Pot Wars

Ten years ago, my husband and I moved from the Bay Area to Lake County, a rural expanse between Napa and Mendocino, just two hours north of the Golden Gate Bridge.  Our baby was about to be born and we wanted to change our lifestyle.

We bought a worn out 100-year-old house with 6 bedrooms, space we didn’t dare dream about in the city but could easily afford here.  Another couple was renovating a historic hotel next door.  Across the street, an entrepreneur was creating a wine studio in a vacant store front, and an old bank down the block was being converted into an organic grocery.  While it was risky to move to this tiny town we had never heard of, we were encouraged.  The area’s pristine beauty, empty roads, and clean air compelled us to take a chance.  Lake County has the cleanest air in the nation, and we were ready to make it our home.

Unfortunately, the smell of that air is now pungent.  Some days, I cannot hang clothes in the backyard or keep windows open.  During harvest season, you can smell the change as you drive past the county line.  It’s the skunk-like odor of pot.  Our farming community is transitioning from the production of walnuts, pears and grapes to a new crop.  We are now one of the biggest producers of marijuana.   

When I look at my town’s surface and compare it to what outsiders see, I am struck by an irony.  Teenagers ride horses down Main Street to the corner store for an ice cream.  Old men sit in front of the antique shop to watch the world go by.  Grade schoolers still ride bikes without helmets.  Our town, nestled in a cozy valley, is surrounded by mountains, and it is at once charming and spectacular.  

Before coming here, I never thought much about pot.  But when Californians voted in the medical marijuana act, they did so without regard to how it might effect the communities where pot would be cultivated, harvested and processed.  Growers, and pot support services, have taken over our community and my neighborhood has changed.  The family who lived behind us moved, and growers took their place.  Little by little, our home has become surrounded by pot.  When I google-earth my address, I count 47 outside grows within a 2,000 foot radius.  I can only guess how many more are indoors.  According to Pacific Gas & Electric, Lake county’s electrical use is 3 times the average for a normal community this size.  It takes power, lots of it,  to create an artificial sun inside a house or garage to grow pot.
 
Because of its street value, a single plant can be worth $3,000 to $5,000 dollars, and cultivation comes with guns, vicious dogs, and other crime.  A teenage girl was found imprisoned in a box at a pot farm a few miles south of my home.  A young man was shot dead at a grower’s house a mile north. To the east, a 26 year old was killed in a head on collision as law enforcement rushed to a pot bust.  Arsenals of weapons are regularly confiscated.  The cash found at these scenes is staggering.

In our national conversation about pot, these realities are rarely mentioned.  Americans who boycott cell phones produced in substandard conditions overseas will smoke a joint without a second thought.  As state laws inch toward increasing tolerance for pot use, little attention is paid to the conditions where it is grown, where unfortunately, I happen to live.
 
Some parents in my small town are now afraid to let their children play outside in our neighborhoods.  Canopies of pot gardens peek out from behind bamboo fences, and we worry that the guns or dogs used to protect these valuable crops might inadvertently endanger our kids.  Neighbors four houses up, on both sides of the street, have been victims of armed invasions.  At one, a woman was dragged from her shower, hog tied at gun point, and forced to turn over her pot and $30K in cash.  Across the street, invaders surprised an elderly woman with no pot and no money -- they had the wrong address.

That’s what outsiders don’t see, a black market economy and a changing community.  

When I voted in favor of medical marijuana, I visualized my elderly aunt’s battle against cancer.  Now, though, I see a different reality.  One of California’s “pot doctors” has an office on my street.  He prescribes the maximum amount of pot allowed by California law -- 99 plants or 19 pounds of processed cannabis.  Once that doctor hands out the “card” to his patients, they have a powerful tool against law enforcement.  

This doctor draws “patients” from all over the country, swelling our town’s population during office hours. He has been investigated by the American Medical Association on three occasions but his practice still thrives.

I have seen patients loitering all over the sidewalks and staff members using a bullhorn to control the crowds.  Our town has a population of 900, so having the sidewalks packed solid on a daily basis threw our community into a tailspin.  These people had no where to sit and no where to use the bathroom as they waited all day for their turn to get cards, and many local residents stopped going downtown because it was so uncomfortable.  Many were afraid to complain.  The Supreme Court weighs in on crowds outside of Planned Parenthood, but I haven’t heard any leadership address the plight of my community.

After a van load of patients parked in my driveway and slept there overnight, presumably to get a good place in line before the doctor’s office opened, they dumped their trash in my yard, and one of them urinated in front of my child.  When I sent a letter to the doctor asking him to do something about this situation, his employee came to my home and told me I should move.

Whenever I see people pouring out of the doctor’s office with their tell tale folders in hand, I know that more growers just got the only business license they need to set up shop: another garden, another bad dog, another arsenal of weapons.  Water tanks in the back of pick up trucks, miles of PVC piping strapped to lumber racks, garden tools treated with camouflage, rolls of bamboo fencing, bags of soil amendments and pesticides -- these are the signs that a new business is underway, a business whose base of operation is on public lands, an unsuspecting landlord’s rental house, or a neighbor’s backyard.

