California Lawyer


Life on America's Marijuana Frontier

April 2014

Humboldt: Life on America’s Marijuana Frontier
by Emily Brady
Grand Central Publishing, 272 pages, $27, hardcover

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About three years after California's marijuana legalization measure failed - and just a month after Los Angeles passed its first ordinance regulating marijuana last May - comes a social history documenting the beginning of California's "green rush": Humboldt: Life on America's Marijuana Frontier. In the 200-plus page narrative, journalist Emily Brady weaves in and out of the lives of those who first settled in Humboldt County, and those who now occupy the turbulent, beautiful, and contradictory landscape.

Brady starts the book with a brief description of 19th-century Humboldt and the first fortune seekers who arrived in Richardson Grove to level the redwoods - the era of "red gold." She then leaps forward roughly 160 years to 2010 and offers a description of Humboldt in the months preceding Proposition 19, California's legalization initiative.

The Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act appeared on the November 2010 ballot and would have legalized the use, cultivation, and sale of marijuana, with some limitations. Ultimately, the proposition was defeated by a narrow margin, with 46.5 percent voting in favor of it. The initiative would have allowed cities to regulate and tax the sale of marijuana, though the proposed statute did not provide a mechanism for local taxation.

Prop. 19 also indicated that employees who use marijuana should not be subject to discrimination in hiring practices nor be fired on the sole basis that the employer is able to ascertain that they use the substance. Nothing in the proposition permitted pot use by employees at work or in any way that impaired work. In fact, under the statute any industry could decide that marijuana use was a safety issue and arguably be immune from the general language of the statute. The initiative also would have increased criminal penalties for furnishing marijuana, amending section 11361 of the California Health and Safety Code to create a new misdemeanor for those persons age 21 or older who knowingly furnish marijuana to persons age 18, 19, or 20. Currently, furnishing an ounce or less of marijuana is an infraction punishable by no more than a $100 fine.

But Brady's main take on Prop. 19 centers on how it was received by the Humboldt community, which was divided into those who thought it would liberate the industry from the shrouds of secrecy and illegitimacy, and those who thought it would destroy their ability to provide for themselves and their families while living "off the grid." She captures the diametric forces and characteristics of the Humboldt marijuana culture, and the larger American pot-dealing subculture.

The author portrays the oftentimes uncomfortable reality of growing up in Humboldt County in a matter-of-fact and nonjudgmental way, and yet she does not attempt to glamorize or make excuses for it. Throughout the narrative, she weaves in and out of the lives of archetypal Humboldt characters she calls Mare, Crockett, Emma, and Bob, devoting three to five chapters to each person.

Though the Humboldt lifestyle is depicted as a mixed bag of good and bad, Brady is unequivocal in revealing her disdain for the war on marijuana and the consequences of the marijuana prohibition. In one of her chapters devoted to Emma, the author provides a vivid and poignant account of a raid in which a young girl's room is torn asunder by federal agents.

Brady does not delve much into the medical issues of those who obtain marijuana legally, but she does show how arbitrary the whole scheme has become. Writing about a cop named Bob, she describes how he spent the week "whacking away at plants that either didn't have 215s posted next to them or were over the county's plant-count limit." (215 refers to Prop. 215, the initiative that allowed for medical marijuana in California and immunized possession and cultivation for personal medical use.) Also through Bob, Brady touches upon the environmental effects of marijuana cultivation. In an unregulated industry, not all growers are eco-friendly, she notes.

But what really stands out in Brady's book is the emotional damage caused by the continued war on marijuana. And it is through Emma's story that she chronicles that harm. Emma grew up in Humboldt County but ventures out to Berkeley for college, and while there worries whenever she gets a call from home that her parents will be alerting her to another Humboldt death. Describing the scene from Emma's perspective, Brady writes, "It was like they lived in a world without boundaries, and since teenagers needed something to push against, it didn't become obvious that things were going too far until people starting falling over the edge."

Emma ultimately devoted her senior thesis to exploring why the youth of southern Humboldt County die at such an alarming rate. She found that the children in many families in the area were precluded from talking openly about what happened in their homes or had a deep fear of law enforcement - which " 'can either lead to situations that are very dangerous or prevent you from reaching out for help in an appropriate way when a situation is dangerous.' " One example of this secretive behavior is the character Crockett, whose early childhood Brady describes as shrouded in secrecy because he had to hide his mother's profession as a coke and pot dealer from the local fishermen in the community.

Brady finishes her book by discussing the effect of dispensaries (medical marijuana patient collectives) on the market for marijuana grown outdoors. Through the character Mare, an old-school Humboldt resident and grower, Brady reveals the challenges brought about by a market that favors marijuana grown indoors over that grown outdoors.

The book does not go into much discussion of how district attorneys or police officers in the rest of the state or even in Humboldt itself deal with the marijuana issue, although there is a suggestion that defendants just end up on probation. What that means - or what the consequences of being on felony probation are - is not central to the book's concern, but Brady touches on the ways the criminal justice system affects the daily life and ability to earn an income for those who are still in the marijuana trade.

Most interesting to a reader unfamiliar with Humboldt County or those in the marijuana business - both legal and illegal - may be Brady's exploration of the juxtaposition of hippie ideals and desire to make a living on the edge of the legitimate world that epitomizes life in Humboldt. It is representative of life for the thousands of Americans who have chosen to buck the system and grow and sell a plant that for some is medicine, for others a desirable way to alter consciousness, and for many, both.

Allison Margolin is a partner at Margolin & Lawrence in Beverly Hills.

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