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The federal Drug War also has had a huge impact on these Northern California counties, said Corva, a Sarah Lawrence College professor who spent several years in Humboldt doing an ethnographic history of pot-growing, and now also runs a cannabis cultivation think tank in Seattle. Big swaths of Northern California were ravaged and abandoned by logging in the 19th and 20th centuries, and then some of those areas were re-settled by back-to-the-land hippies in the 1970s, Corva noted. Many liberal activists had dropped out of society after the upheavals of the 1960s, and for them, dope was just another plant in the garden.
Today, one out of every four dollars in Humboldt County's economy can be traced to the weed industry, and the area's rise to dominance in marijuana production can be traced directly to the Drug War. Until the late Seventies, America got its pot from international sources — mainly Mexico, but also Panama, Colombia, and Thailand, Corva noted. But then in 1975, the federal government paid for a campaign to spray Mexican pot fields with the herbicide Paraquat, setting off a cannabis supply scare that permanently altered the trade. It was one of the first campaigns of the nascent international war on pot.
To avoid Paraquat, Corva said, health-conscious Americans started to grow more of their own dope, and they got really good at it. Up in the remote hills of Humboldt, hippie growers perfected strong, new strains and techniques that ended up transforming their communities. By 1980, international interdiction drove the price of seedless marijuana to $2,000 per pound. And the potential for such immense profits pulled a generation of Humboldters into the dope trade.
Humboldt weed became an international brand name by 1983, when helicopters from the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP) began buzzing above the area, and armed troops started coming in to chop down grows. To counter-act CAMP, growers moved their plants further into the shade and spread out their farms, but they also went indoors. CAMP drove prices even higher, and inadvertently created the high-potency indoor marijuana that now dominates the California market, Corva noted.
And make no mistake: People grow pot for the money — either to save cash by growing what they need personally or to make money by selling it themselves, exporting it to other states, or cultivating it for medical pot collectives. Americans spend an estimated $15 to $30 billion per year on weed. The value of the nation's cannabis per square-foot is five times greater than that of poppies or coca, according to Rand.
Currently, a pound of Mexican marijuana costs $50 in Mexico, $500 when it crosses the border, and up to $1,400 by the time it reaches New York. And a pound of high-grade California indoor-grown marijuana sells for $2,000 here and $4,000 on the East Coast.
Research shows that traffickers make about $1 for every mile they drive east from California. But that figure doesn't reflect the actual cost of producing marijuana; rather, it reflects the risk involved in doing so. As much as 90 percent of the cost of pot is its risk premium, according to Rand. About 750,000 people are arrested annually for violating marijuana laws, and 40,000 people are in state or federal prison for it. In 2010, the government seized roughly 10 million outdoor plants.
Raising the price of drugs was one of the chief goals of the Drug War, Corva noted. The thinking was: price increases would dissuade impoverished users. What actually happened is the potential for intense profits drew the impoverished into the drug trade.
Today, pot is one of the top fifteen cash crops in the United States, Rand reports. And it's no longer confined to just Northern California. There are black market plantations hiding throughout the state's 20 million acres of national forest, as well as in large tracts of private and tribal lands.
Media portrayals of marijuana farming over the decades typically focused on the guns and violence associated with drug cartels. But in 2013, environmental harms became the central focus of the War on Pot.
From above, the forests of Northern California appear to have chicken pox. Patches of rusty-colored boils dot the rugged, sun-beaten timberlands of southern Humboldt County. Swooping down into the region from the God's-eye view provided by Google Earth, the rusty patches expand to reveal clear-cut hilltops.
Humboldt State University environmental sociologist Anthony Silvaggio counts six hundred of these patches covering the southern section of the county, each one centered over bald mountaintops arrayed with outdoor pot plants and greenhouses. "And that's not all of them. ... There are hundreds more."
Zooming in and out on each site on his computer, Silvaggio noted how the farms are collectively sucking fragile watersheds dry. Then there's the illegal logging the rampant use of animal poisons — plus insecticides, herbicides, fungicides — and high-nutrient fertilizers. When the fall and winter rains come, uncontrolled erosion follows. A toxic brew of chemicals and dirt washes downhill into protected areas like the Eel River. The destruction is happening all across California now.
Created in November of 2012, Silvaggio's research video got picked up by Mother Jones in February of this year and re-titled "Google Earth Reveals Devastation Caused by Marijuana Growers." A story by The New York Times followed. The Associated Press piled on, and Dan Rather recently toured the region in a helicopter for a report on AXS TV.