The helicopter descends into a remote and beautiful gorge, a 100-foot cable dangling from its belly. Wind from the rotors violently whips the leaves of freshly cut marijuana piled in a clearing, filling the air with a storm of dope. Armed men in fatigues bind it up in a net. The load, worth $2 million on the distant streets of urban America, slowly rises . . .
The natives are prospering in this arcadian blip, known as Humboldt County, a scene straight out of the 1960s. Women in serapes squat on the pavement selling little pipes for smoking something other than Virginia gold, and bearded hitchhikers in buckskin leggings loft thumbs at passing pickups.
They're back-to-the-landers and they have money to spend from "the harvest." That's not the timber harvest, for which Humboldt was once famous. The phrase "Humboldt County high" does not refer to the 350-foot Sequoia sempervirums native to northern California, but to a lesser growth, one with a lovely alliterative sound -- sinsemilla, meaning seedless marijuana.
"Humboldt lightning" is not a flash in the Guatemalan green of the surrounding hills, but a bolt from the smoldering sinsemilla leaf so impressive that smokers talk about it from Seattle to Washington, D.C. They pay at least $2,000 a pound for it.
It is one of California's largest cash crops, worth an estimated $2 billion a year, and Garberville is its putative capital, the hub of its weedy genesis. Marijuana is against the law in the United States, but you would never know it here. At the Great Western, a young man and woman are tossing plastic garbage bags loaded with something rustly out of their battered silver pickup and directly into their motel room. A skunk-like smell hangs in the air, produced by the resinous buds of marijuana ready for processing.
"They manicure it in the rooms," says the maid, unimpressed by the blatant intentions of her customers. "Now that the rainy season's started, this place will be packed. They spread our sheets on the floor and trim the buds over them. They turn up the heat and leave for a couple of days, to let the stuff dry out."
She has found sinsemilla buds under chairs, and stranger things. "Would you believe rose petals? Piled up to the level of the bed?"
Next door, at the Kash Saver grocery, four-inch Wiss clippers are available by the bucket. They are made for sewing, but with a population of only 1,400, Garberville would have to do a lot of sewing to use so many. "We sell tons," says the cashier. The clippers are also used for trimming pot.
Growers and dealers hereabouts occasionally do violence to one another. Devices for discharging shotgun shells at thigh level and fishhooks strung on monofilament have been set up to discourage pot poaching, according to federal agents. A suspected sinsemilla thief was recently kneecapped; one marijuana-related shooting death has occurred this year in Humboldt.
At the Great American Hamburger Company on Garberville's main drag, two bearded civilians in CAT hats order lunch. To get at their wallets they shift their holstered .45s out of the way. Guns sell at something less than the speed of Wiss clippers at Brown's Sporting Goods, which displays in the window an angular A-15 that resembles Army-issue firepower used in Vietnam.
"They're raiding over in Salmon Creek!" a girl announces to the rapt clientele in the Branding Iron, a bar up the street. She's monitoring the sheriff's frequency on her CB while drinking a Coors, keeping up with helicopter movements of CAMP -- Campaign Against Marijuana Planting -- the collective name for federal, state and local lawmen against sinsemilla.
CAMP is not popular in Garberville. Members of the CAMP team stay in a motel at the far end of town. The truck outside their doors is loaded with old tires, used to kindle confiscated marijuana at the landing zone. Black plumes against the Humboldt County sky bespeak millions of dollars of worth of sinsemilla offered up every evening as little more than an object lesson. At night, CAMP members only go out in groups of four.
With one day left in the annual raiding season, lasting the summer through late October, CAMP has seized 147,885 marijuana plants weighing about 500 tons and worth about $350 million -- more than twice the 1983 haul. It has also seized 245 guns and 48 vehicles. The raids cost the federal government, the state of California and the 37 cooperating counties $10,000 a day. Deputies from Los Angeles work with those from as far up as Del Norte County; the idea is not to make arrests, which would require more manpower and logistical support than resources allow, but to discourage growing by confiscation and destruction. The candid ones say they have gotten less than 10 percent of the crop this year.
