Humboldt: Life on America's Marijuana Frontier

Humboldt: Life on America's Marijuana Frontier

by Emily Brady


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In the vein of Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief and Deborah Feldman's Unorthodox, journalist Emily Brady journeys into a secretive subculture--one that marijuana built.

Say the words "Humboldt County" to a stranger and you might receive a knowing grin. The name is infamous, and yet the place, and its inhabitants, have been nearly impenetrable. Until now.

Humboldt is a narrative exploration of an insular community in Northern California, which for nearly 40 years has existed primarily on the cultivation and sale of marijuana. It's a place where business is done with thick wads of cash and savings are buried in the backyard. In Humboldt County, marijuana supports everything from fire departments to schools, but it comes with a heavy price. As legalization looms, the community stands at a crossroads and its inhabitants are deeply divided on the issue--some want to claim their rightful heritage as master growers and have their livelihood legitimized, others want to continue reaping the inflated profits of the black market.

Emily Brady spent a year living with the highly secretive residents of Humboldt County, and her cast of eccentric, intimately drawn characters take us into a fascinating, alternate universe. It's the story of a small town that became dependent on a forbidden plant, and of how everything is changing as marijuana goes mainstream.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781455506767
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: 06/18/2013
Pages: 260
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Emily Brady is a former New York Times reporter. Her writing has also appeared in the Village Voice, Time, Columbia Journalism Review, and Plenty.

Read an Excerpt


Life on America's Marijuana Frontier

By Emily Brady

Grand Central Publishing

Copyright © 2013 Emily Brady
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4555-0676-7



Late one Tuesday afternoon in March of 2010, in a disorderly cabin located on the edge of the North American continent, in a place bypassed by highways and the electrical grid, Mary Em Abidon reached deep into her freezer, plucked out a small white marrowbone, and tossed it onto her pantry floor. Her dog, Lucky, was nearly deaf, but the unmistakable thunk of bone hitting wood could still roust him from his slumber. It was a familiar routine between Mare, as she was known to most everyone, and the border collie/cocker spaniel mutt she found abandoned on the road to Shelter Cove fourteen years earlier.

As Mare bent down to scratch behind Lucky's floppy black ears and pat his head, the little dog peered up at her with pleading eyes.

"Lucky, stay and guard," she instructed him, as she always did before she left for town.

Lucky picked up his treat and headed for the front deck to curl up under the cherry trees that were just beginning to bud, while Mare gathered up her coat and purse and pulled the cabin door shut behind her. She was excited, giddy even, as she started up her battered Volvo station wagon and eased it down her driveway and toward town. It was the same fluttery feeling she had long ago when she first moved to this place. It felt like the start of something new.

Mare had first heard about the event while listening to KMUD-FM, the community radio station. A local talk show host named Anna "Banana" Hamilton was organizing it. The flyers she posted around town advertised the event two ways: "The Post-Marijuana Prohibition Economy Forum," and the shorthand version, which rolled off the tongue much easier: "What's After Pot?" The accompanying art featured a pot leaf, two nude female figures wearing baseball caps, clumps of trimmed marijuana buds, and what appeared to be dollar bills with wings fluttering away. Smaller print near the bottom of the flyer advised attendees to bring their own snacks.

On her way to town, Mare caught slivers of the steel-blue Pacific Ocean through the trees, but mostly all she could see were the trees themselves. On her right, madrones and Douglas firs plunged down the canyon. On her left, they furrowed their roots deep into the hillside. The Volvo rattled past a row of brightly painted mailboxes and the dirt road that led to the meadow where the annual Easter egg hunt and the May and October trade fairs were held. Farther ahead was the tiny community school where years earlier Mare had volunteered as an art teacher, teaching the children how to make paper and pinch clay into faces that they would stick to trees until the rain washed them away.

At the intersection called Four Corners, where a hand-painted blue sign cautioned drivers to be on the lookout for bicycles, motorcycles, a donkey, and children, Mare guided the Volvo past the entrance to Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, and onto a road that straddled the Mendocino and Humboldt county line. Deep inside the state park was a seventy-five-acre patch of ancient redwoods that Mare had once fought to save from the roar of a lumber company's saw. Looking back on her life, Mare considered it the most important thing she'd ever done.

