DATELINE

Pot luck in the high hills

This fall's marijuana harvest could result in a cash crop worth up to $1 billion

William Scobie October 12 1981
DATELINE

Pot luck in the high hills

This fall's marijuana harvest could result in a cash crop worth up to $1 billion

William Scobie October 12 1981

Pot luck in the high hills

DATELINE

CALIFORNIA

This fall's marijuana harvest could result in a cash crop worth up to $1 billion

William Scobie

In the remote hills and trackless valleys of northern California, it’s time to bring in what they call here the “happy harvest.” The grass is as high as an elephant’s eye in the shimmering noonday heat. But the casual visitor rarely spots the tall, saw-toothed plants tucked away in camouflaged, booby-trapped and guarded plots. This fall it’s a bumper crop, worth somewhere between $500 million (U.S.) and $1 billion—probably the most valuable cash crop in the golden state, food bowl of America. And a lot of people—smalltime pirates, the Mafia, police in helicopters, posses of sheriffs’ deputies, federal narcotics agents—want to snatch it away from the growers.

The crop is common hemp, cannabis sativa—marijuana—and in the past three years it has transformed the social and economic life of a vast fivecounty area of northern California, which stretches north from San Francisco to the Oregon border. It is, of course, illegal, but in this 16,000 square miles of rugged country, small holders find the risks well worth the annual tax-free income of $200,000 and up that a diligent farmer can earn. Their great fear: not the law, but marijuana bandits, waiting to rip off the pot plantations. “The vigilantes out there protect their crops like moonshiners did their stills during prohibition,” says Sheriff Gene Cox, head of Humboldt County’s pot force. “They’re turning a peaceful

countryside into a 1980s version of Appalachia in the ’30s.”

America’s appetite for marijuana appears insatiable. At least 11 tonnes a day go up in smoke, and consumers demand ever more potent strains of the drug. Former White House adviser and drug authority Dr. Peter Bourne estimates that the marijuana industry is among the top half-dozen money-makers in the nation, totalling around $50 billion. Bourne, an advocate of smaller penalties for possession (but not of legalization), calls marijuana “the country’s most difficult drug problem,

a politician’s nightmare.”

You begin to see what he means in the potvilles of northern California, oddly named backwoods towns—Willits, Garberville, Ukiah—where conservative old-timers and sharp, young universityeducated entrepreneurs have an uneasy alliance. They want the law and the political bosses in Sacramento, the state capital, to stay out of their business: in this area, long-depressed by a timber industry slump, pot is a godsend.

Marijuana is not merely a good cash crop. “It’s sent land values skyrocketing,” says realtor Roy Johnson. “It’s not my job to fink to the Internal Revenue Service, to ask where these guys got their money. Hell, it would be discrimination if I refused to sell them land.” So, in Garberville, there are more real estate offices than saloons on the main street. Local politicians quickly got the message. State Senator Barry Keene announced that he was pushing a bill to decriminalize cultivation. The physical ill effects of pot were not proven, he said, “and right now what I see is a multimillion-dollar business in the heart of my district.” Some “very responsible members of the Chamber of Commerce” had asked him if it didn’t make sense to decriminalize pot. Would it not “diversify the economy, broaden the tax base and create jobs in this high-unemployment area?”

Mendocino County’s agricultural commissioner, Ted Eriksen Jr., recognized the industry’s status by listing county production in his annual report

last year at $90 million. A higher authority ordered the entry deleted. Amiable, easy-going Eriksen, whose forebears have lived here since the turn of the century, says: “I guess it’s one thing to make money from moonshine, another to advertise the fact. Back in prohibition days my daddy used to ship wine grapes out of the state in a box labelled DON’T CRUSH THIS. IT MIGHT TURN INTO WINE. I just don’t see much difference in what’s happening today. Pot is this county’s No. 1 agricultural product. This harvest, it’ll bring in more than $100 million. People who refuse to

recognize that are burying their heads in the sand.” Next year is election year in California so ambitious state politicians don’t quite see it Eriksen’s way. Attorney-General George Deukmejian, running for governor, wants the commissioner fired and is taking court action to remove him.

