Education has long been preached as a way to keep kids away from drugs. It's the walk to school that has Supt. Tom Barnett worried.
This hardscrabble Northern California town has become a hotbed for medical marijuana farming. Kids stroll much of the year past pungent plants flourishing in gardens and alleys. The red-and-black-clad Timberjacks football team moved its halftime huddle on a recent Friday night to avoid the odor of marijuana smoke wafting over the gridiron from nearby houses. Some students talk openly of farming pot after graduation -- about the only opportunity in this depressed timber town.
"It's not a subculture here," said Barnett, who heads the Mountain Valley Unified School District. "Marijuana is drying in their houses. It's falling out of their pockets."
Los Angeles isn't the only place struggling with repercussions unleashed by its permissive medical marijuana laws. Here in Trinity County, cannabis cultivation is upending the rural culture and economy of one of the state's most hard-luck regions.
Drawn by the sunny, cool climate -- and a local ordinance permissive of medical marijuana farming and possession -- big-city refugees have brought a decidedly urban edge to hamlets such as Hayfork, about 60 miles west of Redding.
This town has no stoplights. No home mail delivery. Nearly a quarter of its 1,900 residents are poor. But that hasn't stopped outsiders from bidding up the price of real estate with sun-soaked southern exposures, all the better to cultivate plants that can grow 12 feet high or taller.
The sheriff's office estimates 10,000 plants are growing in a single remote subdivision known as Trinity Pines. Lots on its southwest-facing slope sell for as much as $50,000, up from about $3,500 five years ago, according to Steven Hanover, an area real estate broker.
Fall harvest season brings strangers with dreadlocks and cash boxes. Some farmers guard their crops with electric fences, razor wire and snarling dogs. Hikers have been threatened at gunpoint for wandering too close to where they aren't wanted.
"It's just torn the fabric of our society," said Judy Stewart, a 69-year-old retiree who has lived in Trinity County for more than 50 years. "It's pitted people against one another."
How Trinity County, a sprawling, lightly populated area twice the size of Rhode Island, came to be dubbed "Northern California's pot paradise" by High Times magazine is a story of law, lawlessness and geography.
Just a little more than 14,000 residents are spread across its 3,000 square miles. People live as they like in its mountains thick with trees, separated from civilization by windy roads and "No Trespassing" signs. For decades, that's made it easy for some residents to grow marijuana without much interference.
Trinity County has "always been a pot county. Our climate in these little mountain valleys is conducive to great cannabis," said Mike Boutin, who runs Grace Farm, a collective in the western part of the county. He said he originally moved there to grow and sell medical marijuana on the black market. He now cultivates it legally because of California's Proposition 215.
Known as the Compassionate Use Act, that statewide ballot initiative approved by voters in 1996 allowed patients suffering from cancer, glaucoma and other illnesses, as well as their caregivers, to grow and possess the drug to ease their discomfort.
Concerns by patients and law enforcement that the law was too ambiguous prompted the Legislature in 2003 to clarify just how much pot could be grown legally. California guidelines currently allow half a pound of dried marijuana and six mature or 12 immature plants for patients who obtain a doctor's recommendation. In addition, the law gave cities and counties flexibility to adopt more generous guidelines. Trinity in 2007 upped its limits to 12 mature pot plants, 24 immature plants and 3 pounds of dried weed -- a policy that was later revoked after residents complained.
State law also permits nonprofit cultivation cooperatives where patients can, in effect, pool individual plant limits. That opened the way for large growing operations like Grace Farm, which has 20 members from across the state.
Grace Farm family
Among them is Jacqueline Patterson, 31, who uses marijuana to treat her cerebral palsy and a severe stutter. The single mother of four lives in publicly subsidized housing in Marin County. She fears she would be booted from the program if she tried to grow dope at home or buy it from street dealers. She travels to Trinity twice a year to pick up 3 pounds of marijuana, which she gets free in exchange for working for the co-op. The collective charges most patients about $170 an ounce.
The arrangement has allowed her "to acquire medicine affordably," said Patterson, who moved in 2007 from Missouri, where medical marijuana is illegal. "Grace Farm has really given me more of a family out here in California."
