GARBERVILLE, Calif. — Laura Costa's son and husband moved quickly with the pruning shears to harvest the family's fall marijuana crop, racing along with several workers to cut the plants and drop them in plastic bins ahead of an impending storm.
The rain could invite “bud rot,” Costa said, “a big no-no.”
The farm, hidden along a winding mountain road in a remote redwood forest, is just one of many illegal “grows” that make up Northern California's famous Emerald Triangle, a rural region that developed over decades into a marijuana-producing mecca at the intersection of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties.
California voters will decide Nov. 8 whether to legalize marijuana for recreational use — an issue that has sown deep division here among longtime growers. The Costa family and many other pot farmers have yearned for the legitimacy and respectability that growers of legal crops enjoy.
But they also fear Proposition 64 will bring big changes, including costly regulations and taxes, lower prices and the risk that corporate interests could put smaller operations out of business.
“It will end traditional marijuana farming like this,” said Costa, 56, sitting in the middle of one of four 40-plant gardens, puffing on a glass pipe. “It will end our way of life.”
That way of life is visible throughout the region. Four-wheel-drive vehicles often disappear down dirt roads to drop off workers and supplies. Indoor grows abound in business-park warehouses in Eureka, the region's largest city with a population of about 28,000, and in the garages of private homes in nearby affluent neighborhoods.
Marijuana is smoked as casually — and frequently — as cigarettes in many homes, and “strains” of weed are discussed and debated like wine or craft beer.
Young people from around the world flock here for work, many arriving without job offers. They hang out in Arcata's town square or along the main drag of Garberville, sitting on their camping gear, smoking weed and hoping a farmer picks them up for a job.
“We heard it was fun,” said Rachel Perez, 22, who traveled from Spain with three companions seeking work as trimmers. They remained optimistic despite going without offers for two days.
Police complain that the seasonal nature of the farming means that many job-seekers go without work, exacerbating homelessness. They also worry about the risk of people driving under the influence of marijuana.
Law enforcement officials are urging voters to reject the measure, but it is leading in polls. Supporters have raised $23 million, compared with $1.6 million by opponents.
Northern California's marijuana industry has its roots in the mid-1980s, when the region became a quasi-military zone after President Ronald Reagan declared the war on drugs in 1982.
The next year, the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting — or CAMP — launched to wipe out illegal cannabis production in Northern California, where growers flocked because of its remoteness and temperate climate. The task force was composed of federal, state and local law enforcement officials, who erected roadblocks and often conducted door-to-door searches.
U2 spy planes and satellite images were used to locate illegal farms. Black helicopters dropped camouflaged drug agents armed with automatic rifles into the fields to chop down the crop.
The region soon surpassed Thailand as the United States’ top marijuana supplier, but the CAMP operation drove the industry deeper underground. Skittish farmers formed tightly knit circles that relied on trusted distributors to get their crop to dealers and, ultimately, consumers.
“We trusted one another and relied on handshakes,” says Swami Chaitanya, 73, a longtime grower in remote Mendocino County, about an hour south of Costa's farm. “Yes, rip-offs occurred. But it was dealt with internally.”
Earlier this month, Chaitanya crumbled some of his renowned “Swami's Select” bud into a joint as big as a man's pinkie finger, lit it and took a deep drag before passing it to his wife, Nikki Lastreto, 61.
“It's called a grower's joint,” Lastreto says of the mammoth joint before taking her own drag inside their sprawling home on Turtle Creek Ranch. The ranch is situated in a peaceful meadow of Hindu statutes and marijuana plants 5 miles down a tooth-rattling dirt road.
Chaitanya and his wife support Proposition 64. He says the 62-page ballot measure “is not perfect” but can be amended, and he rejects arguments that California should wait for a more grower-friendly law.
“If we wait, we will fall behind,” Chaitanya said.
The Connecticut native and Wesleyan University graduate began growing marijuana shortly after arriving in San Francisco in 1969, during the so-called summer of love. He recalled growing a dozen plants hidden in the gardened terraces of San Francisco's Telegraph Hill. He bought his Mendocino property 13 years ago.
In marijuana circles, he is a celebrity not only for the quality of his organically grown pot, but for his long beard, flowing white robes and passionate advocacy for the industry.
He, too, expects that large farms will proliferate if the measure passes. But he sees traditional growers surviving and thriving alongside the big farms, which he predicts will produce mediocre marijuana to satisfy a non-discriminating mass market. Chaitanya and other traditional growers who support Proposition 64 believe discriminating consumers will pay a premium for Northern California marijuana.
About 10 miles down the road, grower Tim Blake says the measure is the next big step for an industry emerging from the shadows. When California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996, he said, it ushered in a less-restrictive era in which businesses could start to operate in the open and even attract investors.
The provision also would wipe clean many criminal convictions and stop the prosecution of other marijuana-related crimes.
“It's time to end criminalization,” Blake said. “There is a lot of fear among farmers, small farmers in general,” about losing their livelihood and “the way things have been. But they've already lost that aspect.”
If the proposition fails, Blake argues, California would be in danger of losing its position as the nation's top-producing marijuana region. Four other states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational pot, and four more states have questions on the November ballot.
“We can't afford to fall further behind,” he said, giving a tour of his farm.
Farmers are so divided that the California Growers Association, which represents 450 farmers and 350 supporting businesses, voted to remain neutral.
“Nobody, not even the supporters, think this is a home run,” association president Hezekiah Allen said. “A lot of people think California can do better.”
Allen helped craft the measure and said the association is responsible for the prohibition against marijuana farms larger than an acre during the first five years of legalization. He said “that should be enough time” for small farmers to come out of the shadows, get licensed and get on making a living legally.
There is no evidence that Wall Street corporations are eyeing California if Proposition 64 takes effect on Jan. 1, 2018. U.S. tobacco companies say they have no plans to jump into the marijuana game.
Nonetheless, Costa and others say it's only a matter of time before other brands move in, upending a tight-knit community accustomed to doing business on its own terms.
For the first time, Christine Miller has retained a lawyer and an accountant to help wade through the potential regulatory issues and taxes that might affect her 250-plant farm in Benbow.
Miller, 39, has covered her plants and can wait a few more weeks to harvest because the wet weather isn't a concern. When it's time, her workers will cut bud-bearing branches from plants that can reach as high as 16 feet. Most are 6 to 8 feet.
The branches are then hung in a dark shed or barn for about a week until the buds dry. That's when trimmers are called in to separate the valuable buds from the rest of the plant and make them ready for market.
A conservative, back-of-the-envelope estimate is that each marijuana plant yields a pound of bud. But skilled farmers can usually coax three times that and sometimes more. One pound of Northern California marijuana fetches anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 wholesale. Many farmers use a middleman to transport and distribute the drug to retailers, whether licensed medical dispensaries or corner dealers.
The drug often changes hands several times, getting marked up repeatedly, before it's consumed. What's more, alternative ways of getting high are becoming increasingly popular. Users are buying more marijuana-laced baked goods and candy and highly concentrated forms of cannabis called “dab.”
Proposition 64 aims to regulate — and tax — that entire supply chain. Legalizing recreational use will legitimize the drug, leading to even more consumption, proponents argue.
“You're going to see cannabis grow at levels people can't even fathom,” Blake said. “It's going to bring all that business back to California.”