I talked to Suzelle briefly after the SoHum values conference in Redway a couple of weeks ago. We talked about how much the War on Drugs overshadows everything in this community. We also talked about how much hardship cannabis consumers have endured under prohibition. I said “There’s a debt that’s owed,” meaning that I thought the people who made their fortunes from the injustice of prohibition owe a debt to the people who endured that violence, injustice and discrimination for so long.

I’m sorry I said that. Not that I don’t think there’s truth in it, but the truth is bigger than that, and I think this community has a lot of healing to do, and needs to take care of itself, first. Besides, some people here have consistently worked for legalization. They worked for it, voted for it, and supported it openly, even though it made them more vulnerable, and threatened the income they earned from producing and selling marijuana. I applaud those people. I wish we had more of them, and I certainly don’t fault them. A lot of them are now involved with building a new legal cannabis industry, and I wish them success.

I realize I don’t always say things in the most sensitive way possible, but I want to make myself clear, and I know that I am talking to battle-hardened veterans of the War on Drugs. I care about this community. I live here, and you are my neighbors, and I’m very worried about what I see going on around here.

I’m proud of what this community has accomplished, and I agree with Owl, who spoke up at the conference to say, “We should be proud of our heritage.” We should be proud of what we did to get cannabis to the people, despite the overwhelming violence and oppression, of the War on Drugs, for all those years. That was an absolutely heroic effort, and we should be proud of it. We should also be proud of the work we did to end the War on Drugs. If you haven’t already done some of that work, there’s still time. Go ahead and write a check to NORML. They still need it, and so do you.

The War on Drugs has taken far more than we realize from all of us. There’s a lot of pain behind the windshields of those giant trucks, and there’s not one of us who hasn’t been scarred by it, even if it’s only by the fact that we’ve become so dependent on it, economically, as a community. We’ve become so economically dependent on it that we just can’t face life without it. We’re terrified of the very idea of it, and it’s the very last thing we want to think about. Since we’re the kind of people who prefer to do things, rather than think about them, we just keep doing our thing and try not to think about it.

We’re caught between two gorgons. On one side, we have the awful horror of the War on Drugs, in which we were heroes, but on which we’ve come to depend. On the other side, we can’t bear the horror of life in Humboldt County without the windfall black-market profits the War on Drugs brings. We just can’t face reality. Instead, we live in denial.

We cope by living in our own delusion and concocting a mythology that has come completely unhinged from reality. By now, I’m sure I’ve written enough about this cultural schizophrenia to fill a book, but here it is in a nutshell. Here, in our denial, behind the Redwood Curtain, we hide within our tidy wholesome mythology of “Mom and Pop,” “back-to-the-land” growers, growing superior, world renowned marijuana of unapproachable quality by practicing impeccable watershed stewardship and sustainable, all organic, biodynamic, permaculture farming practices.

Meanwhile, back in reality, Google Earth shows a vast network of clear-cuts, garbage dumps and stream diversions connected by a million miles of quad trails and illegal roads. Like the original Emerald City in The Wizard of OZ, what goes on here only looks good if you wear the special sunglasses that make the grime of the black-market sparkle like gemstones. Everything is beautiful here in paradise, just don’t take off those special glasses.

In our mythological future, this area will become recognized as the best place in the world to grow cannabis, and we will grow pot of such superior quality that most cannabis consumers, being discerning, cultured people of considerable means, will insist that only Humboldt grown cannabis can satisfy their palette, and they will happily pay a premium for it. Besides, the black market will persist indefinitely because people would rather buy their weed from a drug dealer than pick it up at the supermarket. In this mythology, we can all just keep doing what we are doing, and do more of it than ever.

While it is true that the cannabis industry is exploding right now, and some people are going to make HUGE amounts of money from it, everything about this industry is changing incredibly fast. Within this crucible, profit margins will shrink until competition gives way to consolidation. In this process, even if the industry settles here, most of Humboldt County’s growers will get squeezed out of the business. That’s the reality that’s coming down the pike with legalization.

The pot business has always been a game for gamblers. I know that nobody really feels much sympathy for drug dealers squeezed out of the black-market, and I doubt anyone will start a charity for them anytime soon, but we are talking about most of our community now. Most of the people we know, most of the people who were born and raised here, and most of the people who built this community and make it unique, will be squeezed out of the marijuana industry, including all of the bright, imaginative and creative people who have come to rely on it to support their creativity.

Most of our community will be squeezed out of the marijuana industry by greedy, ruthless business-people with major capital behind them. It is already well underway. That’s why we don’t want the marijuana industry in Humboldt County. Large-scale industrial agriculture does not make a good neighbor, nor does it belong on steep slopes in wild habitat. More importantly, it’s not who we are.

We didn’t come here to ruthlessly corner the market of a new industry. We came here to get out of the rat race, to breathe fresh air, hear the birds sing and walk in the woods. We made art. We played music and we told stories. Marijuana reminded us why those things mattered to us, so we made space for them, shared them and celebrated them. Marijuana reminded us why those things mattered, and the War on Drugs reminded us why marijuana mattered, so we learned to grow that too, in secret little patches hidden deep in the forest.

It was risky. You couldn’t trust people who didn’t grow. If you neglected to start seeds, your neighbor might just drop a few seedlings off at your place just to make sure you put a crop in. To be accepted by this community you practically had to grow, and the stress of it was palpable. You could feel it in town. This was a war zone, and the sound of a helicopter on a hot summer day still sends most people around here into a panic attack.

We lost a lot of great people in the War on Drugs. A lot of them got busted, some more than once. A lot of people turned to alcohol and other drugs to deal with the stress, some artists more or less abandoned their art, because weed money came so much easier. The black market had a corrosive effect on the community, and the longer it continued, the more this place attracted a criminal element motivated by greed. Meanwhile, it took almost 40 years for the people to rise up and demand an end to cannabis prohibition, and the government fought the people at every turn. Today, cannabis is still only legal in states where voters have the power of referendum.

Here, we have so thoroughly internalized the oppression of the War on Drugs that it has blinded us to our options, and stunted our economic diversity. As we move towards legalization and the price of pot continues to slide, people just keep producing more weed. The art, music, stories and community celebrations get squeezed out, replaced with more boring hard work, the rat race and Netflix by satellite. Nobody’s got time to walk in the forest anymore. They’ve got tarps to pull, soil to move and plants to tend. Prohibition squeezed this community into the marijuana industry, and now the marijuana industry is squeezing the life out of this community. That’s just part of what the War on Drugs has done to us, but the war is far from over for us.

The War on Drugs has affected how we think and how we see the world, and our collective schizophrenia is affecting our ability to make realistic decisions and plan for the future. Consequently, the impacts of the War on Drugs will be felt here for generations to come. While cannabis consumers have paid an enormous price in the War on Drugs, having paid it honestly they will heal more quickly and recover more completely. For many here, the War on Drugs has crippled them because they can’t even imagine another way of living, and it has become central to their identity. We face serious challenges, as a community, as we move towards legalization, but to face those challenges, we must first face reality.


John Hardin writes at Like You’ve Got Something Better to Do.