At 4 p.m. last Friday, April 20, clusters of dedicated marijuana users lit up to mark the anniversary of an annual "holiday" whose origins are unclear. That most of them looked both grim and determined was no accident. Marijuana growing and selling on a commercial scale is under assault by law enforcement, especially in California.
Although marijuana remains illegal under federal law, several years ago, George Soros bankrolled a ballot initiative to make it legal in California for people with medical recommendations from physicians to have small amounts of marijuana to ease pain. This gave rise to the creation of dispensaries who registered those with "215" cards (the permission document) and then grew and sold them the marijuana. In some cases dispensers and "patients" stuck to the letter of the law; in others, it was a case of a wink and a nod. Dispensaries proliferated (there were several hundred in Los Angeles). Marijuana growing became a growth business, but doing it for general sale remained illegal.
Those April 20th smokers may have been cheered by the recent declaration of the conservative televangelist Pat Robertson that the War on Drugs was a failure. He called for the legalization of marijuana. The celebrants better not hold their collective breath lest they turn blue.
In recent months the U.S. attorneys throughout California sent stiff letters to county boards of supervisors and city councils warning them that approval of new marijuana dispensaries risked making them liable for federal law enforcement action. Pending ordinances and applications were frozen.
Law enforcement ramped up. Humboldt County, on the state's northern coast, has been described by New Yorker writer David Samuels as "the heartland of high-grade marijuana farming in California." This all-cash business pumps large amounts of money into and through the local economy. Nevertheless, law enforcement agencies took the federal letters seriously. Over the course of three weeks, from late February through mid-March, the county's one daily newspaper carried 17 reports of busts. Six of these resulted from home and property searches, yielding from 102 to 3,800 plants and from 45 to 220 pounds of processed leaves. In several cases there was hashish ready for sale and methamphetamine supplies. Several searches yielded guns and five had cash, ranging from $3,000 to $500,000. Two had stashes of counterfeit money. Two of the raids included large "grows" in remote areas of this large county where marijuana was being grown in hothouses and tended by foreign workers.
A frequent problem in one city in Humboldt County is the rental of houses in residential neighborhoods. The renters convert the interiors into growing rooms. Grow lights are on 24 hours a day. The scofflaws who rent these places often sign up for the discounted electrical service program offered low-income citizens by the public utility. Strong odors emanate from these houses, the high cost of electricity is borne by the utility's other customers, and the buildings invariably are fire hazards. It is usually complaining neighbors that lead to the police searches.
Routine traffic stops in the county often turn up packages of marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamine ready for sale in vehicles driven by parolees.
One of the arguments for legalizing marijuana is that it would eliminate the cost of law enforcement dedicated to enforcing current laws. However, in Humboldt County, based upon a total seizure of nearly $550,000 in three weeks, the law enforcement effort seems to be paying for itself.
And the beat goes on. Just this week, the Sheriff's Office in two raids seized and destroyed 5,500 plants in a rural part of the county and 1,600 in a "grow house" in a residential community.
No wonder those "holiday" smokers always look glum.
Mr. Hannaford lives in northwestern California.
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