imagine a jury failing to agree with Serra that in its war on drugs the government is running amok.

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