Humboldt: Life on America's Marijuana Frontier

The story of the Northern California community that has survived on growing and selling marijuana for decades faces some new and perhaps unwelcome changes with the onset of legalization.

Originally Published in Booksmith on June 24, 2013

Like Deborah Feldman's *Unorthodox *and Susan Orlean's *The Orchid Thief, *journalist Emily Brady's Humboldt journeys into a unique, secretive subculture -- a place that marijuana built.

Say the words "Humboldt County" to a stranger and you might receive a knowing grin. Humboldt is a narrative exploration of this infamous and insular community in Northern California that has existed primarily on the cultivation and sale of marijuana for decades. It's a place where business is done with thick wads of cash and savings are buried in plastic pickle barrels in the backyard.

In Humboldt, marijuana supports everything from fire departments to schools, but it comes with a heavy price. As legalization looms, the community stands at a crossroads and its inhabitants are deeply split on the issue-some want to claim their rightful heritage as master growers, others want to continue reaping the inflated profits of the black market. Emily Brady spent a year living in this highly secretive community so that she could take readers inside this virtually unknown world of eccentric characters that is undergoing a radical transformation while teetering on the edge of legality.

California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996 with law 215, but in 2010, the statewide initiative to legalize marijuana, Proposition 19, the Tax and Regulate Cannabis Act, pushed the Humboldt community to begin discussions of their economic future. Legalization would bring a dramatic decrease in profit from the lucrative black market.  The first community-wide meeting was called “The Post-Marijuana Prohibition Economy Forum” or “What’s After Pot?” for short.  This meeting is where Humboldt begins.  As the contentious issue of legalization was widely debated, Brady followed four people with very different perspectives on and relationships to marijuana through the vote on Proposition 19, and, in the process, opened the door to readers.

Mare is one of the original back-to-the-land Humboldt community members.  Crockett is a high-stakes, potentially high-rewards summer grower.  Bob is the sheriff in Southern Humboldt County attempting to enforce laws that fall in a grey area of right and wrong. Emma was born in Humboldt and her single mother grew marijuana until she got busted when Emma was ten.  She wrote her college thesis on the high youth death rate of Humboldt County and advocates for legalization.  By following each of these four characters, Emily Brady presents a diverse and complete perspective from inside this secretive and illegal world, as it prepares for change.

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