Humboldt’s hippie growers lament environmental damage by pot 'miners'

Veteran marijuana farmers say newcomers to Northern California’s pot hotbed use toxic, harmful methods to cash in

Marijuana being grown on private land in California's Humboldt County.
Jim Wilson/New York Times/Redux

HUMBOLDT COUNTY, Calif. — When marijuana grower Robert Sutherland moved to this rural spot back in 1973, he thought the place was like Eden. As he remembered it, he and his fellow growers were just a bunch of earnest hippies living amid Humboldt’s cool redwood forests.

They were committed to a healthy lifestyle and saw themselves as being in tune with the nature surrounding them in the state’s lightly populated north.

“We held communal dinners each week, and if someone had a chainsaw, they’d share it with their neighbors,” he recalled. “We gardened organically.”

When a small contingent of Humboldt farmers traveled to Afghanistan in 1979 to buy 5 pounds of choice indica, a species of marijuana, they were not out for profit.

No, Sutherland said, “they just wanted to share.”

But that was then. This is now.

Those initial plants bore seed and proliferated. So, too, did the type of people farming them, especially as more and more states — including California — have legalized the drug for medical use. Today Humboldt County, the size of Connecticut, is at the center of the nation’s marijuana industry. Upwards of 4,000 commercial growers here account for more than $400 million in annual sales.

But the sudden emergence of a new industrial agriculture has had an environmental impact. Many of the new farmers, say old-timers like Sutherland, use techniques divorced from simpler and smaller-scale methods. The newcomers are prone to killing pests like rats with toxic rodenticides; they use heavy-metal-laden fertilizers and they clear-cut trees on hilltops. Their operations suck irrigation water from trickling creeks that are home to three species of federally listed threatened or endangered fish — steelhead trout, coho salmon and chinook salmon — and can drain them almost dry if not closely controlled.

Tony Silvaggio, a sociology lecturer at Humboldt State University, said the last three years have seen huge change in the county.

“The industry has blown up in massive proportions,” he said. “Where once you had five plants here, 10 plants there, you now have greenhouses with thousands.”

Organic farmers fight back

There is no way to quantify the environmental damage.

The pot industry is largely unmonitored, but Mourad Gabriel, a wildlife disease ecologist at the University of California, Davis, has found fatal concentrations of rat poison in the fisher, a small, brown, furry member of the weasel family. He has identified rodenticide as the cause of seven fisher deaths and, blaming the pot industry, said 86 percent of all tested fishers in California have been exposed to the poison.

The arriviste marijuana growers are pot miners in the eyes of Humboldt’s old pot establishment, and they’re drawn to the county’s weed-tolerant vibe.

“You can sit outside the police station here and smoke a joint, no problem,” Silvaggio said.

Growers run vast greenhouses under the flimsy pretense that each and every bud is bound for California’s medical marijuana market — when in reality a black market in recreational pot still booms — and they almost invariably skate free of environmental regulations. The prospects for a quick buck are so dizzying, said Utpara Deva, another longtime Humboldt grower, that many fortune seekers have arrived from far afield of late.

“You know things are changing when you see Bulgarian women with big hair driving around in gold-trimmed Cadillac Escalades,” Deva said.

Organic growers now constitute less than 10 percent of Humboldt’s pot industry, Silvaggio said, but they are fighting back.

In 2009, with other longtime Humboldt County residents, Sutherland founded the Humboldt Medical Marijuana Advisory Panel (HUMMAP). The group's vision statement exalts a “sacred herb” and calls money-minded growers “the corporadoes and pirates that befoul our culture.” A year later, a coalition of eco-minded Humboldt growers founded the Tea House Collective to sell “sun-grown, sustainable medical cannabis.”

But there have been setbacks. The green weed movement in the county is, by all appearances, faltering. 

Need for oversight

HUMMAP is riven by internal strife. Launched with about 200 affiliates, it has since dwindled to a couple of dozen active participants. The president left, as did the one before.

