Last November District of Columbia citizens voted to legalize recreational use of marijuana, joining those of Colorado, Washington state, and Alaska. Since then debate continues about where and when it’s okay to ingest the weed, how to regulate and tax it, and the moral implications of approving use of a drug that is illegal under federal law.
In the District it’s a war of words. In California, many of the combatants are armed and dangerous. Statewide, the forces for legalizing marijuana have teams armed with clipboards and pens to gather signatures to put the issue on the 2016 ballot. They also take every opportunity to proclaim the certainty of victory. A similar proposition was defeated four years ago, but most national polls now show a majority of Americans favor legalization. Whether they actually favor it or are merely inured to it, the polls do not tell us.
In northwestern California the daily war is intense and fought on three fronts. This is the the Emerald Triangle—Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity counties—where, aficionados say, some of the world’s best marijuana is grown.
One front consists of streets and highways. The daily newspaper in the area’s largest city, Eureka, regularly reports routine traffic stops that turn up quantities of marijuana packaged for sale. As often as not, the driver is wanted for a parole violation.
The latest haul was bizarre. Two police detectives were crossing the parking lot of the area’s largest shopping mall when they spotted two suspicious vehicles and investigated. The vehicles contained a mobile lab for converting marijuana into hashish. The driver on hand had a knife and handgun. The lab on wheels contained processed marijuana as well as cans of butane, honey oil, and equipment with which to make hashish.
A second front involves several area law enforcement agencies that collaborate in raiding drug houses. Almost without exception, the raids yield marijuana plus assorted combinations of crack cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin. Along with these are ledgers of customer names and transactions, cash, and weapons.
The confiscated drugs are destroyed and the cash forfeited to help offset the costs of law enforcement.
One term, probably uncommon outside the Emerald Triangle, is “home invasion.” It is common in places where marijuana is approved for limited use and where there is a big black market, such as this one.
“Home invasion” occurs when a deal goes bad. Either the seller is demanding payment, or a buyer is demanding promised product for money paid. In either case the “victim” brings along a friend or two (with weapons) and they force their way in to collect. Sometimes the invaders are beaten off; sometimes those they call on are injured; sometimes the invaders cart off other property to make up for whatever they came to collect.
The third front in the war is fought on a much larger scale: marijuana plantations. Several times a month, the drug task force raids a suspected illegal growing operation and seizes the plants there. These are not helter-skelter affairs. Most are in remote areas, some involve greenhouses, most have bulldozed new roads, diverted natural streams (disrupting fish spawning), and laced the ground with rodenticides that kill other wildlife.
It is not uncommon for a raided “grow” to yield as many as 10,000 plants. The plantations are staffed by workers from many parts of the world, many of them lacking papers.
Legal growers are filled with anxiety about what will happen to them if and when marijuana is legalized. These are the growers who supply people with have “215” cards permitting them to use marijuana for medical purposes. They can grow their own, or buy them from a certified grower or dispensary.
Growers, legal and illegal, agree that cannabis is big business in their part of the world. In 2011, a University of Washington study Jennifer Budwig estimated that marijuana counts for 26 percent of the annual $1.6 billion economy of Humboldt County alone.
Once it is legalized, the legal growers argue, big corporations will swoop in to dominate the market; illegal growers will continue to supply a black market, and the legal growers will be squeezed out. All this reminds one of the old maxim, “Be wary of what you wish for.”
(Mr. Hannaford, who worked in Washington for 25 years, now writes from Northern California.)
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