The Poor Hippy Myth
by Bruce McEwen, May 25, 2016
The Mendocino County Grand Jury has published its findings on District Attorney David Eyster’s innovative Marijuana Restitution Program, called 11470.2, and in doing so this august body has perpetuated the myth of the Poor Hippy.
In short, the DA offers defendants the choice of a proportionate fine and a misdemeanor conviction or an expensive and protracted court process at the end of which they'd likely emerge as felons with much larger fines. DA Eyster's predecessor charged everyone with felonies, jamming the courts with petty pot cases.
The three findings of the Grand Jury were as follows:
F1. The marijuana restitution program has proven effective in meeting its intended goals.
F2. Because the DA did not provide evidence to the Grand Jury of the existence of a program to assist indigent offenders, the Grand Jury was unable to reach a finding regarding such a program.
F3. The program does not provide additional funds for law enforcement but instead reimburses law enforcement for costs associated with apprehension of offenders or abatement of illegal grows. However, County government as a whole benefits from an additional source of revenue.
Finding F2 puts the onus squarely on the DA, David Eyster. But it should be noted that the Public Defender, Linda Thompson — whose job it is to defend indigent offenders — refused to participate in the Grand Jury’s investigation.
The Grand Jury also had three recommendations:
R1. The DA continue the marijuana restitution program as long as it is pertinent to State statute and County ordinance.
R2. The DA institute and demonstrate a publicly visible program to assist those who truly cannot afford to pay restitution.
* * *
The Poor Hippy.
The Poor Hippy myth was created by a faction of law enforcement officers who glory in imagining themselves as drug warriors, circa 1970. These good old boys, latterly inspired by Judge Clay Brennan, were the cause of considerable agitation against the DA’s 11470.2 Program (now approved by the Grand Jury) in the sensational Stornetta case a few years ago, and parlayed by first the Los Angeles Times, and subsequently the local medical marijuana community (already overly self-righteous) and misconstrued as an “extortion of defendants.” They loved running hippies through the legal system.
Stornetta, as most of us know, is a scion of the prosperous farming family of Point Arena. He was popped for a large-scale pot gro enhanced by Fish and Game violations. He paid his big fine and disappeared back into the fog, thus kicking off the myth of the poor hippy getting screwed by the courts while the rich guy like Stornetta skates. The lad's grandpap, incidentally, Stogie Stornetta, or uncle — there's a bunch of them — was arrested back in the day for a crude murder for hire. The old boy's much younger girl friend, and apparent author of the failed scheme to kill ol' grandpap's wife of many years, was packed off to the state pen while ol' grandpap, a guy hardwired to the Superior Court, went home to his wife and lived happily ever after. Of course, ol' gran may have ever after slept with one eye open, but we have no way of knowing.
Some noise, which sounded a lot like whining, had been made as to the legality of the Let's Make A Deal program boldly instituted by our break-through DA, despite assurances by University of California Hastings law professor David Levine and Doug Berman of Ohio State — both authorities on marijuana and the law — that Eyster’s program was legally airtight. But even the Grand Jury continued to use vaguely plural pronouns in reference to the judicially marginal Judge Brennan, as if there were a large contingent of dissenting judges out there condemning the program, when in fact Brennan is the only one. (And, incidentally, sources tell us Brennan himself, a long time toker, has invested in a large tact of land in the Bell Springs area in anticipation of pending legalization.)
True, there are some law enforcement officers who saw the DA Eyster's program as a big rip in the net that Dope Land's big fish could easily swim through by simply paying the imposed fine, taking their misdemeanor kiss and going right back out and planting an even larger grow. But if they got caught a second time they'd face felony charges, although the area's ace pot lawyers almost always get them off before local juries.
The law enforcement raiders who have lots of fun getting paid to bust otherwise harmless hill muffins have dispatched a couple of spokesmen to yours truly with the message that it was all well and good that the growers who could afford it were getting their felonies reduced to misdemeanors, but what about the “poor hippies” who were having to do hard time?
Were they referring to the guys who couldn’t afford to do what’s lately been called a Dozer Grow — that is, to scrape off a logged-over ridge up in the Timber Production Zone (TPZ) and put in 3000-plus pot plants? Or did they mean the retired growers from the 1970s leasing his land to potcroppers and investing in collector’s automobiles, winters in Costa Rica and acres of cocaine up his nose? Who exactly was this mythical Poor Hippy?
When growers heard about the mythical Poor Hippy who was being so unfairly treated by the DA they instantly became destitute themselves. Suddenly it was as if all the growers great and small were shuffling up and down State Street with all their stuff in Safeway shopping carts, their families huddled around campfires while the gruel warmed. As Kevin Costner, presently building a $30 million villa in the south of France, blandly observes, “Me? I’m not rich, I’m just middle-class, like everybody else.”
Our so-called Mom & Pop growers, such as the moneyed and politically influential Dan Hamburg family, can always point to someone higher up on the ladder of financial prominence, and plead (relative) poverty. It’s the American Way!
This is how The Poor Hippy Myth originated.
