LAYTONVILLE — Along Mendocino County’s Redwood Highway, just beyond the sign depicting a hovering alien spaceship, veteran marijuana cultivator Tim Blake sees the future.
He views his Area 101 spiritual retreat as the answer to the looming upheaval for a renowned California pot-growing region challenged by a November state ballot initiative to legalize marijuana for adult recreational use and new growing techniques.
Blake hopes his roadside haven, where local marijuana tenders gather to share smokes and tales of the harvest, will emerge as a nostalgic tourist draw — a destination honoring Mendocino’s proud pot traditions.
California produces one-third of America’s pot, with an estimated $13.8 billion cash crop, counting legal medicinal grows and vast illicit production. In this county of 90,000 people, it is an uncomfortable topic. Most civic leaders would rather talk about the enchanting Mendocino Coast, the picturesque mountains and the charming towns.
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But weed fuels the regional economy.
“There are people who don’t want to talk about it because that may seem as if they’re endorsing it,” said Bert Mosier, chief executive officer of the Chamber of Commerce in the county seat of Ukiah. “But this affects our community.”
It isn’t just the November initiative that has upset the area’s pot culture and stirred calls for new approaches.
Blake and others say the local market is already in free fall. Across California, legal medical marijuana dispensaries and indoor hydroponics warehouses that grow high-potency pot are undercutting Mendocino’s outdoor crop.
For years, most Mendocino cultivators have grown their “Northern Lights” and “Super Skunk” strains beneath the stars and coastal redwoods. Increasingly, their weed can’t compete with the high-octane “Purple Urkles” and “OG Kushes” that flower under glowing indoor lamps.
Pot from Mendocino County fetched more than $5,000 a pound just a decade ago. Now it goes for closer to $2,000, Blake says.
“Most people up here are growing,” he said. “And for every grower, you support the gas station, the dry cleaners, the health food store. But everybody’s numbers are down. Nobody has any money.”
Last weekend, scores of Mendocino marijuana growers and local officials met in Ukiah to ponder the impact on the county if California voters decide to legalize marijuana beyond current medical use. They brainstormed remedies to economic fallout, including promoting pot tourism and branding local medicinal products to bring recognition to Mendocino’s crop and its tenders.
Anna Hamilton, a Mendocino musician who hosts a radio talk show in neighboring Humboldt County, warned that the “legalization of marijuana will be the single most devastating event” to hit the region.
But Matthew Cohen, a Mendocino grower whose Northstone Organics delivers pot to medical marijuana patients in Northern California, saw an economic opportunity. “Mendocino can have a hand-picked, boutique market,” he said.
Way of life threatened?
Pebbles Trippet, a strictly small-time grower, says many cultivators are “worried their way of life is going to be taken away from them.”
Trippet, who served jail time for pot-related offenses in three Northern California counties before she settled in Mendocino, organically farms onions, garlic, squash and medical pot on a riverfront parcel in Cloverdale.
Others see legalization as an opportunity to reshape Mendocino’s illicit culture into a legal attraction. They envision Mendocino and neighboring Humboldt County blossoming with smoke fests and meet-the-growers tours, recasting itself as the Napa Valley of pot.
“People in Mendocino County know a better way and they’re ready to show it,” said Marvin Levin, 35, president of the Mendocino Farmers Collective, a new union of medical pot growers. The collective hopes to market Mendocino’s outdoor pot as environmentally sustainable cultivation.
Levin contends that indoor operations, many in or near cities, leave a substantial carbon footprint with excessive electricity use, fertilizers dumped into sewage systems and buildings damaged with moisture and mold.
Indoor cultivators, a minority in Mendocino, use controlled environments to produce multiple cycles a year of thick-budding designer pot strains. Outdoor growers have one large harvest producing plants 12 to 16 feet high.
At harvest time, Area 101 sponsors an annual “Emerald Cup” -- honoring the best local pot. No indoor product is allowed. Levin says last year’s winner was a special “Cotton Candy Kush.” He calls it “a sweet-flavored weed” that is “less musty” than a similar “Diesel Kush” grown indoors.
Tradition of illegal growing
Mendocino’s effort to honor its pot traditions belies its long — and continuing — role in criminal marijuana cultivating and trafficking.
Blake admits he used to illicitly truck thousands of Mendocino pot plants for distribution in the San Joaquin Valley. He says he quit the illegal trade after he was spooked by a series of federal raids. “I went from a kingpin to a no-pin,” he says.
Now Blake, a 53-year-old cancer survivor, has a permit to grow 99 medical marijuana plants, the maximum allowed on large acreage. The county allows 25 plants on parcels of five acres or less, if grown for multiple medical users.
But many growers have neither pretense of medical cultivation nor care about limits. Last September, sweeps by federal, state and local narcotics officers resulted in the arrests of numerous local residents illegally cultivating several hundred plants each in mountainous terrain near Laytonville.
Grower James Taylor Jones, a grizzled Grateful Dead fan who came to the county nine years ago with his wife, Fran Harris, is a recovering drug addict and alcoholic. He quit cocaine 25 years ago and gave up drinking 16 years ago. He regularly attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, yet says he is a spiritual devotee to using and cultivating pot for medical purposes.
Jones and Harris, who also run a Laytonville tie-dye T-shirt shop, are part of the Humboldt Farmers Collective and have provided products for dispensaries in Mill Valley and San Francisco. They said they made $55,000 in the pot business last year. They reported it to the IRS as “farm income.”