Welcome to Mendocino—a serene coastal community in Northern California and home to cliff-side trails, cathedrals of ancient Redwood trees, and sun-kissed patches of vineyards and farmland. An unassuming tourist could be so captivated by its magical charm that it wouldn’t ever cross their mind that Mendocino County is part of what is known as The Emerald Triangle, one of the largest cannabis-producing regions in the United States, along with Humboldt County and Trinity County.
Growing cannabis in the Emerald Triangle is considered a way of life for many locals and has been home to farming for many years, preceding the recent legalization of cannabis in California. It’s so heavily rooted in the history of Mendocino, that many believe every local is either directly or indirectly affected by the industry.
“When I was growing up here, we had logging and fishing jobs," says Annie*, a Mendocino local and mother of two. "As those resources dried up, the only income people could turn to was to grow [cannabis], so everyone here has at one time been involved.”
Today, the cannabis industry in California is an ever-growing giant, as the market is expected to reach $3.7 billion by the end of 2018—but it wasn’t always such a large-scale operation.
“I grew up in softer times,” says Annie. “My parents were part of the 'back to the land' movement in the early 70's. My dad is a musician and there were these great gatherings called ‘boogies’ when I was little. People would set up a band on a flatbed truck in a field and everybody would dance for hours. Half the crowd was naked and people openly smoked everywhere."
Back then, cannabis farming was done only on small farms, handled quietly and carefully due to occasional drug raids. Though it may seem legalization would ease the stress of working in this industry, Annie, whose husband has a temporary permit to work in a local cannabis farm, explains it's not the case for her family. Once a skilled local artist, he has to work grueling hours, sometimes spending weeks away due to the distance of the farm.
“I realize other jobs require the father to be gone a lot, but it's definitely hard on me and the kids for him to be gone a lot of the time. My small children and I take care of the property here on our own."
Her husband also transports the product in his car. Annie strongly opposes possibly exposing their young children to cannabis—a topic that has been a constant source of tension in their marriage.
Though difficult at times, Annie says her husband’s career has been bittersweet, as it has provided much-needed financial support. From paying for her daughter’s life-saving heart surgery, to covering the down payment on their land, cashing in the green has given her family a second chance.
Still, Annie feels the recent marijuana legalization won’t help improve conditions for workers, nor better the lives of families like hers, which depend on the industry for their livelihood.
“People with lots of money are coming to this county to set up huge grows, which is upsetting the small sovereign farms,” says Annie. “It's all looking pretty bleak right now, which is one of the reasons the market is flooded.”
What Annie is referring to is commonly called the “green rush”, which occurred following legalization. It has attracted international investors and profit-driven growers with little interest in the land itself.
She also stressed the high fees of compliance permits are pushing smaller farmers out, since they can’t afford to legalize their farms—an issue the county and state are still trying to figure out.
According to a New York Times article, many small farm growers have also complained about the expensive and confusing process of legalization, choosing instead to remain in the shadows. They don't pay taxes and don't have to account for the cost of meeting environmental standards. But the black market operation isn't just a concern for the environment—cases of robberies and murder have increased, with the Emerald Triangle nearing the top of California's list of most crime-ridden counties.
The struggle the state now faces is creating an incentive for small family growers like Annie’s to participate in the switch to a regulated market, or else risk not reaching the billion-dollar tax windfall.
For now, her family—like many others in the region—will continue the cannabis operation locals have carried on for decades, while hoping fair changes are set in place to benefit both sides.
*Name has been changed to protect the confidentiality of the source