“They burned out,” Sutherland said. “They couldn’t handle it anymore.” 

The Tea House suspended operation this past fall, and its plans to reopen are still in the works.

Visions of a green pot industry linger in Humboldt, though. County Supervisor Mark Lovelace looks forward to 2016, when California voters will likely legalize recreational pot smoking. He hopes Humboldt can become “the Napa Valley for marijuana,” a place where “the brand is quality products grown by family farmers in an environmentally sustainable way.”

A Northern California firm, Clean Green, is helping build Humboldt’s boutique brand by running a certification program for pot growers. It submits each farmer’s soil to laboratories to test for pesticides and conducts field tests to ensure that growers are stockpiling irrigation water in ponds or storage tanks during Humboldt’s rainy winters. About 15 growers in the county have produced Clean Green–certified weed.

But Silvaggio believes most marijuana smokers are disinclined to worry about their pot’s provenance. “There’s this myth out there that all cannabis is eco-green,” he said, before sardonically mimicking a teenage stoner, saying, “It’s a benign drug, man. It’s a gift from the gods. It’s irie!”  

Humboldt’s environmentalists like Clean Green, but they worry that Humboldt’s green growers are politically feeble.

Mikal Jakubal, a filmmaker and longtime forest advocate, lamented, “They’re mostly idealistic older hippies living in the hills.”

Scott Greacen, executive director of Friends of the Eel River, said the old-school pot community is “fractured” and wastes time bickering over a local music festival.

“They’re constantly at war over who owns Reggae on the River,” he said.

Greacen doesn’t expect pot growers to organize well, though, mostly because they haven’t for so long — and for good reason: Their industry is still largely illegal. Only about 5 percent of Humboldt’s weed goes to legal dispensaries, Silvaggio estimated. Secrecy is paramount.

“If you go to a party here,” Greacen said, “you don't ask people what they do. You can’t. How are you going to organize people when they don’t talk to each other?”

As Greacen sees it, Humboldt's pot-miner problem is crying out for environmental oversight.

“We need to (fully) legalize marijuana and regulate it as we would any other industry,” he said. “Policymakers need to tell farmers, ‘Go ahead and grow if you comply with environmental standards and with public-health requirements.’”

Sense of doom

Humboldt’s neighbor Mendocino County actually did tell pot growers just that in 2011. Mendocino initiated a so-called zip-tie program that permitted farmers to grow up to 99 plants apiece. Law enforcement, in turn, reserved the right to monitor cultivation. John McCowen, a Mendocino County supervisor, described the program as a way to “bring order from chaos.” But in 2012, U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag shut it down, fearful that the program was legitimizing a black-market crop.

Public officials will likely remain squeamish about normalizing pot.

“No one wants to be seen as soft on drugs,” Greacen said. “But even in California’s most conservative counties, policymakers are now seeing that pot is an environmental problem.”

He believes that within a few years, the industry will be legal and regulated.

Is that just wishful thinking? It’s unclear, and a sense of doom hangs over Humboldt County’s pot-growing elders for the time being. 

On a recent cold morning, Deva, who is 62, sat in his tiny hilltop cabin — a tidy, wood-floored bachelor’s space. His pesticide-free marijuana plants sat outside, just dry stalks in the autumn chill, and he spoke of how he traps wood rats rather than poison them. Reluctantly, with a certain anguish, he admitted that, yes, he does kill the rats.

He explained that he was born Bradley Burns and later adopted a “yoga name,” ensconced in a practice aided occasionally by a little weed.

“It’s a great tool for going inside,” he said, dreamily. “It’s great for shutting off the mind’s chatter.”

A pleasant silence ensued. The warm sun slanted into the cabin’s large picture window. Birds chirped outside in the trees. Then there was a low grinding noise from the road.

Outside, another gleaming new pickup truck climbed into the Humboldt hills to cash in.

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