Transcribed and edited by Mikal Jakubal
When California’s Compassionate Use Act—Proposition 215—passed in 1996, legalizing marijuana use for patients who had a doctor’s recommendation, people were finally able to grow weed in the open in their gardens. For a decade and a half before that, law-enforcement helicopters forced most growing under the cover of light forest canopy. Finding just the right forest type and doing selective pruning of the trees to let enough light in but still hide the plants from prying eyes was an art in itself.
Nowadays, with most growing taking place in full sun, plants can yield two pounds of dried “bud” easily and much more than that at the hands of a competent and attentive grower. In the shade gardens of yore, plant yield was measured in mere ounces. To make up for this shortfall, everyone grew more plants. 100-plant gardens were common, with plants grown in large plastic grow-bags. The bags were usually covered in mulch or spray painted camouflage colors. Rows and rows of shiny black plastic bags on the forest floor presented a more identifiable pattern for the helicopter spotters than the plants themselves.
Water to these gardens was often a confusing mayhem of pipes, tanks and pumps, expanded over time as new gardens were added. In the garden I’ll tell you about shortly, it worked like this: there was a small, gasoline-powered pump one thousand feet down the other side of the ridge hidden under a camo tarp. It was only fired up on weekends or at night during CAMP (the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting) season so as not to draw attention. Water was pumped up the ridge through buried one-inch-diameter plastic poly pipe. At the ridge-top, the pipe had been buried under the dirt road years ago. It then went down into a large south-facing, lightly-forested “bowl” where there was a 500-gallon black poly tank hidden under camo netting in the forest. Pipes ran down from there to the gardens, controlled by a series of valves.
Now, one of CAMP’s favorite things to do was find tanks or water lines and follow them (often intentionally hacking them up with their machetes) to the pot gardens. Sometimes, whole networks of gardens across an entire hillside would be busted just by following the network of water lines. Once at a tank, lines were easily pulled up from the shallow trenches they were buried in, leading the machete-wielding officers to the gardens. Digging them in deep enough to thwart the cops was too difficult in the rocky, root-filled soil, so some clever strategies were employed. My favorite one I learned from one of the original growers here.
He would intentionally run lines toward a large downed log. In the winter, when the ground was soft and there would be plenty of time for nature to heal over the signs of soil disruption, he would dig out under the log and put in a “T” connector, branching another line off and burying the junction deep under the log. He’d leave a tiny bit of pipe showing on the other side. That way, if CAMP followed the line, they’d step over the log, dig around and continue following the original line, but missing the line to the other gardens…hopefully.
As if cops weren’t enough to worry about, the deer get quite hungry around here by mid-summer and will eat sticky pot plants down to the stems if you let them. All these gardens had to be fenced, usually with six-foot-tall chicken wire tacked to trees or posts. Once a bit rusted, it was nearly invisible from a distance in the dappled forest light. While more expensive, heavier and harder to work with than the poly mesh fencing, chicken wire is much less prone to entangling snakes and birds. Leaving the gate open in September might mean a $5,000-a-plate marijuana dinner for some marauding deer. I always wondered how they could walk, or even stand, after chowing down that much weed.
Then there were wood rats. These cute little darlings love to harvest pungent plants to line their nest, probably to hide their scent from predators or ward off fleas. All my grower friends still had hippie values, so would scour the area and bust up the large, distinctive stick-pile nests to deter them from living near the gardens, then use traps in the gardens to stop any rats intent on poaching the weed. The less scrupulous used rat poison. Both traps and poison regularly killed other small animals, one of the dark sides of growing in the woods.
All this materiel, including soil in bags, had to be hauled in to the woods, preferably by hand so as not to leave trails for CAMP or ripoffs to follow. Some was carried in by hand or backpack, sometimes using an army-surplus two-person stretcher. If done early enough in the season, a four-wheeler ATV could be brought near the garden and then the trail left to grow over, becoming unused-looking by the time CAMP season started August 1st. Hauling all this in and setting up these gardens was a major source of early-season employment for thousands of SoHum residents and itinerant hippie kids looking to make some cash while playing outlaw in the hills.
Hopefully by now you get some picture of what growing weed was like for many homesteaders back before Prop. 215 opened things up a bit. For the record, many people also grew in greenhouses and others hid small pot plants among their tomatoes while others grew out in remote meadows in the sun and hoped the cops never saw the plants.
