Journalist Emily Brady, a native of Tomales, spent more than a year living in Humboldt County researching her new book, Humboldt: Life on America’s Marijuana Frontier. The region became an epicenter of marijuana cultivation after an exodus from the Bay Area in the 1960’s by back-to-the-landers who found that the plant provided them with a steady source of income. Ms. Brady’s book follows four individuals who represent different facets of the area’s economy and culture. She spoke with Samantha Kimmey of the Point Reyes Light about what took her to Humboldt, what she found there and why she believes in the legalization of the drug’s recreational use—namely, to minimize incarceration rates drawn along racial lines. She will be at Point Reyes Books on Saturday, Nov. 16 at 7 p.m. to discuss her book.
Emily Brady: I was born in Tomales. My mom is from Inverness and my dad is from Tiburon, and my granny still lives in Point Reyes. I grew up in West Marin, west Sonoma and the Napa Valley, and my best friend’s father was a marijuana grower. So the seeds of this story were planted when I was 14, when her dad was arrested and went to prison for five years for growing pot. We were inseparable as girls are at that age, but I didn’t know he was a grower until the day before he was going to prison. We went back to have a party and there was a sign on the door saying the house had been seized by the F.B.I. I asked my friend, “What is this?” And she told me that her dad had been arrested and there had been a trial and he was going to prison the next day. I stayed the night at her house and watched her say goodbye to her dad as her little brother was sobbing in the background. It was a really devastating thing for her family. So the risk that people were willing to work in this underground economy really stuck with me.
I went on to go to college and became a journalist, and when I would come back to California in the late 2000’s, I realized that the marijuana industry had changed a lot—people were learning how to grow, there was this school in Oakland, it almost seemed legal. When I moved back in 2010, my dad was like, “Oh, we’re going to vote to legalize it for recreational use.” I had been wanting to write a book and I thought that might be my book: how California legalized pot. What was apparent was that people weren’t going to jail like my friend’s dad; there had been this big shift with the medical law. So I went up north because I knew there were these pot towns, like in Garberville and Laytonville, but I didn’t really know what that meant. I figured that whatever was happening with commercialization in the industry would be affecting these pot towns. So I went there for a week in August of 2010 and it was so fascinating that I lived there for over a year, and that became my book: The story of this community that’s totally dependent on marijuana and how it became that way and what price they paid.
Samantha Kimmey: What were the biggest surprises you encountered in Humboldt?
Emily Brady: So much was surprising. One of the first things that really surprised me was how widespread it is. You’ve got the back-to-the-landers and you’ve got gangster types; you’ve got grandmothers and housewives. Everybody. The saying goes: If your mom lived here, she’d grow pot. Then there was just the secrecy issue. Here everyone is doing this, but the risks for getting busted throughout the 80’s and 90’s were so big and devastating that people don’t talk about it. There’s this fear of outsiders. It was also surprising how independent they were. A lot of people live up dirt roads, off the grid, with solar and wind and hydro power and they fix their own roofs; it’s this frontier, independent living. They pave their own roads, they volunteer at their schools and schools and volunteer fire departments—that’s how people pay taxes up there, by giving to these community organizations.
Samantha Kimmey: There is both a fear of it becoming legal because it would crash their economy and destroy their culture and a frustration that the high profits, which are a result of it being illegal, bring outsiders who don’t contribute to these local institutions. It seems as if they’re damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.
Emily Brady: The first wave, the back-to-the-landers, who moved up in their youth, didn’t move there to grow pot. They moved there to get away and be independent and free. It was something they stumbled upon, a way to make money. Then people started coming because they realized it was a place you could grow and make money. So there’s a core marijuana culture that’s really interesting and lovely and there are some really beautiful aspects to it, but there are also people that come and knock down trees and grow, and in recent years it’s gotten worse and worse. There’s a lot of stories in the paper of devastating environmental hazards with grows. So some people are looking forward to that day when it is legalized, because it will separate those who love the community and the place and are there for that, versus those who are prospecting for gold.
Samantha Kimmey: You leave yourself out of the narrative, and instead entered the minds of the four main characters you follow. Why did you choose that route?
Emily Brady: I knew I didn’t want to write it as a memoir of my time in pot country. Instead I focused on telling the stories of those four characters as deeply and richly as I could. Honestly, they’re much more interesting than I am. Their stories are incredible. Some people say, “How can she come to this community and be here a year and think she got it?” But those are usually people who haven’t read the book.
Samantha Kimmey: Some people seemed excited to talk about these stories because they’ve been under this shroud of secrecy. Did you experience pushback, or did people question your intentions?
Emily Brady: There is definitely a distrust of media, but the fact that I was willing to stay and live there and pay my dues helped. I didn’t have a preconceived notion of who they were—I was just sort of fascinated and talked to everybody. In general I was very well-received, but there were definitely people who were suspicious. The minute you say journalist, people think you’re a walking recording device. I was asked three times if I was a cop. I was disinvited from a few things because, you know, no outsiders were allowed to be there.
Samantha Kimmey: Was it especially difficult to find your way into the commercial growing aspect, which you showcased with Crockett?
