The World

Up, Up and Away, man!

CHARLES FOLEY December 12 1977
The World

Up, Up and Away, man!

CHARLES FOLEY December 12 1977

Up, Up and Away, man!


In the wild, remote hills of Humboldt County, some 200 miles north of San Francisco, the grass is as high as an elephant’s eye. In the case of the plants, that’s about 12 to 14 feet. In the case of those who smoke them somewhat higher.

For the big crop this year in Humboldt County is marijuana, acres and acres of the very best grade, better than any of your tired old Panama Red, Acapulco Gold or even your prime Colombian Wacky Weed, reputed to turn your body to mush, your mind to marmalade. It is growing, more or less freely, in the wide open spaces of Northern California because the Age of

Grass is upon us; the Day of the Joint has dawned.

More and more states across America are “decriminalizing” marijuana, and more and more local police forces are simply abandoning the attempt to enforce pot laws. “The fact is,” said Peter Bensinger, head of the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration, in a statement to Congress earlier this year, “that the federal government, for all practical purposes, isn’t arresting individuals for the possession of marijuana any more.” President Carter (whose sons, their mother tells us, have tried grass—indeed, son Jack was busted some years back) has urged Congress to loosen the laws. And the National Institute on Drug Abuse says that 36 million Americans have smoked the stuff. And Dr. Gallup says 53% of the populace favor decriminalization and a survey shows that 60% of some 400 big-city administrations feel the same way. And ...

So we come back to Humboldt County, a pretty rural area, far, far from big-city life, where they’ve taken the new tolerance a step further than most. Here they are cultivating the illegal weed and making of it a multimillion-dollar business.

A young man with long blond hair explained over a beer at the Branding Iron Saloon (once a favorite with loggers, today populated chiefly by what, in these parts, they still call hippies) how he became one of Humboldt’s nouveaux riches. He, his

brother and a girl friend purchased a plot of land shrouded in fir trees for a modest sum—the county has suffered an economic depression since the timber industry “logged out” the hills. Last March they planted some high-class seed which had produced a splendid crop. It’s called sensimilla. “That’s Spanish for without seed, see. The trick is to weed out all the male plants and leave just the females. They’re the ones with the high THC content.”

THC, of course, is the active chemical ingredient in marijuana, the stuff that makes the difference between a mild high and a psychotropic, hallucinatory, crazy-giggling, they’ll-have-to-take-me-away-thistime episode. Sensimilla is loaded with THC. The unpollinated females tower up to heights of 12 feet or more, and yield about a pound of dried weed each. How much was that pound worth? “At least $1,000 in California. This grass is really in demand, man.”

Thus a small field of 50 plants should produce a crop worth at least $50,000. and one can see why sensimilla is popular in Humboldt County—not only with the young people who grow and smoke it, but also with good solid Middle-American merchants and shopkeepers and bar owners. There hasn’t been much doing, economically speaking, around such small

towns as Garberville (population 1,000) for many years. Suddenly boom times are back. The town hardware stores are selling fertilizer by the ton, miles of wire fencing, thousands of yards of water pipes. Garberville has a unique best seller, too, called Sensimilla Marijuana Flowers ($9.95)—a do-it-yourself manual for beginners. Expensive items from chain saws to fourwheel-drive jeeps are selling briskly. The word is that not a few pot farmers will clear $100,000 and more this season.

And what is the law doing? Not much.

“It’s not just that the hippies are bringing money into the area,” said one local official, who asked not to be named. “It’s the cost of law enforcement to the taxpayer. Look, last year we had a raid on a pretty big plantation. Maybe 2,000 plants. It cost the county $42,000. The local paper [the Times-Standard] said it was a waste of money, and we were criticized by the county grand jury.” Nor, it seems, are local judges very enthusiastic about prosecuting pot offenders: more than half the marijuana-connected arrests in Humboldt County last year were thrown out of court.

A more immediate threat to Humboldt growers is theft. Barbed wire fences, heavy gates, guard dogs, armed men on roundthe-clock watches, walkie-talkie radios are being used to protect crops. Many a small planter has come home after a day’s absence to find his entire season’s work lost— every plant picked clean. “One of these days,” said the man at the Branding Iron, “someone’s gonna get killed. They’re trigger-happy out there.”

Northern California’s extreme tolerance toward grass is matched in few other parts of the United States. Nevertheless, the national mood has changed, and is changing further, after 40 years of trying to eradicate pot at the expense of millions of dollars. Nine states have “decriminalized” possession in the past four years, and many more are expected to follow. Studies indicate that the lighter penalties have not yet produced any significant increase in the number of users; and California’s bill for processing pot cases has fallen from $20 million a year to less than four million dollars in 1976.

By 1980, the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) predicts, at least half of the states will have decriminalized the weed. And during the Eighties, according to a NORML spokesman, the factions in this long-drawn war will be fighting over a new issue — total legalization.

One risk of this step would be commercialization. Already the tobacco companies are credited with secret plans to market and advertise the stuff, with all the money and know-how at their disposal. Its use would be pushed on TV and billboards,

whatever experts might say about its effect on health, the family and traffic fatalities. Unlike tobacco, marijuana is a weed that can be grown in every state of the union. Efforts to license it could bring on a nationwide wave of bootlegging. The Age of Grass could turn into yet another age of graft.