This story starts in about March of 1996 when a mutual friend gave another friend and I an unused shade garden on his back-forty in the hills above Briceland, the one with the water source in the drainage 1,000 feet over the other side of the ridge. We were both very involved in the Headwaters Forest protests at that time, but needed extra money to help fund our activism since we still had to pay our bills and land payments while we were organizing at base camp and chaining ourselves to trees and logging road gates. The cool thing was that, since we were using the money for a good cause, he let us use the space for free. Normally, he would have taken fifty percent of the harvest. I’m sure that if any loggers or (former) Pacific Lumber PR people read this, they’ll feel vindicated. “See! We told you so! They didn’t have jobs. They were all just weed-growing hippies!”
Well, at least we weren’t on welfare like they also claimed.
We started our seeds in a greenhouse, culled out the weak plants and males (only the female plants are grown) and had about 80 plants in one-gallon pots, enough to fill all the existing grow-bags. We planted them out in late May or early June, figuring we’d get a little over an ounce per plant (it was a very shady garden), for a total yield of six pounds. Three pounds apiece, at $4,000 per pound that we were getting back then was a lot of money for us.
Let’s skip forward to late September, just weeks before harvest and a whole season’s work about to pay off. It was the last day of CAMP for that year. Once their funds ran out, it was like a cease-fire was declared in the hills and harvest was mostly allowed to proceed without much further harassment. Everyone breathed a great sigh of relief when the end of CAMP season was announced. There were often parties to celebrate another good year.
Protest season was in full swing against clearcut logging of the ancient redwoods in an area that is now protected as the Headwaters Forest Preserve. We had a rotating population of twenty to sixty people at action base camp up Highway 30 near Carlotta. I was alternating between the pot garden, my paying work and basecamp, where I was helping with action planning and logistics. I think I only got busted twice that fall. The charges were eventually dropped.
Late one afternoon I was headed from basecamp up to the action media office in Eureka to drop off some film from the day’s protest. Turning north on Highway 101 at Alton, I was shortly passed by a couple of Humboldt County Sheriff’s Department 4WD vehicles going well over the speed limit. Then another one and another and finally, a large pickup truck that I’d seen before that they use to transport seized pot plants. Heaped up over the top of the cab were hundreds and hundreds of marijuana plants. Though the stems were strapped down, leaves and buds were flying off willy-nilly as they raced up the highway. Curious as to where they could be going at such speed at that late hour (it was almost dark), I stepped on it and followed them to Eureka, trying to avoid being detected as a tail. After a circuitous route through town, they arrived at what I would later learn was their equipment and evidence storage area and disappeared behind large chainlink gates.
I arrived at the media office and before even being able to hand over the film was asked by friends who also had interests in that watershed if I had heard about CAMP that day. “They busted the whole bowl!” All of it. Every single garden, every single plant, including ours. People had seen the convoy leaving the hill with the plants about an hour before they passed me on the 101. My heart sank and I blurted out something like, “Oh fuck! That was my weed!” and related the story of the buds—MY BUDS! My carefully-cultivated, babied, fertilized, doted-over buds—blowing down the highway like burger wrappers thrown out a window. What can you do but laugh?
It was eerie going back to the garden the next morning, knowing that a whole team of cops had been there so recently. At least we could be pretty sure that they weren’t staking it out. That wasn’t CAMP’s usual m.o. All they wanted was to keep their plant count up so they could justify next year’s budget. Busting people required too much work. Still, we approached cautiously at first. Inside the open gate, the one that we had so dutifully closed and tied shut against deer for months, nothing remained but a few wispy lower branches. We dutifully harvested them, mostly for their sentimental value. We’d have at least one smoke for our efforts. At least CAMP didn’t chop up the water lines.
That’s just how it went sometimes. Some years you got mold or rats or someone left a gate open and the deer ate one third of your crop. Some years your dealer got busted. Some years you got CAMPed. And some years—most years, for most people—you got away with it. It was all part of the little game we all played and still play. No matter how bad it might get in any given year, when averaged over a whole lifestyle, the cost/benefit picture looked and still looks pretty damn good.
Me, I’m glad to be out of it. This is not a good time to be dependent on an economy that might be on the verge of evaporating. Very few who depend on the black market for their livelihood are willing to face the changes head-on, preferring denial or fear at a time when creativity, resourcefulness and a bull-by-the-horns attitude are all that will save us from the change no one ever thought would come. No matter what happens in the next couple years, it will be interesting.