I’ve been asked to comment on the underground (not so much actually) economy. I’m not happy with the piece, and I intend to work on it some more, but I’ve been promising it for two weeks so here’s my current draft. This piece is intended not to serve as a judgment of those who choose a lifestyle different from mine, but rather to ask some questions that I just don’t feel are being addressed publicly – by anybody.

A few years back Rondel Snodgrass offered some radio commentary on what he called the local “mill town” mentality when it came to addressing potential negative impacts of the marijuana industry. I don’t recall any fallout or follow-up, but it did spark a few discussions about the willingness of some members of the community to judge the community 45 minutes to our north with a criteria they are unwilling to apply to their own. More recently, KMUD radio presentations attempting to address such issues as the potential environmental consequences of large indoor grows involving the extensive use of diesel generators have generated angry responses from community members upset that the topic is even being discussed.

Some of the growing community dispute the impact of the diesel, claiming it’s just a few irresponsible people giving the whole community a bad name. Some of them see the matter as a conjured up culture war wedge issue to batter Southern Humboldt. It is remarkable that the hippies start sounding like industry apologists, while the right wingers pushing the issue sound like tree huggers. As to whether there is a significant diesel problem I am an agnostic – but the resistance to even a discussion of the matter is borderline hysterical, much like some of the oil/auto industry responses to global warming theories. As I was watching An Inconvenient Truth in Garberville last weekend, I heard chuckles when Upton Sinclair was quoted: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding.” I’d like to think the chucklers were appreciating the local irony. Somehow I doubt it.

Even more taboo is discussion of social consequences, such as the repercussion of the industry on Southern Humboldt’s younger generations – an impact that has occasionally been lethal. When my wife first applied for her former job as middle school teacher at the Whale Gulch Schools she was asked how she would respond to a student who told her that he or she didn’t have to study because s/he would be growing anyway. My response would have been “you know, they got Al Capone on his taxes. You might want to learn your math.” Many of the kids do go to college, but others will be completely unprepared if they’re busted and subsequent convictions become a much greater risk, or if (God forbid!) the substance is actually legalized. Already the reduction of risk due to easily-obtained Prop 215 certificates and the proliferation of indoor grows around the country have resulted in lowered prices and growers don’t quite make the killing of the 80s and 90s. Imagine growers having to bring their wares into farmers markets to peddle for what they can get along with their organic beets and lettuce.

Few want to discuss the destruction of the values of the “back-to-the-land” movement that transformed the local community beginning in the 1970s – to the point that accumulation of material wealth and the accompanying status isn’t even questioned. And the philanthropy of the older generations that built and sustained such institutions as Beginnings, The Mateel Center, KMUD, and the Redwoods Rural Health Center have been lost on many of the kids. The money does seem to be drying up as the older generation has made its money and gives up the risk. Perhaps also the above-mentioned post-215 drops in prices are a factor.

Regarding the impact on politics, I’ve encountered at times a change in political philosophies that often accompanies massive consumption patterns from siding with the Blue Ribbon Coalition so that wilderness area doesn’t encroach on ATV fun to opposition to parcel taxes or bond initiatives for schools, libraries, or other services that might not directly impact them. And yet many of these same people are perfectly willing to burden the social welfare system by collecting benefits because their income is not on paper – benefits for which they don’t even participate in paying for via income taxes. Ironically, my family doesn’t qualify for daycare/preschool subsidization, but nearly all of the families who do have actual incomes significantly larger than ours. Many of the growers are on Medi-Cal. I’m sure they see it as a way of saying “f— you” to the system or whatever, but those of us who are invested in the system with a chunk of our paychecks tend to become a little resentful.

Yes, there are plenty of exceptions – people who opt out really opting out. But the sense of entitlement is very real, as is the caste system that has arisen between the industry participants and those who work “conventionally.” Some of the industry participants (which incidently include the growers themselves, the caretakers, the “clippers,” and the dealers) actually believe they are part of a revolution and a resistance to the economic system – viewing those who partake in the conventional grind as deserving of whatever difficulties they encounter from lower income to an inability to participate in community activities that take place during conventional work hours. For instance, KMUD holds its board meetings mid-day on Tuesdays, effectively disenfranchising those whose input would be pre-empted by work requirements. Many local businesses don’t accept credit cards and some entertainment events with hefty entrance prices are cash-only. And the income disparities create obvious challenges for the children – an issue certainly not unique to SoHum or other underground based economies.

