Far Northern California is one of the most beautiful places in the country. Mountains, trees, rivers, ocean, fog–it’s all there. And far enough from urban areas to allow people to live off the grid if they want. And they want.
I’ve lived in northern California a long time but have only visited Humboldt County once. Known for decades as the place the best marijuana is grown, it had an unabashed outlaw vibe. Weed was illegal until just recently and those who tried to make a living from it were living on the edge.
Apparently, people living on the edge can easily disappear. Lost or even dead. That’s why they call a specific area of Humboldt “Murder Mountain”. The new Netflix docu-series by that name is quite an eye-opener and if you haven’t seen it, you might find it as riveting as I did.
Up on Murder Mountain, the inmates are in charge of the asylum. Hippies and rednecks might not have much in common philosophically, but up there what they do have in common is protecting their weed-grows. And that can mean real violence. Murder, even. And it went largely unchecked for a long time.
On the series, I heard law enforcement make excuse after excuse for not policing the area. “They have guns.” “They don’t want us here and it’s hard to do our jobs.” That was confusing–isn’t law enforcement supposed to do the hard stuff? In Humboldt, on Murder Mountain that wasn’t happening a lot. As a result, vigilante justice was in place.
While that part of the story was definitely eye-opening, the documentary uses murders and missing people as a pivot point to tell an even bigger, multi-layered story. That one is about the impact of marijuana legalization on the illegal cottage industry that has supported Humboldt residents for many decades.
Illegal mom and pop operations were the base of the Humboldt economy since the 1970s. As the price per pound of weed soared to $5,000 black market growers did pretty well. Something like 80% of the weed in the nation is said to have come from the area. But now that there’s a white market for weed, you’d think the black market would disappear.
While some illegal growers think legalization is the only way to rid the area of do-badders and have gone legal, others find the rules, regulations and fees now in place to be impossible. Now, growers can’t just spray pesticides, they must meet environmental regulations. There are labeling regulations and lots of forms and approvals. Rules and regulations are in place for the first time. The little guys are definitely getting squeezed out and some big corporate players are on their way in. Over time, Humboldt County will change. It has to with these new growers muscling the illegals out.
Both black and white industries now coexist, as some illegal growers refuse to comply and have kept their operations illegal. As a result, fines are the least of their problems. Property is getting seized, people are becoming homeless and even going to jail. The limited presence of law enforcement on Murder Mountain has now increased. Cops are actively enforcing regulations.
It’s a new day in Humboldt County, the end of an era. On the positive side, with legalization in place, there are fewer murders and disappearances. But many long-time illegal growers are suffering.
I can understand their dismay. Life as they knew it is changing. But I see another side to it. First, and let’s get this out of the way: they’re illegal. But on top of that, the move toward legalization in California has been on the radar for quite a long time. It’s come in stages. It wasn’t a surprise to anyone.
At its height, weed was going for about $5K per pound and black market growers benefited. What happened to that money? They do fund community services on a voluntary co-op basis. But still. They don’t pay taxes (or even put their money in banks.) It doesn’t seem that most are living in expensive homes. Real estate prices are far more reasonable in this rural county than they are in urban California. So a smart black market grower would’ve anticipated fees and regulations and put money away for the day they could go legal.
And some have. One grower that went legal has grand plans of a tourist destination, a “bud and breakfast” and more. (Given the amount of weed he seems to consume it’s amazing that he can think that well, but he had some good ideas. Let’s see if he can make them happen.)
But others didn’t plan ahead and now, on top of rules and regulations, weed prices have plummeted (as expected) because of legalization.
It’s hard for me to sympathize with those who are now falling on hard times because it’s not like they were taken by surprise. It couldn’t have been more obvious that their industry would go legal and the game would change.
“Murder Mountain” is much deeper than its hype about crime. It’s all about a community in a huge transition point. An economy in a shift. An outlaw culture that must change. And all the things that go with that.
I recommend the series highly.
And if you live in California, feel free to light up a big one and enjoy.