About Humboldt (and Mendocino)
Two of the film’s four main characters live in the southern part of Humboldt County (“SoHum”). The other two live in northern Mendocino County, the county just to the south of Humboldt on California’s rugged northwest coast. For brevity’s sake I often use “Humboldt” as a catch-all for the region because the name is globally associated with marijuana production. Most everyone here has a story about how they were traveling in some remote part of the world and received knowing smiles and laughs when they said they were from Humboldt County.
It was through a combination of chance and climate that Humboldt County became synonymous with home-grown marijuana. As the energy of the ’60s counter-culture waned in the urban centers, particularly San Francisco, many young people chose to continue the Utopian experiment by moving into rural areas where they could live off-grid, closer to nature and out of the prying eyesight of authorities.
As it turned out, there was reasonably affordable land in the SoHum area, often former sheep and cattle ranches that were being old off. Once enough people had a foothold, it cleared the path for others to follow.
When they first arrived in this part of Northern California, these “new settlers,” rarely had much in the way of income. Welfare and food stamps were often necessary to survive as they eked out a living in the depressed rural economy. While not coming here specifically to grow pot, home vegetable gardens were the obvious place to plant some of the seeds in the bottom of the baggies of imported Mexican or Colombian weed that people smoked.
In the late ’70s, the U.S. and Mexican authorities began a program of spraying Mexican marijuana fields with the herbicide paraquat, sparking fears of “paraquat pot” poisoning. When weed smokers in the city realized that homesteaders in Humboldt and Mendocino had organic pot, the Humboldt pot economy was born.
It is anyone’s guess as to whether or not the nascent cannabis culture would have exploded so successfully had the hippies at that time chosen to settle farther north in the fog belt where marijuana is prone to mold during the flowering season. Southern Humboldt’s combination of climate, remoteness and a culture of disdain for authority going back to the moonshine days provided the perfect substrate in which the new culture’s roots could take hold and anchor tight.
While they came for the land and community, the marijuana economy gave them a way to fund the back-to-the-land dream. Thirty-some years later, the SoHum area is booming and has become a hub of counter-cultural values and institutions, all fueled by a robust marijuana trade. A large community center was built—mostly with donated labor—along with alternative schools, a vibrant homesteading movement, volunteer fire departments and a listener-funded radio station.
Until fairly recently, both counties’ economies and politics were controlled by the larger, conservative populations to the north in Humboldt and to the south in Mendocino. This left SoHum and Northern Mendocino politically isolated and the targets of a culture war centering around marijuana suppression that still simmers to this day.
The situation became nearly unbearable by the early ‘90s, prompting a short-lived attempt to form a new county—Sequoia County—out of these two regions. Sequoia is the Latin name for Northern California’s signature vegetation, the redwood tree, Sequoia sempervirens. In an earlier time, this community had taken on the name “Mateel,” a contraction of the names of the two major rivers that define the region’s geographical boundaries: the Mattole and the Eel. There are still a few businesses and institutions around using the Mateel moniker.
Most of the residents of the “Mateel” region use the small, unincorporated town of Garberville, in SoHum, as their main social and economic center.
Humboldt County is also part of the “Emerald Triangle”—the pot-growing region of Humboldt, Trinity and Mendocino counties. The name, now widely adopted and worn proudly, originated with law enforcement as propaganda in a marijuana eradication campaign targeting the region in the 1980s. Their attempt to drum up fear by comparing Northern California counties with the Golden Triangle and its heroin trade ended up as a branding and marketing boon for this area.
Today, Humboldt and Mendocino county politics are less polarized along the old lines. An influx of new people—many of whom come here specifically to grow pot—and the decline of the typically conservative timber industry have stirred the demographic mix. Former logging towns have in some cases become the new affordable places to buy for progressive newcomers.
Marijuana legalization is a complex subject in the Humboldt/Mendocino area. While few believe people should go to jail for growing or smoking or selling pot, legalization also means that the price per pound would likely fall and that growers’ free-wheeling lifestyle would be subject to bureaucracy and regulation. In 2010, the year this film was mostly shot, Californians voted down Proposition 19, the marijuana legalization initiative, by about 55%. In the SoHum area, the no vote was much higher.
The press jumped on this to claim pot growers were against legalization, which has led to a false claim that marijuana growers’ “no” votes killed legalization. California then had a population of 37 million. The opinions of Humboldt and Mendocino growers, assuming they even voted, would’ve barely been big enough to be a rounding error in an electorate that large. (See the FAQ page for more details on this topic.)
As of this writing—April, 2014—the current consensus seems to be that legalization proponents will be aiming for either a legislative solution or a citizen’s ballot initiative in 2016. Recent polls suggest that California voters are becoming increasingly open to the idea of legalization, with the percentages now tipped solidly in favor.
(To be continued soon.)