I’ve also noticed that the industry has spread well beyond the hippies. There seem to be more busts of what I will use for lack of a better term “rednecks” than hippies. The problem is that for some money is not merely a means to wealth, but also a source of status, necessitating a public display of the wealth. This of course makes one more vulnerable to a bust, as growers are hard-pressed to explain the sudden appearance of expensive SUV’s and stereo systems with no visible means of income. My very first client, a woman who identified herself as a “logger’s daughter,” and who was put off by the “hippie takeover” of SoHum, was subsequently busted for the trade and served some serious time. Anybody from outside the area who might have known her would probably have been shocked.

I’ve only been here for 10 years, but I have heard accounts of the impact on the local communities beginning with the attempted crackdowns on the industry during the 1980s – affectionately referred to by the AVA’s Bruce Anderson as “the marijuana price support system.” The resulting dramatic increases in prices also brought into the mix an outside criminal element and a paranoia bordering on xenophobia. Gates were erected and locked. Strangers and newcomers to the community would be eyed with suspicion – to the point that when the Mateel Center was unable to find a qualified local to manage the center they received anxious telephone calls from people concerned that “outsiders” might not “understand” us.

Finally, I add to the consequences the culture of drug use itself. While marijuana is obviously not the most dangerous of drugs, it is hardly benign. It may not be physically addictive, but it is certainly emotionally addictive – the very reason I stopped imbibing many years ago. As I’ve said earlier, we have had more than our share of teen injuries and deaths, some of the substance related. The back-to the-land movement did not come up here with an emphasis on drugs. They had them, but it wasn’t quite at the center of the culture. Most of the emigrants being college-educated, the community is blessed with a wealth of creativity. Alternative energy technologies have developed right here and in the county to our south – mostly in rustic workshops – developments that set the foundation for an industry that has expanded over the last few years. The culture has creative innovative institutions, some of them listed above. Some of the country’s best writing and music has either originated or been promoted locally. Locals have contributed to the development of alternative politics, with large portions of the community taking great interest in political reformation and transformation with an impact well beyond the sum of its numbers. I wonder how much more productive it would be in these areas but for the intellectual resources being diverted to the industry, such as the innovations in the indoor growing process or the meticulous breeding of the product so that it is many times stronger than the substance of the 1960s. The product being harmful or harmless, it’s arguably a shame that this genius hasn’t been put to more beneficial use. My feeling anyway.

While the discussion is taboo, it’s a taboo often abandoned and I’ve spoken to a number of people who are thoughtful on the topic – growers and conventionals included. Most would agree that what I’ve discussed presents some serious challenges to the community, but my last point is probably going to be less popular. It’s even going to come across as hypocritical as I benefit from the industry – albeit indirectly. In fact, everybody in the region benefits indirectly as marijuana represents a large cash crop second only to timber according to several studies. While the profits aren’t taxed directly, the multiplier effect is taxed, and local business benefits as it would from any above-ground industry. The economic reality probably accounts for the lack of will to actually eradicate the problem. I’ve heard stories about law enforcement officers being apologetic or even annoyed when they actually find somebody in the fields. I’ve always heard that the CAMP funding is based primarily on tonnage of weed and not so much on arrests or convictions which just mean more paperwork and hassle. The bureaucrats of local government know what puts the butter on their table. It is certainly true of Key Largo for instance, where the importation of drugs has historically been integral to the economy – local officials looking the other way so long as certain protocols are kept. Or in the valley where agribusiness relies on illegal immigrants so we don’t have to pay 7 bucks a head for lettuce.

It’s also very apparent that but for the industry Garberville and the other SoHum locales would be ghost towns. I’ve brought up the industry-subsidized projects we all benefit from, and I’ve heard stories about KMUD representatives attending national conferences with other stations wanting to emulate KMUD’s very successful “fund raising model.” What can the KMUD reps tell them? We’re blessed. Much like Lyndon – a border town in the State of Washington which managed to do well during the depression by selling its dairy products across the Canadien border prompting the very religious citizens of the town to conclude that they were in God’s chosen favor. We have our own local religion, and if my radio show is languishing and I want telephone calls all I have to do is change the subject to medical marijuana and I can fill the rest of the show up easily. I’ve inadvertently done so on at least two occasions that I can remember.