"Growers claim they're just trying to make a living," says CAMP commander Jack Beecham, who operates out of Sacramento. "But in the end it comes down to ordinary human greed."
He's a 36-year-old Vietnam vet who has been growing marijuana in the hills near Garberville for four years. He lives on a dirt road with a metal gate, and shares the combination lock with his neighbors, also growers. His house is full of sinsemilla, harvested and drying in the proximity of the wood-burning stove. He wears an opulent beard and a straw cowboy hat with a pinched crown that gives him the look of a good-natured C & W backup singer.
"Somebody violated my space," he says of the thieves who hacked down some of his plants before he could get them inside. Outraged, he fired off a clip of bullets, as a warning.
"I've got an Uzi semi. I haven't bothered to file it down, to make it fully automatic. You can shoot it so fast now you don't really have to."
He began smoking marijuana in high school, in Southern California. He kept it up in Vietnam, which didn't interfere with his patriotism or his soldiering, he says. Between postings he traveled all over the Far East -- Thailand, Malaysia, Japan -- but was always glad to get back to the United States. "It was like, this-is-where-I-want-to-be."
He married the niece of his next-door neighbor, "a big, good-looking woman, a Sagittarius," and they had two daughters. He worked as a high-steel painter until the Carter recession hit the construction industry. His brother-in-law in Humboldt County offered him a partnership, calling it "sharecropping." The crop was marijuana.
"He said I could make $100,000 a year. Actually, I made less than half that." But he liked Northern California, the sun, the mist in the high valleys, the ideal growing conditions. "There are a lot of 'Nam vets in these woods. It feels like home -- the rain forests, the remoteness. The dope."
He bought his own place and continued growing. "It's harder work than people think. During harvest you get filthy. The stuff gets in your hair, your clothes, your food." The children were an integral part of the process, he says, although "they weren't interested in using dope. They helped out with the drying, and fighting mold. They trimmed. They got $100 a pound, like any other trimmer. They had their own bank accounts. I was proud of that. Anytime I can farm and put clean clothes on my kids, and food in their stomachs, I'm proud.
"It was a good family life, working around the farm. Our kids went to the local school. Once, coming home, my daughters found two marijuana buds lying in the road. They had fallen out of the net under the CAMP helicopter when it flew over, on the way to the burn site. The girls said, 'Hey, Mommy! Daddy! Look what we found!' That added several hundred dollars to the family income."
He saved his cash. "I'm security-minded, always have been. I don't want to blow it on coke, or some new machine. I put it away." In plastic bags, buried under madron o leaves.
His wife had other ideas. "She started buying things," he says. "It happens all the time here. People here can't handle all the discretionary income." Many of them, he says, are heavily into cocaine.
The grower and his wife have since separated. She is living in Southern California with his daughters, where, he says, she is using a photograph of him standing next to an 18-foot marijuana plant to prove that he can afford substantial child-support payments.
He swallows, tries to grin. "I want my daughters back."
He lives now with two German shepherds, the Uzi and what he claims is his last sinsemilla harvest.
"I feel like I'm an adolescent again. I'm elated at all the freedom, but I'm also scared. What am I going to do? I want the second half of my life to be better than the first half. I have to get someplace and get settled. It's all over here, pot growing is finished. It's like the gold rush. I wish I had gotten in at the beginning, but I didn't."
He tips the straw hat low over soft brown eyes.
"I'd like to get in at the beginning of the next rush," he says, "whatever that is."
And then, "Maybe it'll be coca leaves."
The president of the Chamber of Commerce, Gil Gilbertson, is the closest thing to a mayor Garberville has. His view of pot growing is straight out of Adam Smith. "This is a market area that supplies a product. The old formula of supply and demand has driven up the price, and that has attracted entrepreneurs. The mom-and-pop operators have been here 10 or 12 years. They wanted to live in the wilderness. They're talented, hard working, naive and not violent. I'd love to see them turn their talents to pinot noir grapes, or kiwis."
