Living in the Emerald Triangle: Marijuana’s Effect on Northern California

Marijuana has been in use for many years, and while legal in many states for medicinal purposes, it is still illegal under Federal law. Over the years there has been a growing trend to openly promote the benefits of marijuana, as well as a movement to legalize it. As of this time, the virtues and dangers of marijuana are still being argued, but the movement to legalize it is getting stronger, primarily because it is already being widely used, and we all know how the prohibition on alcohol worked out.

I’m writing this from a small town in Northern California, the state where the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes was approved in 1996 under Proposition 215 – The Compassionate Use Act. I live in an area known as The Emerald Triangle, a three-county region growing most of the marijuana in the U.S.

The intent of Prop 215 was to de-criminalize the use of marijuana by sick people who found relief from pain, nausea or the debilitating effects of many illnesses. The focus of the argument in favor of marijuana has always been the benefit to patients, and the wrongness of denying a beneficial drug to those who need it. Many people who don’t use marijuana have no problem with this argument. Indeed, that is why Prop 215 was passed by close to 60% of the voters. The Act provides for a Medical Marijuana Card to be issued by a local government to patients with a doctors’ recommendation; a recommendation, not a prescription, because marijuana use is still a Federal crime.


A patient can obtain a doctor’s recommendation simply by paying a fee of $100 to $200 to a doctor who is willing to write one. One local marijuana doctor claims to have over 90,000 patients.

The focus of the support for marijuana has been freedom to use it, but here in the Emerald Triangle, how and where it’s grown are of equal or greater importance. Since the enactment of Prop 215, the how and where have become key factors in the marijuana issue.

Many people in the area have been quietly growing marijuana for years, for their own use as well as to supplement their income, selling only to close friends – never to kids, and their activities have been kept under the radar, causing few problems. As a payback to the local community, they became involved in local affairs, such as volunteering at the Soup Kitchen, working with County Social Services, teaching in our schools, and, paying taxes! For the most part, most people in the region don’t complain about marijuana as long as these activities don’t affect them, and for most of the time, that has been the case. Until now!

After Prop 215 was approved in 1996, everything continued as before – as many expected, and hoped it would, and there was no notable increase of drug related incidents or evidence of any problems. It was, apparently, so successful, that in 2000 another initiative was introduced in the county to legalize marijuana for recreational use as well as for medicinal purposes. As with Prop 215, it wouldn’t actually be legalized; instead, the enforcement of marijuana laws would be given the lowest possible priority. Once again, this Measure was approved by the voters because there didn’t seem to be anything wrong in doing so. The consensus was: what’s the harm?

But shortly after, things began to change. The Measure was seen by many as an open invitation to come to the Emerald Triangle to grow pot.

There are countless magazines and web sites devoted to growing and using marijuana. A recent web search for “marijuana” produced 111,000 web sites! By making the search more specific, a web browser can access web sites that explain how to grow marijuana under a variety of conditions, recipes for using marijuana, how to avoid prosecution and, best of all, where are the best places in the country to grow it.

According to several “authoritative” web sites, the Emerald Triangle is the pot growing capital of the U.S. because “marijuana growing is legal here”. That is not a true statement, since the Measure was repealed by another voter initiative in 2008, but as a result of this claim, there has been an increasing flow of people into our region to either grow or buy marijuana to sell throughout the country.

Mexican drug cartels have established large pot farms in the national forests in this region, because it is easier and safer to send people across the border to grow pot, than it is to smuggle it across the border. Others, from nearly every state have either bought or rented rural property to set up their pot farms. If this wasn’t bad enough, many people have started growing marijuana in their backyards, in city neighborhoods.

If you have never experienced marijuana growing up close and personal, it might be hard to imagine what the fuss is about. As the marijuana matures, it emits a strong odor of skunk, and the overpowering smell lasts from about June through October, making it impossible to have the windows open in the house, or to enjoy the outdoors on your property. Even with the windows closed, the stench seeps into the house. In fact, the entire town literally smells from skunk every year!

Added to this is the fact that each marijuana plant has a street value of over $2,000, so a pot farm with about 25 plants – the legal limit – is worth more than $50,000. An enticing choice of vocation for about five months work! As a result, the backyard growers take measures to protect their crop from being stolen by camping in the backyard during growing season, with guns and vicious guard dogs. Not exactly what one wants just across the back yard fence. And this was happening all over town, in respectable, family-oriented neighborhoods.

Marijuana requires a lot of water, and water has always been a problem in California. Because the state has experienced below normal rainfall for the last three years, many communities around the state have imposed water rationing. Farmers in the Central Valley are losing crops, and fish habitats have become depleted, causing the salmon population to reach a crisis situation. Adding to the water shortage from natural causes is the water being used to irrigate marijuana crops in the forests and cities.

In the forests, black plastic pipe is laid for long distances to pump water from the streams to irrigate the marijuana crop. In the cities, water is taken directly from faucets, or if that proves to be too expensive, it is piped to bypass the water meter. In either case, water is stolen from the streams and city water systems, or an excess amount of water is taken, forcing the city water supply to be diminished to the point of rationing.

