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Politics of pot: Locals worry Humboldt, Trinity, Mendocino economies could crumble if marijuana becomes legal

11:57 PM, May 13, 2010   |    comments
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GARBERVILLE, CA - Anna Hamilton says she feels as if she's watching a disaster in slow motion. 

The blues musician, radio talk show host and community activist is on the leading edge of a group organizing to address the potential collapse of the underground pot economy in three northern California counties that fall within the so-called "Emerald Triangle."   

Humboldt, Trinity and Mendocino counties produce the majority of marijuana grown in California.

While the exact production numbers are difficult at best to estimate, Humboldt State economists told the Los Angeles Times last month that marijuana generates an estimated $500 million to $700 million of the county's total $3.6 billion economy.

Marijuana usage numbers seem to confirm why pot is such big business for the triangle counties. In 2007, nearly 2 million Californians reported using marijuana during the past 30 days, with about 400,000 in the state admitting to daily use, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

"Even after the DEA comes in and raids the harvest, every man, woman and child [in California] would have to smoke 38 pounds of pot each year to approach the amount we grow up here," Hamilton said. 

Hamilton's group What's After Pot was formed by business owners and community leaders to address the effects of recreational legalization on the local economy and troubleshoot the replacement of what has become a secondary source of income for many residents. 

"My interest is the impact on the 30 to 40 percent of the population that derives supplemental income from the harvest season and works for $20 an hour, making $5,000 to $12,000 a year to supplement their minimum wage jobs," Hamilton said.

WAP has already met twice to brainstorm strategies.  One idea was to market the Emerald Triangle as "The Napa Valley of Marijuana" should legalization pass in November. 

Another idea was to tout the area's organic growing versus the indoor, chemical-laden grows in urban areas. 

The group says they're concerned about the price of marijuana collapsing suddenly and displacing legitimate businesses that have come to rely on the steady flow of cash generated through the underground pot economy.

"Every business in town has pot money in the register and significant amounts of it," said David Kirby, a former Garberville business owner. "(Legalization) is going to have really serious, heavy consequences to this economy."

The legalization of medical marijuana has already been felt in these counties where a pound of marijuana used to sell for $5,000. 

"Now, it's down in the low $2,000 range," Kirby said. "Some of the other stores are taking tremendous hits already because of the uncertainty of legalization. It's already affecting how people spend money." 

Residents are well aware that many in the state are unsympathetic to the underground, illegal growing of marijuana, but insist that doesn't change what will happen to them if legalization passes and they don't have a plan.

"Most of California's rural counties are poor and rely on a lot of state help," Hamilton said. "This underground economy has kept us self-sufficient and kept taxpayers from supporting us. So far, the general plan doesn't address (legalization), the county budget doesn't address it. If we don't have a plan, we are in big trouble."


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