"There's no doubt that people are growing pot around here," says Syd Lehman, a local real estate agent. "There's a point where the money is just irresistible. That doesn't mean they're bad people . . . When they come in here with cash, we don't ask, 'Where'd you get this money?' "
Quite a few have come in since the '60s, doubling the price of real estate every three years. Most popular were plots of a few acres up against public land. It's common practice in the county to set out marijuana starts on U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management property bordering private land -- sinsemilla squatting.
No one denies that marijuana has pumped up the economy, even though no taxes are paid on sinsemilla transactions. For instance, there are 21 garden supply stores in the surrounding area. They sell miles of plastic pipe that snakes through the hills like black varicose veins, and enough fertilizer to dam the Eel River.
There are stories of semi-loads of chicken manure delivered directly to the customer. Also crates and crates of d-Con, seeds imbued with poison that is free-cast into the marijuana groves to kill wood rats and deer, which also like the taste of Humboldt lightning. The poison works its way up the food chain, killing hawks and other predators; it and the fertilizer leach into the water system. Salmon and steelhead trout are not immune.
People don't like to talk about that in Garberville. They do talk about the fact that young children are commonly employed to prepare marijuana for sale, once it has been harvested, clipping it from the big, leafy buds and getting paid $100 a manicured pound, the going rate. Some parents put marijuana trimming in the same category as canning garden vegetables, except that the return is so much better.
"Some of the kids would balk if they were not allowed to do it," says Richard Gienger, a wilderness advocate with a ponytail, his sweater held together by a Mick Jagger button. "It's part of Reagan's trickle-down theory."
He's sitting in the scruffy office of the Environmental Protection Information Center, down the street from the offices of the weekly Redwood Record, which could safely be described as pro-grower. In the current issue, a writer condemns CAMP raids on grounds that the children of pot growers get a bad opinion of law enforcement when they see cops arresting their parents.
"I can't say I've never grown marijuana," Gienger goes on. "I like it because it gets people back to the land . . . But I can't stand the yearly paranoia anymore. The CAMP people have Big-Brothered out."
"Because we don't pay taxes," says a woman listening to the conversation, "they chase our children in helicopters, to practice chasing children in other countries, where they kill them."
"We're going in," the pilot says, and turns the chopper on its side. Five CAMPers wearing pistols, knives, boots and arm patches from various state and federal law enforcement agencies look down at a house on a stream 500 feet below. The pilot has spotted stalky plants with long pointed leaves growing among sunflowers, corn and laurel, about a dozen air miles from Garberville.
A Volkswagen bus tears over the hill and disappears. The helicopter sets down in the middle of the road and the team piles out. A deputy carrying an AR-180 secures the area, while the others wait for the second chopper load to arrive. Then the team moves down the hill, whacking down eight-foot marijuana plants as it goes.
"Purple kush," says the AR-180 man. Purple kush has a reddish tinge, and is sticky with resinous THC, tetrahydrocannabinol, source of the Humboldt County high.
The house is well built, with a shake roof and a cunning little trellis. There are peacocks on the lawn, pumpkins in the garden and more marijuana growing between the stream and the house. Front and back doors stand open. A young woman in a long skirt and corduroy slippers, making her way toward the road, is detained by a CAMP member.
"Look," she says, eyes glassy, "you're doing your thing. I'm going to do my thing."
He identifies himself as a Humboldt County sheriff's deputy, and asks her name. She says, "You're ruining my day."
Other CAMPers search the grounds, acting on a warrant. They step onto the porch of the drying shed and peer into the windows. Wire racks suspended over a stove are laden with marijuana, some of it tagged with the names of buyers. The raiders break the padlock, and enter. There are whole buds drying, too, called "crown colas," more than a foot long and heavy as eggplants.
"Nice stuff," says a sheriff's deputy from a county in central California, and the only CAMP team member wearing a bulletproof vest. She's also the only woman.
They load the marijuana into black plastic bags and weigh it: 125 pounds of prime sinsemilla, ready for market, worth about $250,000. It is photographed and hauled out to the growing pile of fresh-cut.
The Humboldt County deputy is still trying to get the woman's name. "If you don't tell me," he says, "I'm going to have to arrest you."
"This has been a very stressful afternoon." She seems mesmerized by the procession of garbage bags. "Totally," she adds.