In the forests, campsites are set up for the workers, using generators to provide electricity, and storing fuel for the generators in unsafe, plastic jugs. As a result, the fuel and lubricating oil leaks from the containers and seeps into the ground, polluting it and requiring major cleanup operations at public expense. In order to make their habitats more – habitable – the “farmers” trap and kill local animals, and use herbicides to clear the area for growing and living. Think Agent Orange!

In order to protect themselves, and their crop, they have guns and dogs. When the growing season is over, they leave everything – trash, oil and fuel, and leftover pesticides that soak in to the ground and run off into the streams, damaging everything in sight. The dogs are left to fend for themselves, so they form packs to hunt the local wildlife. However, easier targets are the cattle and sheep on the nearby ranches. There have been many cases where the dogs attacked horses in their owners’ fields. Anyone who enjoys hiking in the public forests, are advised by law enforcement to avoid certain areas during growing season, so they won’t get shot.

Marijuana crops

Growing pot in the cities has its own set of consequences, with the danger of having guns and guard dogs next to public streets where neighborhood kids play and walk to school. From time to time, a house is invaded in order to steal marijuana, and often, shooting is involved.
Ordinarily, most people wouldn’t care if drug growers and dealers shot each other, but very often homes are invaded by mistake, and innocent people are hurt. The houses in the area neighborhoods are of wood frame construction, and built fairly close together, so if a gunfight erupts next-door, stray bullets can easily travel through walls.

Now I don’t want to convey the idea that we live in Dodge City, with gunfights happening every day. Fact is, it doesn’t happen all that often; but no one wants to, or should have to live with these potential dangers. When the prospect of easy money is present, anything can and will happen.

For several years, we here in the Emerald Triangle have tried to get people in other parts of the state to understand the underlying problems with marijuana, but since it wasn’t happening to them, they just didn’t get it. But soon, they discovered the dark secret that was happening in their own back yards.

In several communities around the state, far removed from the Emerald Triangle, it was discovered that houses, many of them high end, had been bought or rented by growers, the entire insides were ripped out – walls and all – and the houses were turned in to upscale greenhouses.

Makeshift, dangerous electrical connections, often bypassing the electric meters, provided power for the hundreds of grow lights, and because the indoor grows were not affected by the weather, they could grow three or four crops a year.

The larger area of the house, and the secrecy of the pot farm permitted the growing of way more than 25 plants, resulting in annual yields worth well over $200,000. After the grows were discovered and the growers arrested, the houses had to be destroyed because of the damage and the smell that permeated the entire house, and the homeowners of the rental properties as well as the neighbors, had no idea what was going on in the houses. After all, these were high-end houses – who would have thought?

Another insidious result of the laisse faire attitude toward pot has been the lack of ambition among some of the local populace. Kids lose the motivation to excel, or stay in school, because it made no sense to work hard in school, when they could earn more money by growing pot. It used to be that when you lost your job, you looked for work anywhere, just to make a living until things turned around. Today when this happens, it’s easier to grow pot, or make methanphetamine, in order to make ends meet. Never mind that the product is a drug that might be sold to your neighbor’s kids!

california marijuana legalisation vote

So that’s a brief description of the true nature of growing marijuana. According to advocates, legalization will raise millions of dollars of sales tax revenue for cash strapped governments, and backyard growing will disappear because large commercial growers will dominate the industry, driving the prices down and eliminating the profit motive.

That’s the claim, but based on history, that claim doesn’t seem to be supportable. Marijuana growers are generally convinced that government is determined to take away even more of their freedoms, and are unwilling to participate in a program that could identify them on a government database.

Even though large commercial growers could lower the price of marijuana through efficient production, pot is still relatively easy to grow, and there will always be a market for homegrown weed, making it tempting to continue to grow your own. Sort of like raising home grown tomatoes rather than buying them at the local chain grocery store.

As for paying taxes, they don’t do it now, so there’s no reason to believe that the growers will suddenly become good citizens. Of course, the image of large pot farms replacing food crops in the Central Valley isn’t a pleasant prospect either, and the smell of thousands of acres of marijuana ripening in the sun would do nothing to enhance the charms of California!

The bottom line is this: many marijuana growers are trying to do the right thing, by being sensitive to, and considerate of, their neighbors. There are many growers who are so discrete that neighbors don’t even know marijuana is growing next door. But they are a distinct minority! A greater number of growers are simply in it for the money, with no regard for the interests or welfare of anyone else. And they have been the cause of the problems; they don’t get it, and they don’t care!

So if anyone is considering the legalization of marijuana, they need to be aware of the unintended consequences of such an action. Not only should we be concerned with the rights of the users, we also need to pay special attention to where and how the plants will be grown, and to the needs of the majority of citizens who don’t use marijuana.

It’s no different than if a local government considers the establishment of a major industrial complex in a community; it’s unlikely to grant permission to build an oil refinery in the middle of town. Growing marijuana is not the same as growing tomatoes in the back yard! Ordinances need to be created, and enforced, to prevent any abuses of the system from happening.