Not many people in tiny Garberville (population 1,350) like to talk about their top crop. Media attention means more attention from the law. “But you always know when the harvest’s coming in,” says one drinker in the loggers’ old pub, The Branding Iron Saloon. “That’s

when the $100 bills start flashing.”

Thanks to the curious sex life of cannabis sativa, California’s young marijuana millionaires have been able to develop a strain of the weed that outclasses Colombian, Mexican and even such specialties as Hawaii’s fabled Maui-wowie in potency and popularity -Cultivation today calls for both science and tender loving care. It involves force feeding with fertilizers, chemical and organic, and above all “selective breeding”—the systematic removal of male plants from the neighborhood of the female. Deprived of male companionship, the ungerminated heads of the female plant ooze a dark resin that contains 10 to 12 times as much tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) as do other varieties. THC is the active agent that gives smokers their high.

The result is sinsemilla—literally, “without seeds”—the most powerful strain of grass in the world, priced at $1,500 to $3,000 a pound, selling on the street for $200 an ounce. Helping to force up the price is the success of Mexico’s paraquat spraying program, urged by the United States. Once it seemed that nearly every bag of “weed” sold was purportedly Mexico’s Acapulco gold. Today, the great fields south of the U.S. border are devastated annually with pesticides, and Mexico’s share of the U.S. marijuana market has fallen to an estimated 10 per cent. Now some California legislators want to use paraquat on the northern plots. “Why should the taxpayer pay for armies of drug enforcement agents to go in there and seize the stuff when paraquat could do the job quickly and easily?” asks Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates.

The answer is that growers, with heavy popular support, are taking an over-our-dead-bodies stand against spraying (which kills forest underbrush as well as pot plants). They helped push through a local ordinance that forbids

aerial spraying, then handed frustrated police another setback when one county voted against accepting a federal grant to help pay for a “sinsemilla strike force” set up by California’s attorney-general.

Many farmers try to avoid risks and cut costs by planting on other people’s land. National parks—where vast forest stretches off the beaten track rarely see a tourist—and other federal properties are much favored. Says one narcotics agent in Ukiah, the county seat: “We’ve found farms in a dozen national forests, at Big Sur, even on the HunterLigett Military Reservation [a huge military training ground].” Others simply grow it in their own backyard. A 55year-old grandmother, Jane Schimpff, recently arrested with a crop worth $50,000, said she had grown her 60 plants as “a hedge against inflation.” Had she known her plantation was so valuable, “Why honey, I’d have covered it up better.”

Violence among the illicit gardens in the hills is becoming commonplace. At least three murders have been linked to the traffic—one of a grower gunned down by a teen-ager attempting to rip off a hidden plot. Farmers often sleep, armed, in their plantations at harvest time. Some set up booby traps—wires stretched across paths are a favorite— and elaborate alarm systems. “Big redwoods mysteriously fall across roads,” says Humboldt County District Attorney Bernie DePaoli. “Small bridges have been blown up to keep police out. Violent crime is going up 150 per cent each year.” And much violence simply goes unreported, police believe. The troublemakers are hardened criminals who flock to the area at harvest time. “It used to be you could walk anywhere in these woods,” says a justice department narcotics agent. “Now you can’t do it without being shot at.”

Two years ago Attorney-General

Deukmejian launched an all-out war on the farms, leading his agents personally into the fray, followed by TV crews. Armed with helicopters and an array of electronic warfare gadgets the strike force seized and destroyed tonnes of weed worth millions of dollars.

But despite the huge hauls, agents say they probably seize less than 10 per cent of what is grown in this area. They also blame the courts for being “soft” on growers, who rarely get anything worse than probation and a fine when caught.

This harvest season the mini-war is

being rerun, but almost certainly with as little success. For America wants its weed. And as counterculture guru Stewart Brand puts it in his best-selling Whole Earth Catalogue: “Growing your own marijuana saves a lot of money. You get a better product than you can buy. There’s no question of paraquat poisoning. You’re not enriching the Mafia or a few families in Colombia. And it’s a gorgeous plant. Tens of thousands of Americans have been introduced to the joys of gardening by first growing their own dope. Later they diversified into food.” <£?