The team enters the house, empty of people. They recover a scale, marijuana pipes, Wiss clippers, a rifle and a shotgun. "A lot of the times we find guns a lot better than ours," says one of the men. "There's no doubt that they could take us on." But so far no one has.
"I'm going to read you your Miranda rights now," the deputy tells the woman. She says, "Everybody knows you haven't arrested anybody this year."
They search the bedrooms. In one, a plastic horse and an empty Barbie doll box sit on a child's desk, next to a paper plate. On the plate is a six-inch pile of trimmed marijuana.
"Contrary to popular opinion," says a deputy with a commando knife taped to one shoulder, "we're the good guys. But when I walk down the street in Garberville I get offed by little old ladies." Kids call him dirty names.
The chopper pilot has returned, and hovers overhead. He spots black plastic pipe on the far side of the stream, the universal tentacles of the hidden pot garden. The team crosses on rocks and scrambles up the hill. There's a concrete tank full of water and fertilizer, fed to the plants through individual drip valves; some of the stalks are tagged with genetic codes.Sinsemilla is produced by chopping down the male marijuana plants right before germination, which causes eternal budding of the females.
The team wades in, machetes swinging.
Several men go down, but nothing happens. The device looks more like a homemade water sprinkler than a bomb. A string is tied around it; everybody grovels in the fertilizer while the string is jerked, but still nothing happens.
The number of cut plants eventually reaches 200. They are dragged back to the yard. The CAMPers are grimy by now, hands sticky and throats parched. They have eaten their lunches in between chopping marijuana and poking about in bushes, traveling paths and deserted roads with an unfriendly aspect, and they are clearly tired.
They tie half a ton of the contraband up in the heavy plastic net, and wave in the helicopter to lift it out to the landing zone for burning.
The suspect must also be choppered out.
"Hey," she says, realizing at last what is happening, "I have to pick up my kid!"
The Humboldt County Sheriff's Substation in Garberville sits directly behind the Great Western motel, where the smell of burning marijuana wars with that of fresh sinsemilla. Sgt. Floyd Gustin, who commands the substation, is unimpressed with reports that marijuana is being manicured less than a hundred yards away.
"We get them all the time," he says, tipping his chair against the cinderblock wall. "We're a poor sheriff's office -- we don't have the manpower to follow them up. I would have had to stake the place out, and drive to Eureka for a warrant. That's five, six hours."
Marijuana, he says, has worked its way into the political process. The elected sheriff, Dave Renner, recently proposed that CAMP warn suspected growers 24 hours before dropping in on them.
"The DA's not interested in drug-related arrests," Gustin says. "I had a guy run a woman and her kids off the road, part of an old drug-related feud. He bumped her twice; the car rolled over five or six times. I charged him with assault with a deadly weapon and the DA reduced it to hit-and-run. Because the guy stopped and told another driver that the car had gone over, the DA dismissed the hit-and-run.
"Ninety-eight percent of what we get is drug-related. We were chasing a burglary suspect over in Redway [a neighboring town], and we searched three garages. Two had marijuana drying in them. One of them was owned by a 67-year-old man. He just laughed at us. He said, 'I've got three gardens. You and CAMP might get two, but I'll get one.' "
The telephone rings, and Gustin answers. "The Steinschneiders?" he says. "I didn't know the Steinschneiders not the real name were growing." He covers the receiver with his hand, laughing. "We'll check it out."
He hangs up and calls to the deputies in the other room. "Hey, the Steinschneiders are growing!"
The CAMP team is being honored in the rec hall of a trailer court down the highway. Some local businessmen are paying for the drinks and porterhouse steaks. Wives of local law enforcement agents have provided the hors d'oeuvres, including a centerpiece with big ripe olives fashioned to look like helicopters, with Velveeta slices cut to like like chopper blades, and bundles of oregano.
"I lost my Little League team to pot trimming," says a Highway Patrol officer recently transferred to Humboldt County from Southern California. "I'm not sure I can handle this."
There are speeches, and a toast to the CAMP team, cleaned up and beaming in jeans and T-shirts. Later, they drink some tequila in a tight circle, glad the campaign is over for the year.
They'll be back in 1985.