Emily Brady: Fear and disinterest. With Crockett I was really lucky to get the access I did. His boss didn’t want me anywhere near his garden. I was forbidden to go up there, but I did, with Crockett -- someone who is making a ton of money illegally. Why would they talk about their operation?
Samantha Kimmey: There’s a lot of discussion in the community about the economic impact of legalization. Do you think Humboldt can capitalize on this idea of becoming the Napa Valley of marijuana?
Emily Brady: I don’t think it would look like Napa Valley, with Michael Graves-designed tasting rooms. I believe there would be tourism possibilities. I think it will be hard for a lot of people, but some people will be able to continue. Those who grow a good product can find a niche market for it. [The area is] so beautiful that there’s a lot going for it. I would like to see people develop other parts of the economy. I can see a marijuana museum. There are incredible stories. Once it’s legalized there could be a lot more storytelling about their culture.
Samantha Kimmey: The fear people have about legalization reminded me of agriculture in Marin. Many have turned to organic production to help the environment and to create a specialty product, but it’s still a struggle to be sustainable. And so the worry they have that a Walmart of pot might pop up and put them out of business reminded me of agriculture here.
Emily Brady: When I moved there I realized these are the last healthy small farmers. They are farmers, but what they farm is illegal, and that is what has made them so profitable. Like I said in the book, it’s government price support. The best government price support program in U.S. history, some call it. But of course there are negatives that come with that.
Samantha Kimmey: In your author’s note at the end you write, ”I came to believe that their economy is built upon something that is wrong.” Can you elaborate on that?
Emily Brady: What I meant is not that what they’re doing is wrong, but that it is wrong for it to be illegal. This is a small group of people in the wilds of northern California who are making their living on this; they are the marijuana moonshiners. They’ve been doing this for a long time, and it affects the rest of the country. When you look at who is in jail, 89 percent of the arrests are for possession; it’s not for cultivation. Who goes to jail? It’s people of color. They’re arrested at rates like four to one. It’s so big and wrong. To have this continue just so this small pocket of people can maintain a healthy income in rural America, I don’t support it.
Samantha Kimmey: Did you ever discuss that racism with people?
Emily Brady: I let people tell their stories. I listened and tried to learn why people felt that way. Sometimes it was a small grower, a mother, who thought it was going to be taken away by corporations, who didn’t want it legalized—you know, basic survival. Then you’ve got people who make a lot of money on it and they want to keep the black market alive.
Samantha Kimmey: One of the amazing things was the telephone tree, the way that people and even the local radio station alert neighbors about where the police are.
Emily Brady: It was weird to learn about that from both sides. I would be at a friend’s house, and I don’t think I was ever there when the telephone tree began, but I learned that you would say, “Visitors are on the hill.” It’s a very quick way of alerting an entire watershed that they’re here. And the radio station would announce it.
Samantha Kimmey: Did you see problems with meth use and prescription drug abuse?
Emily Brady: In my daily life with growers, no. When I was with Bob [a sheriff’s deputy] and we would go to some darker places or to poverty-ridden trailer parks, he had a lot of interaction with those people. I saw that underbelly with him. Humboldt, like many rural counties, has a very high [rate of drug abuse]. In 2010, it had the state’s highest drug-induced death rate per capita in the state. None of that’s from pot, because people don’t die from it; it’s from oxy and heroin and meth. One time I was up at the courthouse during a preliminary hearing, and there was also a hearing for a famous case, about a woman who had methamphetamine in her system and breastfed her baby and killed it. So there are some darker aspects to life up there, like anywhere.
Samantha Kimmey: Did Bob feel that because he spent time battling grow operations that he was spread thin and unable to tackle other problems?
Emily Brady: I don’t think there’s anything that slipped by him because he was too busy with the pot stuff. But he would say, “I’m so sick of this pot shit.” And he was tired of dealing with the transients, these homeless drifter types that come up there for the lure of the marijuana and the hopes of working in the industry. The calls they get at the sheriff’s station are all about the smell of pot and the transients.
Samantha Kimmey: Legalization might be on the ballot in 2014 or 2016. Do you believe it will pass?
Emily Brady: There would be a much higher chance of passing in 2016. It will be interesting to see what happens in Washington and Colorado and how they pioneer recreational legalization and what problems they might run in to. That’s all still unfolding. I think January is when their shops will open, at least in Colorado. If I were to guess, my prediction would be California in 2016.
Samantha Kimmey: Will Humboldt be ready to face the music at that point? To either market it in a niche way or find ways to diversify the economy?
Emily Brady: Sadly, I’m not sure. I think there are some who are forward-thinking who will draft legislation to protect small farmers. But they are not part of the larger conversation. I went up there recently with a documentary filmmaker to try to do something on culture, but the fear of talking is so heavy. In some ways it will hold a lot of them back from being part of that larger conversation.
Samantha Kimmey: It’s been a benefit to be so far away from a metropolitan area, but it also removes them from that bigger conversation, if they don’t make a special effort.
Emily Brady: Between now and then I would like to see more people join the conversation. And they are—there’s the Emerald Grower’s Association. But the majority of people are continuing about their lives, hoping it won’t happen anytime soon.