Magazine article The American Prospect

If Pot Becomes Legal: What Will Become of Its Secretive California Hometown?

Magazine article The American Prospect

If Pot Becomes Legal: What Will Become of Its Secretive California Hometown?

Article excerpt



Grand Central Publishing


At one point in Humboldt: Life on America s Marijuana Frontier, Emily Brady's account of her year in a remote Northern California county where pot is the cash crop that drives the local economy, one of the book's subjects--a native of the area named Emma Worldpeace--talks to a new friend about the pictures of deceased classmates that hang on tackboard on Emma's dorm room wall.

"Did you know all these people who died?" she asked.

"Yeah, I grew up with all of them," Emma replied.

"Oh my god, that seems so tragic."

The kicker was that Emma's friend was the one who came from a "rough part of the Bay Area." "Well sure, maybe every year someone from my school died," her friend said. "But I went to high school with five or six thousand people." In a large city, the fallout from youth violence represents an awful loss. In Humboldt, population 135,000, its frequency is something of a catastrophe. Emma is driven to ask why, and in her final year at the University of California, Berkley, she devotes her time to answering that question as part of a senior project.

"Her findings stunned the community," Brady writes. Over a ten-year period in Humboldt, 36 youths met "violent or untimely deaths." The percentage of 11th-graders who recently binge drank was twice the state average, and--unsurprisingly--the number of students who had recently smoked pot was even higher.

This research doesn't get much time in Brady's trim book. Still, it's worth commenting on. When we think of marijuana, we don't usually think of violence. We think of the opposite: goofing around, eating too much food. We might think of Cheech and Chong, Dr. Dre's The Chronic, Harold and Kumar, that time James Franco co-hosted the Academy Awards. This perception--that pot is harmless, even fun--has helped drive a broad, recent shift in American public opinion toward marijuana legalization. Likewise, a growing awareness of pot's benefits, from alleviating the pain of chemotherapy to helping to treat conditions like glaucoma, has made Americans more receptive to the drug. Overall, according to a recent survey from the Pew Research Center, 52 percent of Americans support legalization, up from 32 percent ten years ago.

Californians legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes in 1996 and approved small-scale decriminalization in 2010. For non-medicinal use, marijuana is still illegal to buy and sell, but if you're stopped with a small quantity--less than one ounce--the police will let you off with an infraction, comparable to a traffic ticket. In 2010, Californians voted on Proposition 19, which would have fully legalized the cultivation and sale of marijuana. Its failure was a relief to growers, who would have seen large price drops--more than 75 percent--if weed had been legalized. For now, Humboldt continues in its unusual, secretive, sometimes violent gray zone of quasi-legality. Living inside that gray zone is the subject of Brady's humane book.

THE HISTORY OF modern Humboldt--that is, the history of its white residents--begins in the middle of the 19th century, with settlers who saw the areas seaport as a way to move supplies from San Francisco to gold mines farther inland in California. Its population exploded with the discovery of redwoods in the 1880s, then declined as the National Park Service gradually put an end to rampant logging. Economic vitality drained away until the 1960s, when a new influx of residents--hippies--picked Humboldt as the place where they would get off the grid. The widespread cultivation of marijuana in Humboldt began soon after the arrival of seedless pot. Once Mexico's government (with American help) cracked down on marijuana cultivation within its own borders, the market boomed.

By 1979, Brady writes, an estimated 35 percent of all weed consumed in the United States came from California. …

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