The Emerald Triangle is 11,138 square miles of redwood forests, coastlines, rolling hillsides and mountains located in Northern California. It consists of Humboldt, Trinity, and Mendocino — a trio of counties that make up the cannabis capital of the U.S.
The Emerald Triangle is home to more than 20,000 cannabis farmers, as stated in The Emerald Farm Tours. It is the epicenter of cannabis farming in the U.S.
The trio of counties is renowned for growing the best and richest cannabis on the market, according to The Journal of Professional Cannabis Growers and Retailers.
The reputation is one that developed over decades. However, the region was not always home to a booming cannabis industry.
Back to the Land
During the late 1960s, hippies traveled north from urban cities in the California Bay Area to rural areas such as Humboldt County as part of the back to the land movement. Their ultimate goal was to live a simple lifestyle, and depend on the earth’s biodiversity such as the sun for light and soil for food.
Additionally, they planted cannabis as a form of income. Overtime, they got more and more innovative by cross breeding different seeds from around the world, and using light deprivation cultivation methods. This granted them to be known as the pioneers of cannabis growing in the U.S. It had become their family business.
In the 2018 Netflix docu-series, Murder Mountain, Robert Sutherland, a pioneering cannabis farmers in the Emerald Triangle, explained that profits from cannabis contributed to the development of their community that “could not have been created otherwise.”
In fact, cannabis industry members built roads, and funded schools, fire departments, hospitals, hospices and more, writes reporter Melissa Hutsell in Sensi Magazine NorCal.
An Outlaw Culture
When the back-to-the-landers first arrived in the Emerald Triangle, the land was open, cheap, and unpopulated. It had everything to sustain a peaceful life: open space, woods, water, and mountains. People wanted to take a break from the world and get off the grid for a while. For example, veterans who experienced PTSD from the Vietnam War arrived in the county to start a new life. They wanted to escape the trauma they witnessed during the war, said cannabis grower and back-to-the-lander, Douglas Fir, in Murder Mountain.
They created a new foundation for a small community that consisted of personalized education systems, healthcare and jobs. Additionally, they created their own tax rules because they did not pay federal taxes, reported The New Yorker.
Eventually, federal drug agencies launched campaigns, including the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP), to eradicate cannabis farms throughout the Emerald Triangle. CAMP agents seized millions of pounds of weed, and raided properties with militarized police forces and helicopters. The campaign remains one of the largest anti-drug efforts of its kind in the U.S.
As a result, farmers hid their crops, went farther off grid, and barely involved law enforcement, which produced an outlaw culture among the residents.
The county’s geographic isolation gave its residents the ability to hide their crops. Farms were hidden behind hills and under the canopy of trees, locked gates, and private roads.
Then, California legalized medical cannabis, and more growers flocked to the Emerald Triangle to grow legally and illegally. As a result, cannabis became more lucrative.
The Black Market and the Green Rush
Before California passed Proposition 215 in 1996, which legalized medicinal cannabis, The Los Angeles Times explained that doctor’s prescriptions were not required and anyone can acquire it for medicinal purposes. Moreover, more people began using cannabis.
The word got out and many farmers from all over the country traveled to the Emerald Triangle and bought land to grow cannabis. It was difficult for law enforcement to differentiate between them, reported The Washington Post. Thus, the proposition resulted in a gray area among farmers and the police.
“Prices for Humboldt [cannabis] at that point were near their peak [which] topped out [at] $5,200 a pound,” said grower Douglas Fir in Murder Mountain. Prices were so high that additional people started cultivating to earn more money.
In addition to the price of cannabis, crime rates also went up, stated The Washington Post. This was in part because thieves took advantage of those who stayed under the radar, the publication explained.
The Legal vs the Illegal Market
In 2016, Californian voters passed Proposition 64, which legalized adult-use cannabis. The law allows adults 21 years of age or older to use cannabis for recreational purposes. Adults can also legally possess and use cannabis in private or closed areas such as homes.
Recreational legalization brought its own set of issues for growers in the Emerald Triangle. Primarily, the cost to go legal proves too much for many legacy farmers, or those in the industry before legalization. The state came in with strict and costly regulations that required state and local licenses, land permits, and testing for pesticides, potency and microbiological contamination. That said, the high price of compliance still forces people to operate illegally.
For example, only 3,500 out of the 32,000 Californian farmers applied for a license in 2017, reported The Atlantic.
Additionally, this has pitted the legal and illegal markets against each other. Since the cost of legal cannabis is high, consumers continue to purchase from bootleg operators because it is more affordable. For instance, adults who purchase cannabis can pay up to 40% to 80% more for their weed from a legal seller versus an illegal one, explained The Signal.
Cannabis Legalization Demonstrated Negative Impacts on Farmers
It was difficult for the state to know exactly how these propositions might affect California’s farmers before officials and voters passed them. Legalization was supposed to undermine the illicit market. But that’s proving to be a slow burn, even for industry advocates.
On platforms like Reddit for example, some people voiced their opinions on why legalization was a bad idea. They were not happy with the cost of compliance, and worried costly regulations would push farmers out of businesses, or force them to operate illegally.
Thomas Mudler, a second-generation cannabis cultivator with a farm in the Humboldt Redwoods State Park, told Politico Magazine that he voted in favor of Proposition 64. But he regretted it soon after the law went into effect.
He used to collect approximately $1.5 million before taxes. However, now that he must pay taxes, fees, and farm expenses, he only expects to earn $100,000.
Mudler said that he wishes to go back in time to oppose the Act. “I don’t want to see more victims of the War on Drugs,” he added. “But now it’s different because it’s a different war—it’s pricing [farmers] out.”