Legal Pot: Death of the Emerald Triangle?

How the legalization of marijuana is destroying the cannabis capital of the U.S.

ByABC News
August 1, 2010, 9:36 PM

Aug. 3, 2010 — -- Tucked away in the very northwestern-most corner of California are three relatively small rural counties that are, despite their size and isolation, known around the world in certain circles.

These counties -- Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity -- have, since the mid-'70s, specialized in the production of a much-sought-after export that was, until relatively recently, completely illegal: marijuana.

The growers there have produced such a high-quality product for so long that the drug has come to define the area, known as the appropriately-colored Emerald Triangle. Mention of the Emerald Triangle among even small-time pot enthusiasts is met with a knowing smile -- and a wildly different reaction from long-frustrated federal authorities.

The drug is the lifeblood of the counties, woven inseparably not just into every aspect of the local economies, but into the everyday lives of thousands of residents. But with the legalization of pot for medical use and potential legalization for recreational use, the Emerald Triangle is facing a daunting threat in the form of a pot price freefall fueled by industry-style mass production.

For a region of California that has for more than three decades defined and lovingly cultivated an entire culture in the shade of marijuana leaves, the legalization of pot signals a seizmic shift that will change the Emerald Triangle forever -- assuming it survives at all.

Radio talk show host Anna Hamilton came to the Humboldt County 28 years ago but still considers herself in the "second class" of migrants to the Emerald Triangle.

"The senior class came up in the mid-'70s," Hamilton told ABC News. "They paved the way."

It was then that growers, riding the wave of the counterculture movement, made their way to the three counties where the soft soil, fresh country air and an advantageous distance from government authorities provided the perfect combination for high-quality cannibis growing. They've been doing it ever since.

"Here, they've been able to grow their lives -- raise a family, live a decent middle class life," Hamilton said. "This is no different from any other rural culture that's breaking land and building their own. In our own world, everything is very normal. We have a very normalized world and a very normalized economy around marijuana."

Since much of the county's recent economic history was built around an illegal trade, there are no hard numbers on just how dependent it is on pot. Mark Lovelace, Humboldt County supervisor, estimated the drug is directly responsible for a quarter of the local economy and "maybe more.

"It's really hard to know, but we don't have to be able to put a firm number on it to know it's significant," the Lovelace said. "We've had people coming to Humboldt County to make a killing on this industry."

Though it's not listed in the annual crop report for Mendocino County, marijuana is "the major crop" there, according to a county official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Mendocino County Supervisor John McCowen said it is the "popular belief" that the drug greatly outpaces the county's next closest legitimate industries, timber and wine.

"There's no question that a fairly significant number of people rely directly or indirectly on the marijuana business," McCowen said.

Combined, the Emerald Triangle is home to more than 200,000 residents and, according to Hamilton, if you're not directly growing pot, then you're working in the stores that cropped up to cater to the growers' needs.

"There is no other economy," Hamilton said. "All of the service economies are totally dependent on marijuana. ... All the businesses in our little town, the richest ones, sell accessories for growing."

Joy Greenfield, 68, is a medical marijuana grower in Mendocino whose collective, Light the Way, has more than 1,000 members.

"It affects all kinds of people you wouldn't even think," she said.

So when the price of pot jumps or dives, the ground shakes in the Emerald Triangle.