That was nearly thirty years ago. On this March day, Mare was a month into her seventieth year. Her once-blond hair had long since turned silvery white, and her handsome face carried the lines of a life fully lived. Her blue eyes still twinkled with unfaltering optimism, and she continued to marvel at the details, like the cherry-red paint on a passing motorcycle, which could make her exclaim in childlike delight. But her body had begun to betray her. Her right knee caused her to hobble, and she had had to have a hip replaced a few years back. "Becoming bionic," she called it. Her sturdy, creative hands, which once made a thousand ceramic pots a year, were now racked with arthritis. They gripped the Volvo's steering wheel and propelled her toward town.

The meeting was taking place at the Mateel Community Center in Southern Humboldt, an area of 1,200 square miles of sprawling wilderness in the far reaches of Northern California. The area used to be known as the Mateel, after the Mattole and Eel rivers that flow through it, but now, as if it were some Manhattan neighborhood, many people called it by the abbreviated term SoHum.

Over the years, SoHum, the rest of Humboldt, and neighboring Mendocino and Trinity counties had become known around the country as the Emerald Triangle, after the region's brilliant green clandestine marijuana crop. Since the mid-1970s, outlaw farmers throughout the Triangle had been supplying America with its favorite illegal drug. What had started as a lark nearly forty years earlier had become the backbone to the county's economy. Throughout the region, and particularly in SoHum, marijuana farming had become a way of life, one that transcended class and generations. "It's what we do here," people would say.

Mare herself had grown a half-dozen plants every year for decades.

But the code of silence surrounding the marijuana industry was such that, until one March evening in 2010, there had never been a public gathering in Southern Humboldt where what people did there was openly discussed.

Sure, for twenty years there was an annual hemp festival, where pot-related books and paraphernalia were sold, and for decades there had been meetings to discuss the actions of law enforcement in the community, but a public discussion about the dependence of the local economy on the black market marijuana crop had never happened before. Up until this moment, it was even considered bad form to ask what someone did for a living in the community. It was just understood.

As she approached the town of Redway, Mare hung a right. She passed the grocery store that most old-timers still called Murrish's, eased the Volvo into a parking spot, and began to shuffle toward the boxy beige building on the hill.

She passed through the front doors of the Mateel Community Center and a giant wooden sculpture of an open hand. Inside, the stage where musicians from around the world came to play shows was empty, but the entire oak floor below was filled with a dozen long banquet tables and an army of folding chairs. On each table were handwritten place cards indicating who should sit there. There were tables for landowners, local government, medical marijuana patients, the press, "Growers," and "Just Curious." There was even a gray metal chair labeled "FBI."

It was a large crowd for Southern Humboldt. Nearly two hundred people were milling about. Instead of picking a table, Mare headed for the fireplace in the back corner that was sculpted to resemble a giant redwood tree trunk and looked as though it should have a cauldron bubbling away inside it. Across the room she spotted her cousin Jewel, who shared her silver hair and warm smile. There were other familiar faces in the crowd—neighbors and friends—and the unfamiliar. Seated at the landowners' table was a woman with long, coppery red hair named Kym Kemp. A third-generation Humboldter, Kemp had been blogging about local marijuana culture since 2007, under the name Redheaded Blackbelt. Her blog posts ranged from photos of local wildflowers and quilts she helped stitch to links to stories about the marijuana industry and flyers of the occasional missing person. Sitting nearby was a man Mare knew named Charley Custer, who was dressed in his trademark Stetson hat and Jesus sandals. Custer had moved to Humboldt from Chicago in 1980 to write a book that he referred to as his "opus dopus." It was, as of yet, incomplete.

Engrossed in a conversation over by the stage was the event's mastermind, Anna "Banana" Hamilton. Hamilton was an outspoken folksinger in her sixties who hosted a monthly talk show on KMUD called Rant and Rave. She normally tooled around town in jeans and a baseball cap, but on this evening, she was dressed up, in a lavender velvet top and pearls.

Mare glanced around the room and realized that regardless of where people were sitting, the majority were what she called marijuana moonshiners, just like her.