Lots of small industries have exploded since growers have taken over.  Local stores now sell digital scales, camouflage paint and fertilizer by the truckload.  Water delivery is a huge local industry.  Tanks, lights, filters and vents are also big business, and rodent killer is flying off the shelves so fast that in nearby Humbolt County, local governments have asked retailers not to stock it.  The poison is killing animals indiscriminately in the forest.  A 3,000 gallon plastic water bag is on sale for $5,000 near my home. It can be folded up and put an ATV, ideal for the grower who wants to drain waterways in the forrest.  At harvest, local retailers carry enough canning jars to make you think there is a resurgence in the lost art of vegetable preserving.   

In spite of this burgeoning industry, Lake County remains depressed.  Store fronts in my town are empty, with “For Rent” signs on nearly every one.  Unemployment is among the highest in the state, with some areas consistently hovering around 20%.  Since pot is a cash commodity, however, it’s hard to discern how many welfare recipients are also successful entrepreneurs.

Recently, I heard an 80-year-old woman seek legal advice from a call-in radio show lawyer; she was growing pot and facing problems with local code violations.  As I listened, I suspected that although she had her own card, younger card holders had paid her off so they could control more plants.  

An elaborate system of card and money swapping helps savvy growers max out their profit potential.  Pot laws are complicated, with different rules for growing, using, exchanging, and transporting.  Cities, counties, the state, and federal government all have different laws governing pot, and some pot related activities are riskier than others.  The health department won’t let civics clubs sell a cookie as a fundraiser without making them meet safe handling conditions in a certified kitchen.  But if that cookie contains pot, it is classified as medicine, not food, and the health department doesn’t get involved.  No certified kitchen required.

The driver, of course, is money.  Lake County is poor by most measures, but law enforcement regularly finds spectacular sums at pot farms.  In nearby Kelseyville, they confiscated $800K in one bust, prompting jokes that those proceeds exceeded the net worth of every resident in town combined.  

In a routine traffic stop, officers found $40K in the glove box.  The driver claimed the money wasn’t his and that he had no idea how it got there.  A Bentley convertible cruises down Main Street in a town where nearly every child qualifies for free lunch.  The staggering profit potential compels otherwise law abiding people to take a chance on this gold rush.

People outside the pot industry are unwittingly part of the cycle too.  Landlords frequently discover that the properties they own have been converted to grow houses.  Even when they insist that their rental is not “215 friendly,” tenants grow anyway, and eviction proceedings are expensive.  The “215” designation is a code word for pot.  Growers often modify electric panels, waterlog carpets, remove drywall and fixtures, tear up back yards, install bootleg fencing and then leave when the harvest is over.  

A friend of mine has an old farm house on ten acres he decided to rent.  He placed an ad on-line and was inundated with calls from all over the country.  Bewildered that so many people wanted to move here, he learned that people were coming to grow.  Many landlords here have simply given up and turn a blind eye as long as the tenant continues to pay the rent.  I have never heard of a business advocacy group coming to the aid of these landlords, most of whom are small time entrepreneurs with few resources.

Teenagers are cashing in too.  One acquaintance lamented that his step son had just landed a job as a trimmer making $100 a day, cash, a far better wage than he could earn elsewhere but one that carries risks the teenager likely doesn’t understand.   If this exploitation of youth were taking place in any other industry, I would expect a national outcry.

Federal agents in bullet proof vests use helicopters to look for pot grows in my community.  That effort seems dangerous and extravagant, especially when many locals could point out several grows right in their own neighborhood, no helicopter needed.  

The Mendocino National Forest is about ten minutes from my front door.  When “Operation Full Court Press” went into that forest to clean up pot grows, they removed 23 tons of trash, more than a ton of fertilizer, 57 pounds of poison, 22 miles of irrigation piping, and 32 guns.  They found 13 man-made dams diverting water, and 120 propane tanks.  Where are the environmentalists?  Where is the pressure to boycott?

Communities like mine are paying the price for the nation’s supply of pot.  We are the collateral damage of laws that have yet to sort themselves out.  While society comes to terms with marijuana, we need urgent attention to where and how it is cultivated.

State and local governments are making a mockery of the federal laws with the current patchwork of ordinances.  And the federal system is fueling a huge black market and all that goes with it.

As my family and I look around the house we love and the restoration that is still in progress, we consider our options.  Do we wait it out until the pot laws inevitably change?  Should we sell our home as is and take a financial bath?  Should we toss our own hat in the ring, get a card, and start growing in the back yard?  Should we spend our energy begging politicians for relief?

We wrestle with these decisions.  The little baby who inspired us to move here is now ten years old.  Our orange shag carpets are gone, and beautifully refinished hardwood floors gleam in their place.  We just found the original hardware for the parlor doors, and we finally put a coat of paint on the outside stairwell.  It’s a beautiful home, the most beautiful, I suspect, that we’ll ever own, and an easy walk to everything we need.  But sadly, these days, it’s also too close to everything we don’t.