More Drug War Hysteria For The North Coast–Part 2

[This is an extension of the piece I wrote last night in response to Joe Mozingo’s piece in the L.A. Times titled “Pot farms wreaking havoc on Northern California environment”.

The pot biz in Humboldt was started by hundreds, then thousands, of independent individuals, on mostly self-owned small parcels, with varying degrees of counter-cultural and ecological values, looking to find an alternative relationship with nature and people, who used some of the money from their business to support an array of community institutions. Over time, North Coast marijuana production has grown into an industry made up of tens of thousands of growers, still mostly on their own parcels, in a very heterogenous mix of motivations, values and cultivation styles. While there is no clear newcomer-bad/oldtimer-good divide (despite what some want to portray), the new arrivals seem, from my observation, to be less likely to share the older homesteaders’ values.

Unlike so many other illegal drug economies, Humboldt’s pot industry was never dominated cartels or monopolies. The original new-settlers’ emphasis on nonviolence, combined with the geographically dispersed nature of the community (among other factors), helped the burgeoning black market remain accessible and democratic. To this day, whether you grow one pound or one thousand pounds, you can access the market and sell your weed without asking anyone’s permission or paying protection money to any organization. What this means is that virtually everyone here has “sticky stuff on their fingers [i.e. resin from handling pot]”, as one of the participants in my film says in the trailer. Even the “straight” businesses depend on what is ultimately weed money, even if it is one or two steps removed.

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Effective—and professional—journalism is about more than parachuting in with a fill-in-the-blanks form waiting for photos and quotes. It involves looking for the complexities and contradictions of a topic like this, giving people the information they need to understand the problem and make informed decisions. It should encourage a conversation among all stakeholders so that actual solutions can be found. By this I’m referring to everyone from people within the cannabis industry who are organizing for a sustainable pot economy to policy makers in Sacramento to law enforcement officials to environmentalists to residents in the affected watersheds to responsible growers in Humboldt who are tired of seeing the Humboldt “brand” trashed in the media.

It’s not as if author Mozingo doesn’t know there is more to the story than the fill-in-the-blank form he arrived with. I’ve communicated with him and sent him extensive commentary about the subject. He’s spoken with many environmentalist colleagues as well. He has access to complexity, but chose to ignore it in favor of the sensational.

Without belaboring this too much, I’ll point out one way in which the piece obscures the discussion instead of enlightening it. Like virtually every other writer on the subject, Mozingo commingles the litany of environmental problems: rat poison, water withdrawal, grading, forest clearing, trash. If you want to confuse people, leave them feeling powerless and generate support for enforcement-only options, that is a good way to do it. In terms of finding solutions, these problems cannot be dumped in a bin labeled “pot growers”, since the world of hippie homesteaders growing five or fifty pounds for distribution to medical marijuana dispensaries, for example, is different than the world of foreign nationals’ mega-grows on public lands.

Deadly pesticides are often found at the large trespass grows on public lands, along with tons of trash, but this is not so on the hippie homesteaders’ farms, the ones that Humboldt is known for. At the same time, D-Con rat poison, mentioned by name in the article, is routinely used by ranchers, farmers and homeowners who don’t grow pot but who live in the forest or at its margins. With regard to water diversion, there are very large growing operations that have built-in water storage capacity to their farms, while many of the smaller, long-established, organic, community-minded homesteaders have yet to do so. The cumulative impact of this in a given watershed can be huge.

What reader, in L.A. or the world, unfamiliar with the issue, will be given enough information in that article (or any others) to understand that pesticide use by foreign national groups on public lands will require a very different response than will be required to encourage water storage on established homesteads? I could go through that piece paragraph by paragraph and ask similar questions. Beginning at the headline and continuing right through to the end, it all becomes about generic boogeyman “pot growers” and seems to be, more than anything else, a lobbying tool for Fish And Game to take to Sacramento or D.C. Whatever it is, it’s not good journalism in my book.

I think those of us on the North Coast who care about this issue and are invested in the solutions need to back-up our own local writers, even to the point of setting up a fund to pay them. We have many trained journalists here who understand the subject and can write pieces that encourage the conversation I mentioned. While I don’t know if the L.A. Times accepts submissions from freelancers, enough airplay in online forums might help reshape the discussion and attract staff writers from big publications who are willing to dig a bit deeper.