You wake up in the morning, to the sound of the birds in the trees, in a home you built with your own hands. The doors don't have, or need, locks. You go to sleep to the sound of the frogs down in the pond. If any vehicles pass by your property within a mile or so you'll be sure to hear their faint sounds. The only aircraft which pass by are small private planes, at heights of a few thousand feet. (The airforce no longer conducts sonic boom tests in the area because a local activist who owns an aviary got a congressman to pay attention.) In the winter it rains a lot (maybe a hundred inches). Any rain between May and October is a rarity, so water is as precious as gold, both for plants and livelihood, and for fire protection. When you travel on the roads to go to town (the main town in the area has a population of 1,500 people) it is not uncommon to see no other vehicles for maybe as long as an hour of travel time. Most folks grow their own vegetables, have at least a few fruit trees, and raise a few animals. Many people maintain a few horses for riding. A substantial number of people do not want utility company electricity (and in fact some folks have actively and successfully resisted its encroachment). Subsequently, they use electricity produced from the sun, or water wheels and once in a while from the successful use of a windmill. The absence of telephones, or presence of wireless telephones, is quite common. Alternative toilets and outhouses are as common as septic tanks. People don't make a lot of money; they work in the woods doing firewood or logging. Some are ranchers; some fish Somerville, many have service jobs. People have characteristics typical of many rural areas: a slower pace; time for introspection and family; and a sense of independence and self-reliance. People also grow marijuana.
Starting in April, small private planes get lower. They start traveling in grids; the beginning of the annual hunt for the cannabis plant is underway. Law enforcement claims they stay a thousand feet off the deck with their airplanes. Even if this is true in most instances, the sound produced is anything but tranquil, especially when the grid patterns are followed for hours on end. Law enforcement has hundreds and hundreds of thousands of acres to search in the innumerable forested valleys that make up the most publicized area of marijuana enforcement in the country. This "Emerald Triangle" consists of portions of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity Counties in Northern California, an area comprising a 50-mile square. On the basis of a tip, busts by the local marijuana eradication teams, sheriff's departments, or local state-led drug task force units, can occur anytime. But they usually start in April or May and continue into the summer and come late July through the end of October, the hunters arrive en masse. The helicopter, airforce, and ground troops of the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting arrive and go out on daily search and destroy missions, disrupting daily activities of people within miles of the actual operation sites. Because of the raiders, past and flagrant abuses, helicopters have been restricted; a 500-foot bubble of privacy exists over persons, vehicles and structures. Ground troops also have to be restricted as they must remain away from curtilages and houses without properly authorized warrants from a magistrate. Thus, peoples' privacy, while restricted, is not ruthlessly and callously disregarded in its entirety.
The assault takes different forms and increases. Dogs are used for sniffing vehicles that are stopped on the roads, and the "marijuana profile" gives cause for the postal service to search even a light package securely taped, if it is from a "known marijuana growing county." However, both of these tactics have had substantial problems. The last time the postal service stopped and opened some packages fitting their profile, they found nothing but ceramics, and law enforcement may soon pay a price in court for overstepping its bounds last year.
Marijuana is eradicated wherever it can be found. A court order holds six hundred-odd law enforcement officers on a scene in check until at least the end of this year. On can feel the tension as the hunters have to obey rules they think are trivial and unimportant. Like the Vietnam body count, the numbers of plants "eradicated" are exaggerated. Although no CAMP troop has ever been hurt by a grower during any raids since 1983, they come armed to the teeth and ready for the kill, just looking for the opportunity to blow another human being away.
When the helicopters swoop down, the prop wash can be felt many times on the ground. In the early days helicopters actually stopped in front of windows of homes, chased people on horsebdck, and even blew toilet paper out of someone's outhouse. When the marijuana eradication program began, weapons were seized indiscriminately, and road blocks were used. Although neither occur anymore after a cry was raised in court, either could be reinstituted again. Water lines are still cut indiscriminately, whether they are connected to pot patches or not. Many of these marauders undoubtedly would cheer a devastating forest fire to do their work for them.
Prosecutions in federal court for small amounts of marijuana are draconian upon conviction; the mandatory minimum sentence is five years or more. Land forfeiture by the federales is a harsh reality, in some cases even for small amounts of marijuana. Asset forfeiture by the locals trying to make money is also a reality. People have moved away, both because they could not supplement their income as they used to, and because others did not want to live in a war zone any longer.
The economy of the area has gone downward dramatically, with people being busted and losing their assets. Those busted are not just hippies; they are loggers, ranchers, fishermen, usually people who have never done another thing illegal in their lives. They are honest people, often times Republicans, who are shocked to realize how few rights are left, and how the system is stacked against them.
Yet through all of this onslaught, the most massive in the history of American law enforcement, people continue to grow marijuana, and not only in small amounts. In fact, the police report numbers indicating as much as a five-fold increase in marijuana compared to last year. Moreover, last year in Mendocino County the numbers were way up from the first year they started in earnest, indicating the futility of the hunt. Speak to any marijuana law enforcement officer off the cuff and he or she will tell you that the battle can't be won. Regardless of different tactics used by law enforcement officers, Yankee ingenuity is staying two or three steps ahead of the cops. However, the cops must continue to do their job and follow orders from above. Speak to the U.S. Attorneys in charge of asset and forfeiture work informally and they'll tell you they feel a little bad about taking people's homes because they grow marijuana. But these prosecutors care not about the loss of civil liberties and individual rights; the new tools given them by the courts are just ways to do their jobs more efficiently, get their promotions, and build their own bureaucracies.
What does all of this mean? The rural lifestyle and independent nature of both the old-timers, and the people who have moved here in the last 20 years who have merged on many issues to form a strong vital community where an individual's opinion still counts, will continue. There is more marijuana being grown now (and there has been for a number of years) in many other parts of the country, but the publicity value of continuing to attack this area will go on and on until it is no longer politically advantageous to do so. More rights will be lost, more marijuana will be grown, more lives will be made miserable for no discernibly sensible reason. Someday, somewhere, after going over a public opinion survey, a serious candidate for state or national office will come out publicly with what he or she already knows in his or her mind: legalization, or at least medicalization and regulation, is the cost effective and sensible way to go. Remove the market and make some money on it (as they do with liquor and gambling), and look like a smart politician. This person or these persons won't care that the vital by-product of a rational and sensible approach may be a restoration of civil liberties, and allowing people who want to continue in their pursuit of happiness to do so without the government dictating their mores.
Ronald M. Sinoway is a lawyer in rural Humboldt County, California. He has taken a lead role in litigating against illegal government enforcement of the drug laws in his community and in other parts of the United States.