The irony was that every table was now full except for the growers' table, where only two brave souls had claimed a seat. One of them was Mare's neighbor Syreeta Lux, a sturdy blonde who wore an enormous grin. Lux had lived in the community for decades and figured it was impossible to have a conversation about the future of the marijuana industry if growers were still invisible. It's now or never, she figured, as she pulled her chair up to the empty table. Lux quickly waved over a friend, and wrote "medical" above the word growers, to try to get people to feel more at ease. Like Mare, Syreeta Lux recognized many faces of friends, neighbors, and other community members in the crowd who were also growers, but still no one else joined her.

It may have seemed strange that fourteen years after California passed the nation's first medical marijuana law, which allowed people to grow pot legally with a doctor's recommendation, America's most infamous marijuana growers might be hesitant to claim their heritage, but this was a community that had paid a price for its decades-long rebellion. It had endured annual government raids, and the army itself had once invaded. Then there was the lawless side of the business, the home-invasion rip-offs, and the occasional murder. For decades, to announce oneself as a grower would have been like painting a big target on one's back. The times were indeed changing, but they didn't change quickly in Humboldt.

The event was about to begin, and Syreeta Lux decided to take things a step further. She stood up, held the "Growers" sign high above her head, and commanded the room's attention.

"If anyone is looking for a place to sit, there's lots of room at our table to grow," she announced in a loud, booming voice.

And then she grinned even wider.

From her spot by the fireplace, Mare figured she would let Syreeta represent the female growers. After years of living in the shadows, Mare had no intention of claiming a seat at that table. But when Syreeta stood up and encouraged others to join her, it was as if Mare's feet had a mind of their own, and just like that, she found herself stepping forward. In front of her family, friends, community, elected officials, local and national media, and maybe even the FBI, Mare Abidon shuffled toward the growers' table.

And she wasn't the only one.

"Come on!" Syreeta Lux shouted for others to join them, and they did.

Like some kind of illicit farming coming-out ceremony, more growers stepped into the light. Eventually their numbers swelled to a few dozen, and later they had to retreat to the outdoor patio to have enough space to talk among themselves. But first, from her perch near the stage, Anna Hamilton spoke the words that everyone knew, but no one had yet dared to declare publicly.

"The legalization of marijuana will be the single most devastating economic bust in the long boom-and-bust history of Northern California, impacting local businesses, nonprofit organizations, the workforce, and county tax revenue," she said, pausing for dramatic effect to peer at the crowd over the top of her reading glasses.

As Hamilton and everyone else knew, pot farming was not only a way of life in the region; it was the foundation of the entire economy. People had grown so dependent on the lucrative black market prices that some locals referred to marijuana's illegality as the best government price support program in U.S. history. Prohibition and suppression create risk for growers and artificial scarcity on the market, sending prices and profit margins through the roof.

But that price support system was now at risk.

The U.S. government effectively outlawed marijuana in 1937. Though it is nontoxic and there are no recorded cases in history of anyone ever dying from overdosing on the drug, since the creation of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970 the federal government has classified marijuana as a Schedule I substance. This means the government considers pot more dangerous than cocaine or methamphetamine, with no medical value whatsoever. Many American people are of a different mind. In the late 1990s, starting with California in 1996, states began adopting medical marijuana laws. By the spring of 2010, fourteen states and Washington, D.C., had passed such laws.

These new laws, coupled with a cultural shift toward the acceptance of marijuana on a national level, brought more people into the industry and caused the price of pot on the black market gradually to decline. Marijuana was now a multi-billion-dollar industry in the Golden State, and a measure to legalize and tax it for adult recreational use had just gathered enough signatures to appear on the November ballot.

As Anna Hamilton pointed out that evening, if the measure passed, it could change everything in Humboldt.

"Every member of our society holds a stake in the consequences of legalization," she said, as she began to point to the various tables—to the landowners, educators, members of the business community, and pot growers.

"Did I skip anyone who wants to be recognized tonight?" she asked. "Any representatives from the federal government? I see someone's sitting in that fed chair over there. Is that just a joke?!"

Apparently it was, so Hamilton continued.

If the legalization measure passed, she predicted that the price of marijuana grown outdoors in the sun, the traditional Humboldt way, could drop from its current rate of around $2,000 a pound to as low as $500. If that happened, the effects would be catastrophic. The market would bottom out, affecting growers and everyone who worked for them, which Hamilton estimated to be between fifteen and thirty thousand people in Humboldt County alone.

