Marijuana Boom & Bust
by Alexander Cockburn, April 29, 2010
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 a 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.
The California initiative will be on the November ballot. Various polls last year indicated such a measure enjoyed a 55% approval rating. It will certainly be a close run thing, though old people, unable to afford prescription painkillers, are turning with increasing enthusiasm to marijuana. Call the California ballot the second shoe dropping in the “health reform” drama.
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.”
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?
Mongrel Politics & An American Mind
Tax day found CounterPuncher JoAnn Wypijewski stranded in Columbia, South Carolina. “I went up to the state capitol to check out the local Tea Party. It — the Tea Party, that is — was of moderate size, blazingly white. On the capitol steps, facing the Confederate flag on the grounds below, some anarchists sat with a prominent sign, “End the welfare-warfare state.” In the shade at the edge of the proceedings, I fell into conversation with a bandy, blue-eyed man who wore a cap that said, “Gun Owners for Paul.” He had terrible teeth and a long white beard reminiscent of O, Brother, Where Art Thou? and said he was 65. He spoke in a high-pitched country drawl, a matter-of-fact style with a wild fringe of humor.”
In our latest newsletter we feature JoAnn’s riveting and highly entertaining interview. Some samples of grassroots political philosophy outside the Beltway in the year 2010:
Stewart: Now, Ron Paul: I voted for him in the primaries because he stood for peace, which is what Americans wanted and why they voted for Obama. They did not want to redistribute the wealth. All they wanted was No War!
JW: So you’re against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
S: All right, now let me tell you somethin’ that’ll really blow the minds of whoever listens to this. We do not live in a democracy, even a representative democracy called a republic. We live in a mediacracy.
JW: Meaning M-E-D-I-A?
S: Right. Most people vote according to how they are influenced by the media. Ever since back in the Fifties I could read the newspapers, I didn’t care who won the elections, I was not political, I never voted for 30 or 40 years, but I could tell who was gonna win the elections. All I had to do was open the newspaper, The New York Times, and I’d say, well, look, they favor Johnson more than they do Goldwater; Johnson’s gotta win. I didn’t know why, but ever since then I have been thinkin’ about it. Finally, I figured it out.The people that own the media determine who’s gonna get elected because most of the idiots out here are just gonna turn on that TV; they don’t have the sense to turn on the Internet and find a different viewpoint. And the people that own the seven or eight big media conglomerates, they start at the primary level, so, by the time you get to the national level — like Obama against McCain — they’ve already been vetted on both sides. It doesn’t matter which one wins, so, in the end, if we had voted for McCain, we’d have gotten the same war that we got from Obama. I called up a radio station before Obama got elected, I said, “He’s not gonna end the war. I know who owns the media, and I know why they put him in there, and they want us in Iraq.”
I have ancestors that’ve been rabid Christians, crazy Christians, ’cause there’s no other kind, ’cause they been lied to, and you can’t be lied to all your life without bein’ insane. It’s just garbage in, garbage out.
So, we are a lied-to people. We are an insane people that believe in all kind of things that aren’t supported by evidence, by facts, by anything, because the Jews had the wisdom — you know, Paul nearly fell off his horse when he was ridin’ around tryin’ to kill the Christian Jews; he said, my god, they will send money to Jerusalem if we can just convert these people! Big stroke of genius, and they’ve been doin’ it ever since!
Yeah, I understand why we’re fightin’ in Iraq, ’cause Israel wants to bomb all those people back to the Stone Age. The reason terrorists are over here is because they are being colonized, the same way that the American Indians fought my ancestors ’cause they were takin’ their land. It makes sense. But the Jewish media talks about terrorism, says it ain’t got nothin’ to do with Palestine. It’s ’cause they hate our freedom, all kind of lies, and the American people: yuh, yuh, the Jews are right. Yuh, gotta protect Israel, preacher said so, God’s chosen people, hallelujah Israel. I wanna go to heaven, and when the Messiah comes along, I gonna be his man.
JW: So, are you a pagan?
S: I worship god, the same god that my ancestors worshiped for 40,000-50,000 years, and my god is life.
Also in this latest terrific, subscriber-only newsletter, we print “Hu Jia’s Imprisonment and the Mockery of Citizens’ Rights in the Chinese People’s Republic,” a savage indictment of recent developments in the CPR by Chaohua Wang, who has been in political exile from China ever she escaped in 1989, having been a leader of the left student faction during the Tienanmen demonstrations. Beginning with the fate of human rights activist Hu Jia, Chaohua excavates recent alarming trends in China and describes what she calls “a qualitative shift”:
“Nowadays, talk of Chinese characteristics serves the authorities not only to pacify a restless society but, in a much more aggressive fashion, to serve profiteering purposes for the rich and powerful. A telling aspect of the shift is in the government’s dealing with both social unrest and political dissent. That is to say, in the government’s determination to usurp the civil rights of the Chinese people. Social unrest and political dissent are not, of course, the same, as Beijing is well aware. But the Party’s attitude toward both hardened at about the same time. The key events behind this toughening were the Beijing Olympics of August 2008 and the world financial crisis, triggered by the Lehman Brothers’ collapse a month later….
“…The global importance of China’s economy seems to be depriving its leaders of any capacity for self-reflection, often to the point of caricature in dictatorial displays without the slightest sense of humor. …
“…What has changed from bad to worse is the growing indifference of the Party even to keeping up appearances. Recent cases combine the outrageous with the absurd. For example, socially and politically abused people in China tend to seek redress by petitioning higher levels of government against their immediate abusers. At the annual session of the National People’s Congress and the National Political Consultancy Conference last month, proposals were circulated among the organizers, to the effect that petitioners should be arrested if they shouted slogans or staged sit-ins outside government offices. The reason? Respectable officials need proper rest and shouldn’t be disturbed by such unruly elements….
“…Last year, a woman in Chengdu, provincial capital of Sichuan, started to burn herself to death in protest, when demolition crews surrounded her three-storey home and began to level it with their bulldozers. Her extreme action did not stop them. When she was rushed to hospital, her family members were forbidden to see her in the last days of her life and news media were blocked from covering the case…
“…This is one of the most startling new developments in Chinese society: victims are turned into enemies of the state and enemies of the law.”
The articles by JoAnn and Chaohua are important testimonies. Let me urge you to subscribe to CounterPunch (at CounterPunch.org) now.
(Alexander Cockburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)