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 area’s 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. In Humboldt, hippies and former loggers both entered the game, followed by enterprising migrants and others looking for a (relatively) quick buck. With care and skill, large cultivators could grow huge amounts of marijuana, which would be sold—across the country—at rates of more than $2,000 a pound. Everyone in Humboldt acknowledges to Brady the serious economic dangers the town could face with future legalization, even if much of the evidence she gathers argues for going that route. The institutions of Humboldt—the radio station, the community center—were built with help from cannabis. “Marijuana farming had become a way of life, one that transcended class and generations,” Brady writes. There are hemp festivals and marijuana fairs. Successful farmers show their gratitude by tithing to local charities. In the isolation of the mountains and forests—where gravel roads make transportation difficult—growers generally run generators and keep to themselves.
Brady organizes her book around four people: An “old-timer,” Mare, who has been growing since 1980; a newcomer, Crockett, raised in a different California town shaped by pot and recently arrived in Humboldt to manage a marijuana farm; the young student Emma; and the sheriff’s deputy, Bob Hamilton.
Bob makes an especially interesting subject. A tall and broad man of about 50, he grew up in Humboldt County in its largest city, Eureka. His childhood wasn’t easy—his father tried to kill his mother but she survived, only to die four years later in a fire. He spent his teenage years in Southern California, served in the Air Force, worked as a cop in Fresno, and then moved back to Humboldt after retiring. He wasn’t a fan of the drugs. But he loved the area, and he worked hard to mitigate the various harms that come with so many residents earning an income off of an illegal product. “Behind every beautiful vista,” Brady writes, “Bob now saw dope, and meth, and what he called the ‘junkyard lifestyle,’ of those living on the edge.” In 2012, the Humboldt Sheriff’s Office analyzed the last eight years of data on homicides in the county. The large majority of the 38 murders committed in that period were drug-related. That said, Bob has all but given up on the idea that you can stop marijuana or any drug use. At most, you can control it. “The way he saw it,” Brady writes, “as long as there was a black market somewhere, the issues of criminality associated with the marijuana industry would continue. The only way it was ever going to change was to legalize it.”
The story of Bob and his vigilance makes for a strong contrast with that of Crockett, who spends days and nights guarding his marijuana crop from various authorities. The fear of law enforcement that consumes growers, the violence, the theft—maybe all this would end if we legalized marijuana and brought the drug out of the shadows. Indeed, one possible factor for the growing public support for legalization is the assumption that, all things equal, legal pot would create a healthier, safer environment than the alternative. At least trade would be managed by merchants and retail clerks, not criminals.
But then there’s Emma’s experience. Too many of her classmates have died as a result of Humboldt’s culture of, in Brady’s words, a “world without boundaries,” in which teenagers, in their desire to push against something, “fall over the edge.” Through Emma’s story, Brady throws a little water on the idea that legalization is an easy solution. While there’s little doubt that legal pot would lead to less violence, it’s also true that legalized marijuana means easier access to the drug.
As with any drug, there are risks. Social scientists and other researchers have documented a variety of ills, from dependence (distinct from addiction) and respiratory problems to impaired mental health, adverse educational and employment outcomes, a greater likelihood of other drug use, and the fallout from intoxication.
A place like Humboldt is sui generis. There’s no way to draw broad conclusions about how marijuana legalization—or quasi-legalization—would play out when your initial sample includes a place where public services are funded by drug sales. But the stories that come out of the county—a 20-year-old who was killed after a deal went wrong, or the preteens who get together to smoke weed—remind us that every choice we make has a cost.
Legalization advocates do their argument a disservice when they pretend marijuana is harmless. They do the same when they insist that legalization will lead to a dramatic demobilization in the war on drugs. Susan Sarandon isn’t a policy thinker, but she gets to the core of that argument when she calls it “a waste of our money to incarcerate all those people” over marijuana. It is. But the number of people incarcerated and the amount of money wasted aren’t as great as you think. As criminologist Mark A.R. Kleiman—who is leading Washington state’s legalization effort—writes in a recent issue of Democracy, “The 500,000 people behind bars at any one time for drug-law violations constitute only about 20 percent of those locked up.” Marijuana accounts for just a chunk of that 20 percent, not the majority of our prison debacle.
None of this is to say we shouldn’t rethink our approach to the drug. Indeed, none of it is to say pot shouldn’t be legalized. Marijuana’s harms are still arguably less severe than the harms associated with alcohol or some prescription drugs. Starting last year, Colorado and Washington have moved forward with an experiment in legalization, to see if it’s possible to turn pot into a regulated product like alcohol, tobacco, and other substances. If these state initiatives can escape federal intervention—the Obama Department of Justice has so far not been lenient on this front—they’ll provide valuable data on the costs and benefits of legalization, helping us to draw conclusions about whether national legalization would be a policy worth pursuing.
As a place and as a book, Humboldt is too idiosyncratic to add to that conversation. But in illustrating potential dangers of legalization alongside the terrible costs of prohibition, it helps us see that we do have to make a choice. Putting pot in a gray area—where it’s neither legal nor prohibited—gives us the worst of legalization and illegality.
Brady, for her part, comes down on the side of bringing weed into the light. “While I lived in the community, I straddled the role of outsider and insider. … I also made wonderful friends with people who, of course, grew pot. I saw how this income enabled them to pursue their dreams, but I still believe their economy is built upon something that is wrong, not marijuana itself, but the fact that it is illegal. Like Mare, Emma, and Bob, and most of the people I became friends with, I am for the full legalization and regulation of marijuana.”