When it comes to marijuana, 2009 was a bumper year for police in Northern California’s Mendocino County. Officers with the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, a state task force, seized around 450,000 marijuana plants across the region. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles County down the coast, officials announced that 340,187 plants had been uprooted. That’s also a substantial haul, but consider this: the county is home to over 100 times more people than Mendocino.
For somewhere with such a small place in the national consciousness, Mendocino County is a surprisingly large player in the marijuana industry. While you might not notice on a casual visit, the signs are there if you know where to look. “Even though we only have about 90,000 people, at the last count we had 20 hydroponics stores,” the county’s sheriff, Tom Allman, told me recently. It seems that residents have had enough – for now.
Mendocino County is a bucolic seaside region a few hours’ north of San Francisco that, in 2000, became famous when locals voted in a measure permitting the cultivation of marijuana for personal use. It had been legal to grow medical marijuana in Mendocino and other counties since a state-wide ballot in 1996; the new measure took matters a step further.
Commercial growers proceeded to set up shop. Reports trickled in of marijuana being grown in backyards, specially built grow houses, not least in parks and on public land. What’s more, Mendocino marijuana was said to be among the world’s most delicious. Various offshoot industries emerged, such as the hydroponics shops. Although there are few reliable figures, a former local official, Jim Wattenburger, has estimated that Mendocino County marijuana growers reap billions of dollars. Others agree that it makes for serious money.
“My personal opinion is that if it’s going to be legal to grow it, it should be taxed, and the county’s financial problems would go away,” says Scott Schneider, head of the local tourist board, referring to the budget deficit afflicting the state.
That said, public opinion appears to have shifted. Maybe it was the unseemliness – Mexican cartels are said to have a presence, and Allman has five unsolved murders on his books that he links to drugs – or the fact that in some places, the smell of pot was overpowering. But in 2008 voters repealed the law on recreational use. Still, commercial growers continue to operate, as Allman has discovered.
Amid the twists and turns, the tourist board is even considering posting a YouTube video that will relay the facts of marijuana in Mendocino: what’s allowed, what’s not, and whatever else a curious visitor would want to know.
“Lots of people have questions,” says Schneider. “They hear about places where you can buy marijuana, they hear about growing it.” Such frankness is admirable, and it makes sense – the issue is not going away. On Thursday, the California Supreme Court relaxed limits relating to medical marijuana cultivation. A San Francisco lawmaker has introduced a bill to legalise the drug.
And in Mendocino County, they are countenancing a return of the local law that allowed anyone to plant a few seeds in their greenhouses and grow their own supply.
Says the sheriff: “I’ve seen the pendulum swing back and forth many times.”