In a few months' time, the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think tank, would release a study with a similar prediction. It estimated that the legalization of the production and distribution of marijuana in California could cause prices to drop up to 80 percent.

There was reason to worry in the room, and it wasn't just about economic self-interest. Proceeds from marijuana had not only supported and sustained individuals in the community, but had also helped build local institutions, including a health clinic, the radio station KMUD, and the Mateel Community Center, where the evening's conversation was taking place. Donating earnings from a plant or a pound to these nonprofits, and to the community schools and volunteer fire departments, was how for years many locals paid their "taxes."

All this was poised to change.

"If the value of marijuana drops below a certain level," Hamilton warned, "the state will be faced with the collapse of its rural economies. Businesses will be shuttered, the nonprofit community will be unable to provide services to suddenly displaced peoples, and the golden goose will be dead."

She looked up at the crowd.

"We will all face this economic decline together. For the sake of our region, it is time to begin planning for this upheaval now, together.

"What will we do?" she asked.

There was dead silence.

"We have all the talent and all the answers we need right here in this room."

Among the ideas that bubbled up that evening was an advisory panel of pot growers that would meet with local elected officials to discuss how to regulate their industry. One couple came away from the meeting inspired to form the area's first collective to try to sell organic, artisanal Humboldt pot legally under the state's medical model. Some audience members expressed the long-held fear that legalization would bring the corporatization of the industry and that the market would be flooded with cheap, mass-produced weed, and they wouldn't be able to compete. Others, including a local government official, saw it as an opportunity to take advantage of Humboldt's legendary brand. Across the country and beyond, the Humboldt County name had become deeply linked with pot.

"We've had this name association for thirty or forty years now," County Supervisor Mark Lovelace remarked. "If this is a newly legitimized industry, shouldn't we be looking at capitalizing on that?"

Excerpted from Humboldt by Emily Brady. Copyright © 2013 Emily Brady. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Author's Note ix

Glossary x

Prologue 1

Chapter 1 Mare 3

Chapter 2 Crockett 16

Chapter 3 Emma 34

Chapter 4 Bob 47

Chapter 5 Mare 58

Chapter 6 Emma 74

Chapter 7 Bob 90

Chapter 8 Crockett 105

Chapter 9 Mare 116

Chapter 10 Emma 126

Chapter 11 Bob 139

Chapter 12 Mare 151

Chapter 13 Emma 164

Chapter 14 Bob 170

Chapter 15 The Vote 178

Chapter 16 Bob 195

Chapter 17 Emma 205

Chapter 18 Crockett 216

Chapter 19 Mare 227

Author's Remarks 241

Acknowledgments 247

Index 251

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"In her book Humboldt, Emily Brady takes us on a rowdy off-road trip into the homeland of marijuana moonshining, where pit bulls guard the fields, cash fills up holes in the ground, and it's a bad idea to ask anyone you encounter what they do for a living."
—Bruce Porter, New York Times bestselling author of Blow

"Emily Brady escorts you into the redwood-studded mountains of northern California where a secretive marijuana culture thrives-for now-outside the law. Deeply reported and populated with vibrant characters spanning generations, Humboldt documents the real lives behind America's favorite high. A fascinating and timely read."
—David Kinney, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author of The Big One

"Emily Brady has written a masterful opus dopus-to borrow a phrase from her book-chronicling the dreams and struggles of a community that has become infamous worldwide for their controversial cash crop. In Humboldt, she takes a clear-eyed look at the marijuana industry: its growers, trimmers, dealers, and family-run businesses. Readers will come away with a newfound and nuanced understanding of pot, but this is really a book about people whose outrageous, funny, and heartbreaking stories you won't soon forget."
--Brooke Hauser, author of THE NEW KIDS: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens

"In a rare journalistic feat, Emily Brady burrowed deep inside an infamous subculture and emerged with a luminous but haunting dispatch about a secretive community of outlaw pot growers—some of whom would rather risk their lives than see their profits crushed by the decriminalization of cannabis. Brady's brave reporting pulls no punches yet makes no judgments as she chronicles four people torn by their allegiances to a place that represents the beauty and ruthlessness of the modern American frontier-and the hypocrisy of the country's drug policy. Humboldt is a triumph of immersion reporting: vivid, compassionate, maddening and unforgettable."
--Jonathan Schuppe, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author of A Chance to Win

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