Pot And Prohibition: A View From Humboldt County

Humboldt County forest: photograph by Lorraine Devon Wilke

When the local creamery was hit with a financial scandal catastrophic enough that even the New York Times came calling (Broken Trust Shakes Web From Farmer to Cow), the little farm town of Ferndale, CA, stoically sharing the pain of countrywide hard times, had their wounds painfully and permanently salted yet one more time. The already shaky economy of this picturesque Victorian village in northern California’s Humboldt County, took a hit that trickles down to this day, leaving every dairy farmer impacted by the demise of the creamery looking for ways to reinvent and recover. Most did. Some went in “another direction,” toward a hearty profession that many in the area also pursue. It is, after all, Humboldt County, one corner of the great “Emerald Triangle,” which, along with neighboring Mendocino and Trinity counties, produces the bulk of California’s noted cannabis, legal or otherwise.

My family owns property in Humboldt, my son goes to school up there (Humboldt State University); I write for the local newspaper, and we spent a fair amount of time in its glorious surrounds, and the issue of pot – its prohibition, economy, impact and ubiquity – is a front and center (if whispered) conversation in that part of the country. Why? Because while every local (and beyond) economy is impacted by it in one way or another, the industry of “growing” remains secretive, untaxed, unregulated, rife for crime (think rural Al Capones) and destructive to the environment. Mother Jones recently ran a piece that asked, Are California’s Pot Farms Bad for the Planet?, analyzing the very real damage being wrought on wildlife and wilderness habitats by this still illegal and unregulated industry.

Scott Greacen, executive director of Friends of the Eel River, an Arcata, California-based environmental advocacy group, fears that all the progress restoration efforts have made in bringing the chinook, steelhead, and coho salmon back from the brink of extinction is being stymied by the burgeoning weed farm industry. Greacen says it is the illegal cartels—who set up their grows on industrial sites or deep in the forests on public lands, or even in the national parks—that are largely to blame for pumping pesticides into the ecosystem and affecting wildlife, most notably the Pacific fisher.

Yet the confused relationship between state laws – which allow for medically-approved cannabis use –  and continued federal prohibition, make logical and effective intervention difficult.

But county officials and local regulatory agencies are caught in a catch-22: The farming of marijuana—for medicinal use or otherwise—remains illegal under federal law. Any regulation instituted by these agencies is, in effect, legitimizing the cultivation of a federally controlled substance, and the US Department of Justice has warned local officials that they could face individual prosecution if they continue to validate the farms.

Mark Lovelace, a Humboldt County supervisor, says the DOJ’s policy is actually abetting the weed farmers, allowing them to get away with unchecked land development.

“This is not about marijuana, good or bad. This is just about the reality that this one industry, due to prohibition, has been essentially granted immunity from regulation,” Lovelace says. “That’s the unintended consequence of federal prohibition.”

Colorado and the state of Washington both passed pot legalization amendments in the recent election, but it’s likely those states will also be impacted by the confusing application of federal vs. state laws in response. At The Atlantic, Jordan Weissmann analyzed the conundrum in Will Obama Let Washington and Colorado Keep Their Legal Pot?:

Some believe Obama’s tough-on-pot stance suggests the feds might stop Washington and Colorado from setting up legal sales. After all, the initiatives don’t even offer any pretense about medicating cancer. They simply make it legal to buy pot from a licensed distributor, then light up.

“Once these states actually try to implement these laws, we will see an effort by the feds to shut it down,” Kevin Sabet, a former senior drug policy adviser to the president, told NBC News. “We can only guess now what exactly that would look like. But the recent U.S. attorney actions against medical marijuana portends an aggressive effort to stop state-sponsored growing and selling at the outset.”

As the country continues to evolve in their attitudes toward pot, the vigorous attempt to mandate personal indulgences (as well as bona fide medical usage) will continue to be as futile as Prohibition; it’s likely more and more states will legalize and the Federal government will be forced to readjust. Clearly the chafe that exists currently is both contradictory and unsuccessful.

But as cavalier and embracing of the pot culture as much of Humboldt County appears, the concerns are also there. Many people are uncomfortable with medical marijuana dispensaries too close to commerce and schools. Continued concerns exist for its debated gateway and addictive properties, its rampant 215 (medical) misuse, and pot’s documented impact on brain and lung health (Cannabis as a risk factor for psychosis and Facts About Drugs: Marijuana are both articles sent to me by concerned readers). But still, during a time when the economy, while moving inexorably in the right direction, sputters in the effort to right itself, some find it galling that growers and sellers of this multi-million dollar industry pay not one penny in taxes.

To the argument that “more kids will use” or “it’s a gateway drug…what’s next, heroin?” logic needs to be applied. Keeping it illegal has little or no impact on its use or availability. Anyone who currently wants pot can get it, easily. As for the gateway angle, perhaps; but the use of any mind-altering substance, even booze, is a matter of personal proclivity. The same demons that drive the misuse or potential ramp-up of any drug would – or would not – control that personal decision, not whether pot is legal; to believe otherwise is delusion. And, frankly, if we as a country made illegal all the many things we ingest that are bad for us, tobacco, alcohol, fried pork rinds and those nutrition-free lunchbox edibles would all be verboten. We tried it with alcohol…it didn’t work. Just watch Boardwalk Empire.

Like anything else, legalizing pot would demand regulation and controls, just as we have for tobacco, booze, even food. As with Prohibition, the debate will ultimately hit a tipping point, where the problems related to keeping it a crime will become far greater than the problems that could potentially arise upon legalizing it. Frankly, I think we’re there.

For many – me included [note: I don’t smoke, never have, have no interest] – that tipping point arrives when we honestly view the level of criminal activity related to selling and growing the product, the level of destruction done to the environment, the unfathomable amount of untaxed income illegal growers make while destroying that land, all mixed with the ludicrous charade of the “wink and nod” enforcement of medical marijuana laws (anyone, anywhere can get a card for any reason…silly stuff).

If people were as concerned about the dangers, misuse, and billions of dollars in related health (and death) costs due to alcohol and tobacco, the argument against might resonate. But we have a culture literally swimming in booze and smoke and no one seems all that concerned… “it’s just part of free society,” an imbibing friend remarked. So why all the hand-wringing about pot, particularly when it has proven medical benefits?

It’s as futile as temperance. And it will be legalized at some point, hopefully before too many more forests in the Emerald Triangle are destroyed or crimes are committed on its behalf. And, as Addicting Info’s Deborah Montesano reports in Pot Saved Denver So Why Not The Nation?, sometimes the answers to our financial woes are found growing right beneath our feet.

Follow Lorraine Devon Wilke on TwitterFacebook and Rock+Paper+Music; for her archive at Addicting info click here; details and links to her other work: www.lorrainedevonwilke.com