But locals in Trinity say California law is so permissive that almost anyone can get a doctor's recommendation needed to grow their own marijuana or buy it at dispensaries. Identification cards -- which patients can use as proof that they have a physician's recommendation for medicinal cannabis -- are voluntary. And because state guidelines aren't hard and fast, some doctors recommend that their patients be allowed to grow many more plants than the suggested ceiling.
Officials say they're powerless to do much about it.
"All they need is a recommendation by a doctor on a matchbook," said Roger Jaegel, a county supervisor who represents an area that includes parts of Hayfork. "Dr. Seuss could be writing these prescriptions."
The upshot, critics say, is that a law crafted to help sick people has morphed into a lucrative trade, one in which rural farms are supplying urban dispensaries that cater to mostly recreational users armed with doctors' recommendations. Growers have flocked to Northern California's "Emerald Triangle" of Trinity, Mendocino and Humboldt counties for cheap land, a good climate and loose oversight.
In the college town of Arcata, home of Humboldt State University, buildings that once housed car dealerships now host cannabis dispensaries, said Kevin Hoover, publisher of the Arcata Eye newspaper. He said that entrepreneurs had converted entire homes into indoor greenhouses rigged with "grow lamps." That's blighting neighborhoods and exacerbating the town's housing shortage, Hoover said. Home invasions and fires are up.
"What's happened is that a lot of the people who are in it for the money have found all the loopholes," Hoover said. "They're gaming the whole thing to enable more of an industrial production of marijuana."
In Hayfork, some farmers plant pot near public roads. Cars with out-of-state license plates pour into town during the fall harvest. Authorities suspect that a shooting in Trinity Pines was linked to marijuana. Many residents now avoid that area.
"We're beginning to feel like Colombia," Jaegel said. "It's a difficult thing for small communities to have to put up with."
Marijuana advocates say that troublemakers are a small minority and that the true danger is drug cartels operating large illegal operations on public forestland.
Indeed, the Trinity County Sheriff's Department -- with a total of 15 officers -- devotes most of its drug enforcement efforts to fighting those organized gangs. Partnering with the U.S. Forest Service, they've closed 45 illegal sites in the county since June. They've arrested dozens of laborers and collected nearly 400,000 illegal plants this year, up from 250,000 last year. Weapons have been found at nearly every site they've raided.
Last summer alone in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, the government spent nearly $1 million removing 29,085 pounds of debris -- including 14 illegal dams that had been built to siphon water to the farms, 1,004 pounds of fertilizer and 159,240 feet of irrigation pipe -- from abandoned marijuana farms.
Officials see a link between these cartel operations and 215 gardens: Americans' insatiable demand for drugs.
"I just wish recreational pot smokers could understand what they are supporting," said Joshua Smith, natural resources project manager at the nonprofit Watershed Research & Training Center in Trinity County. "They're supporting clear-cutting the forest, pesticides, de-watering the streams, poaching wildlife, Mexican drug cartels and human trafficking."
A lack of job opportunities is also driving the trade here. Logging, once a major employer, has all but disappeared. Trinity County's unemployment rate of 15.9% in September was one of the highest in the state. Its median household income of $35,439 is the third-lowest in the state.
Some say that the marijuana industry, for better or for worse, brings some economic benefits. Farmers buy water tanks and other equipment at local stores; laborers eat at area restaurants. A scruffy young man named Jaya traveled from New York to pick up work in the recent harvest. Eating ice cream at the Family Dairy Store in Hayfork recently, he communicated by scribbling on a notepad because, he wrote, he had given up speech "in loving silence."
Locals might not cotton to these outsiders. But at least their money spends.
"The only thing that keeps this economy going is the growers," said Dennis Cooney, owner of the Northern Delights coffee shop in downtown Hayfork.
But retiree Stewart, who owns several rental properties, is sick of the changes. She's tired of battling tenants who try to grow marijuana on her land. She's weary of hearing gunshots and seeing rough-looking strangers loitering around town. She fears growers will only be emboldened by U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr.'s recent statement that the federal government will halt raids on legal dispensaries.
"It gives them the license to really be in your face," Stewart said. "I'd leave in a heartbeat if I could."