I recently took a year's investigative sabbatical and went to work on a marijuana grow up in Humboldt County to better acquaint myself with the cannabis industry, and establish myself as what is called “a primary source.” This experience, along with many other less-intensive involvements with the medical marijuana community, added to my mutually respectful and appreciative standing with law enforcement, and has given me “a perspective that’s unique,” if I may borrow a verse from Tom Waits.
First off, it takes a lot of money to invest in a pot pharm. You gotta have money, and lots of it to buy or lease land hereabouts. Then there’s the materials you need, all the myriad of bottles and packages of nutrients and pesticides and plumbing necessary to grow a marijuana plant. A walk through a store like Dazey’s Garden Supply in Garberville will give some notion of the expense involved. It's all very similar to the gold rush days, circa 1849, when simple things like picks and shovels were selling locally for a hundred times what they would cost elsewhere, and a contraption like a sluice-box could only be afforded by those who had already struck a rich vein.
Guerilla grows — trespassing on private or public lands — do not qualify for the DA's 11470.2 program; nor yet do low-level workers like trimmigrants qualify (they are no longer even charged as felons unless they are involved in other illegal factors like violating their probation). And sometimes these kinds of defendants are held up, disingenuously, as examplars of the Poor Hippies who can’t afford to pay “The DA’s Ransom,” as it has been disparaged by both the delusional grower who imagines his pot plants are holy miracle cures for everything from hypochondria to lung cancer, as well as the standard-bearer of the long-lost War On Drugs mentality inspired by Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” slogan and Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority — resulting in the incarceration debacle we are now trying to solve with de facto decriminalizing effects of Prisong Realignment and Proposition 47’s attempt to reduce state prison overcrowding.
The grow I worked on was started by some out-of-staters who had won a large settlement in a lawsuit. By the time they leased the land, put up the greenhouse, and bought all the necessary supplies, they had invested a great deal of money. The grow was a big one and required lots of low-level agricultural employees like myself, and in the end the fellow they trusted to take the “product” to market (out of state where a better price could be had)… well, he disappeared — having sent a text message that he rolled the truck in the Nevada desert and was taken to the hospital. He claimed to have no idea what happened to the cargo he was carrying. This nice young man, who claimed to be (and by all appearances he looked like one) a poor hippy, was never heard from again. (And, yes, cousin, it has occurred to me that this story was concocted to feed my appetite for a share in the profits.)
So much for The Poor Hippy syndrome.
But the Grand Jury wasn’t convinced. Two of the jurors recused themselves for reasons we may suppose had to do with their own involvement in the underground economy. (The cliche "everyone does it" is almost literally true in Mendocino County.) The others concluded that the DA declined to provide them with evidence that if a defendant was indigent, he or she would have his or her financial predicament taken into consideration.
I asked the DA about this accusation and he said it wasn’t true. He said he had told them specifically of two cases, one handled by attorney Robert Boyd, and others by Keith Faulder where the fines and fees were reduced to accommodate the bottom lines of these growers. I was unable to catch up with the elusive Mr. Boyd — one of those locals who lives in fear of the AVA — but Faulder was forthcoming and answered my questions, which he would have done for the Grand Jury, had they bothered to ask.
Keep in mind here that Public Defender Linda Thompson, whose job it is to represent Poor Hippies, refused to cooperate with the Grand Jury. Therefore, the only source for comment we have is the estimable Faulder who sent me the following email on the topic:
“About 20% of my cannabis cases are pro bono, which means the client cannot pay me, let alone thousands of dollars to negotiate a misdemeanor with the DA. Eyster has at times agreed to a misdemeanor disposition for those clients if they do a declaration with documentation [tax records, income and expense records] of their indigence.”
Your trusty courthouse correspondent sees dozens of these 11470.2 cases resolved every week at the courthouse. The money it brings in is nothing in comparison to the money and confusion saved from the previous system under DA Meredith Lintott that saw the courthouse become an auction barn with herds of hippies being run through on an almost daily basis— with no distinction ever made between who was the main guy and who was a mere trimmer — everyone charged to the max with two felonies, right off, one for cultivation and another for possession for sale — then if a gun was found, everybody got charged with that felony as well, no matter whose gun it was.
As one can well imagine, this was a field day for the old-time drug warrior, a source of considerable satisfaction in a day’s work. Busting these people is purely a matter of choice. The cops used to grid out the County. One year they raided the Boonville area, next year Laytonville. Since about every third home was a pot op there was never a shortage of bustees. And often as not, the backlog it created let the true grower off easy as pie, since he could say, “Hey, mon, I’m just a trimmer, dude, swear to Jah.” And with the crunch in resources after the financial meltdown of ’08, it was just a matter of time until the charges would somehow evaporate, just go away. Eyster changed all that waste and closed that loophole, and the Grand Jury recognized Eyster's innovation as a positive thing.
But the Grand Jury was remiss in not slapping a subpoena on Public Defender Linda 'Dump Truck' Thompson, and following up on the Robert Boyd lead. A talk with Keith Faulder would also have helped them understand the context here. The Grand Jurors proved too gullible, and when they were handed the myth of the Poor Hippy, they grabbed it. And now they want Eyster to provide real solid accommodations for a non-entity, a figment of the local imagination, the Poor Hippy pot pharma — what a gas!