Illicit Weed May Find a Legal Home
By EVELYN NIEVES
|Monica Almeida/ The New York Times This sign on Route 128 in Mendocino County, Calif., supports a November ballot measure that would allow residents to grow marijuana for personal use.
UKIAH, Calif., Sept. 29 — No one can say for sure when the first seeds were planted, or how things reached the point where marijuana became Mendocino County's No. 1 cash crop and claim to fame.
What is a given is that pot (the word of choice) is part of life here. It is so pervasive that when asked just how pervasive, residents chuckle and say you must be from somewhere else. Nearly everyone has an anecdote about stumbling onto the plant in a field or knowing a friend who grows it in the backyard. A local law firm makes a practice of marijuana legal defense and a public radio station warns residents when government helicopters are spanning the countryside looking for marijuana gardens.
"Well this is the Emerald Triangle, after all," said Susan Billy, who runs a jewelry bead store in Ukiah, the county seat. The Emerald Triangle is the nickname for the three North Coast counties — Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity — known collectively for growing the most, and to connoisseurs the best, marijuana in the country. "Everyone assumes everyone uses pot, even if, like me, they don't," said Ms. Billy, with a shrug. Like most people interviewed at random, she said she believed in live and let live about it.
In fact, people here say it is time to decriminalize marijuana once and for all. Not medicinal pot; that issue was decided in 1996, when 64.5 percent of Mendocino County voters approved the statewide initiative on marijuana for medical use.
What the county is apparently about to become is the first place in the country that would allow residents to grow marijuana for personal use. A citizen-sponsored ballot initiative that would allow them to do so, known as Measure G, is on the ballot in November. It was signed by 5,900 Mendocino County voters, twice the required number, and is expected to pass by a wide margin. (A ballot measure in Alaska that would legalize marijuana and offer restitution to those who have served prison time for using it faces stiff opposition.)
Measure G would instruct the county sheriff and district attorney to make marijuana enforcement their "lowest priority with respect to other crimes," and "remove the fear of prosecution and the stigma of criminality from people who harmlessly cultivate and/or use marijuana." It would allow residents to grow up to 25 plants, at a street value of about $100,000, without fear of arrest. Transporting and selling pot would still be crimes.
While state and federal drug laws would supersede the local measure, rendering it moot, proponents say it would be an important first step in challenging the thinking that makes using marijuana a criminal offense but drinking alcohol socially acceptable, even desirable.
"What this initiative does is cap a 20-plus-year war on marijuana," said Dan Hamburg, a former Democratic congressman and now one of the local Green Party members who drafted the measure.
"Measure G says this war has wasted lots of money, wasted lots of lives, and the whole logic behind pot being illegal is ridiculous and false," Mr. Hamburg added, "especially for a county that so touts its alcohol making, particularly its wine and microbreweries. Microbreweries practically started here, and I have a friend who was busted for four scrawny little plants."
He is not alone in saying that the laws that bring in swarms of local, state and federal drug agents to the Emerald Triangle right about now, in the fall harvest season for marijuana, are hypocritical. The annual marijuana eradication effort will spend $1 million to destroy the illegal crop, with a street value estimated at $1 billion. Yet new wineries are growing and established ones expanding throughout this once wild country that begins about 100 miles north of San Francisco.
"I think the whole war on marijuana is just ridiculous, given the alcohol that is manufactured here," said Alana Oldham, a 20-year-old environmental activist who grew up in Potter Valley, farm country that has been taken over by grape growers. "Everyone I know is voting for the measure. Absolutely everyone."
Ukiah and Boonville (the most politically progressive town in Mendocino) and other small, quaint towns in the county look like typical sleepy communities, with a deli here, a cafe there, an animal hospital or two along the road. The vegetarian, ex- hippie crowd is outnumbered by the lumberjacks and plain folk. There are no pot paraphernalia shops in the county, and the only sign that displays any marijuana culture is a sign on Route 128, entering Boonville, that reads "Yes on G," with a marijuana leaf.
Of course, not everyone is voting for the measure. Michael Delbar, chairman of the five-member board of supervisors, said: "My concern is, what message does that send to our children? There are folks in the county who try to equate tobacco and alcohol with marijuana. But two of those are legal. If they want to make a political statement, fine. If they want to change the law, let them go 3,000 miles and lobby Congress."
Proponents of Measure G said it was not about about endorsing the large commercial growers in the region, or the small commercial growers for that matter.
"Sometimes," Mr. Hamburg said, "you get the idea from the opponents that Mendocino County would become the mom-and-pop pot-growing capital of the universe."