Yes, I benefit. We all benefit. I am sometimes paid in cash, but I look the other way, partly because I am bound by law to do so. That is unless I am paid more than ten thousand in cash and I’m bound to report it to the IRS, but that has never happened. In my naivete when I first moved here, I learned too gradually that in a casual party conversation you do not ask, “so what do you do for a living?” I have had people leave my office to have my secretaries tell me that the individual was a “big grower,” and wondered why my secretaries knew but law enforcement seemed clueless. I am otherwise bound by confidence, limited only by the rule as an officer of the court that I cannot advise a client in such a way as to enable him/her to violate the law. Otherwise, it’s not my place to judge.

But there are even more reasons I could never partake in the industry. My children. I will not take even a minor chance at arrest and conviction – certainly not with my children watching. I could never put them at even the smallest risk of that experience. My father led a wildcat carpenters strike when I was about 8-years-old. It was a strike against local developers who had negotiated contracts in San Francisco anticipating an increase in carpenter wages. Prior to the start of construction on these contracts, the Nixon administration imposed its wage/price freeze – an act that froze wages but seemed to provide endless loopholes for price increases. The developers were going to collect a windfall, and the carpenters wanted them to find some way to deliver the benefit to them. The developers were of course uninterested and the union started talking strike. When a federal injunction came down, the union leadership refused to honor the strike despite the overwhelming support for it. My father, my uncle and a few others basically started their own ad hoc union and they were threatened with arrest (among other things). My parents sat me down and explained that he might be spending some time in jail and tried to explain why. It never happened, but I lived in fear of that for awhile. If I’m going to put my children through that, it’s going to have to be for a damned good reason.

Even more to the point, I can not participate because I respect the law. Not only did I take an oath to uphold it when I became an attorney, but I respect the quasi-democratic processes the country I live in has to offer. I respect the balances that could be jeopardized if a significant amount of people simply decide to disregard the law out of convenience to themselves. I’m not making a judgment about the choices other people make in terms of the ethics of the situation, certainly not of those who were unemployed by the closure of the Alderpoint mill many years ago. I’m simply explaining why I cannot participate.

I want to raise my children with a basic respect for the law – not to accept all laws as just or prudent, but to respect the process. To recognize that in a quasi-democratic society where many people don’t think like you, you have to accept that there are going to be laws you don’t like and follow them anyway, just as your side of any issue is going to get laws passed that you expect the others to follow. It’s part of the natural covenant – the social contract. None of us wants to live in a situation where the social contract is absent.

I do think the law is stupid and oppressive when it comes to marijuana. And I do believe that civil disobedience is appropriate in some situations. This is not one of them, and growing in secret for profit is not civil disobedience in the sense of Thoreau in any case. If I am going to be arrested and/or convicted for disobeying a law, the law must violate the basic dignity of human beings. Jim Crow laws. Military draft laws. Laws that unduly suppress freedom of expression. In the event of arrest I want to be able to come back later and look my kids in their eyes and say “Daddy made a choice to break a bad law. He did it for you.” I know many of my good friends will disagree with me, but the prohibition of marijuana just doesn’t rise to that level.

My wife has to go back to work for awhile so we can knock down some of our debt and maybe put some more money away for college. She has had offers to earn it “clipping.” It would be easy tax free money. Call us prudes, but we simply can’t do it.

I make decent money and but for the debt we’d be in very good shape for our relatively simple lifestyle. I could probably make more in another office, certainly in the Bay Area. But then my mortgage would be much higher, and other costs of living as well. I enjoy life here. I enjoy meeting someone I know on every trip to the grocery store, with impromptu political and philosophical discussions in the produce aisle. I enjoy knowing everyone in my neighborhood with neighborhood dinners every Friday night. I relate to the people around me on almost everything else. We share tastes in music, film, literature, food, etc. We have very similar political views on most issues. We dress similarly. It’s a beautiful place to live. Whether we can remain here indefinitely remains to be seen. It will depend on the climate of drugs and the youth as my children start to get older. It will depend on the state of the schools. For the moment, we’re content to live with the paradoxes. The community for all its flaws is worth it.