With mountains, forests, and 110 miles of coastline, California’s Humboldt County could be a destination for its scenery alone. But a 1960s back-to-the-land movement planted the seeds, quite literally, for Humboldt County’s true claim to fame: America’s cannabis capital.
How Humboldt County’s Relationship With Cannabis Came to Be
In those days, San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury was the center of the counterculture movement. (Time magazine calls it “Ground Zero for the Summer of Love.”) When a group of hippies decided to escape consumerism, pollution, and the Vietnam War and embrace a simpler way of life, the back-to-the-land movement was born. Many young people traveled north and settled in beautiful Humboldt County.
Since cannabis was an important part of the hippy culture, it was natural for these migrants to plant this crop next to the vegetables in their gardens. In the mid-1970s, a new growing technique called sinsemilla introduced seedless cannabis to the area. This new plant contained significantly more THC than regular cannabis, so growers were able to charge more for it. Humboldt, along with nearby Mendocino and Trinity Counties, became known as the Emerald Triangle, the largest cannabis-producing region in the country and the region that established some of America’s wealthiest small farmers.
The conservative townspeople did not exactly embrace their new long-haired, pot-smoking neighbors, and a clash of cultures made life uncomfortable for everyone. Over time, though, the groups learned to co-exist and, today’s children and grandchildren of Humboldt County embrace the nickname “hipneck” – part hippy, part redneck.
As the 1970s’ economy declined in more traditional sectors, residents began gravitating toward the cannabis business. Cannabis gradually became accepted by everyone, from volunteer firefighters and lumberjacks to churchgoers and parents.
Local police officers largely ignored the county crop, but that didn’t mean Humboldt was trouble-free. Even in this open black market, growers knew they could lose everything in an instant. The police or the FBI could raid their operation. Thieves could, too. And, as many new growers now understand, banks wouldn’t take their money, so cash profits were spread around the house or buried in the yard, where they could easily turn up missing.
In 2010, California proposed a ballot initiative to legalize cannabis. Surprisingly, many residents voted against it. They posted “Save Humboldt County—Keep Pot Illegal” stickers across the area because they feared prices would drop once cannabis became legal. They were right. When the law for medical marijuana passed, prices plummeted. The black market had its benefits.
The Future of Cannabis in Humboldt County
Now that cannabis is legal for medical and recreational use, Humboldt County growers need to find a way to compete in a market filled with eager entrepreneurs and large corporations to protect the business they’ve cultivated for so many years.
Some are looking to the wine industry for ideas. One strategy is for Humboldt County to become the cannabis equivalent to champagne, where only products from a specific region can bear the county brand. The rich soil in the area is critical to the quality of the cannabis, residents claim, so they’ve created a special stamp to differentiate Emerald Triangle cannabis from the competition.
The other issue for the county is compliance. Longtime farmers must now follow government regulations or face hefty fines. Filing an official permit, which can cost up to $10,000, is the first step. After that, growers pay up to $500,000 to get their operation up to code by complying with water and soil regulations, proper road construction, fertilizer storage, and labeling requirements.
Although the black market has turned green, Humboldt County residents seem to be up for the change. In the two weeks before the filing deadline, Humboldt’s Planning and Building Department was flooded with 1,500 permit applications. For now, America’s cannabis capital still reins.
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