Great Read: In a decaying resort area, a pot war erupts

Mike Conroy fishes for bass off a dock with his dog Sassy as dusk falls over Clear Lake. Once a resort town, the area around Clear Lake has become rundown with high unemployment.
Mike Conroy fishes for bass off a dock with his dog Sassy as dusk falls over Clear Lake. Once a resort town, the area around Clear Lake has become rundown with high unemployment.
(Gina Ferazzi, Los Angeles Times)

Transients hole up in the old cottage resorts where vacationing families once came to fish and swim. Rotted docks and pier pilings litter the lake’s shoreline.

Much of this city, in fact, and others nearby in Lake County, looks as if it was plucked from Appalachia — with weeds and unpaved streets, stray dogs and backyard marijuana crops.

But across the water in the county seat of Lakeport, civic and business leaders talk of bringing back tourism, of planting more vineyards instead of weed.

They are tired of the hot August stink, when every neighborhood patch is in full bloom. They are tired of the thuggish out-of-towners, the stream diversions and the violent crime.


Last year, residents successfully pushed county supervisors to ban marijuana growing on parcels smaller than an acre and limit most rural spreads to six plants.

Pot growers organized and forced a June ballot referendum to rescind the law, losing by fewer than 500 votes out of 15,000 cast.

Now those who hope to preserve marijuana cultivation are taking their case to the voters again — in the form of competing initiatives.

A coalition of growers and activists is pushing a plan that it says would promote reasonable, regulated and limited growing of medical cannabis. Hippie grower Ron Kiczenski says their measure would ensure that a few established farmers dominate, keeping prices high and most residents out of the market. His proposal would establish marijuana growing as a human right.

And opponents of both are gearing up for battle. In this forgotten place of both stunning beauty and deep-set poverty, between Mendocino and Napa counties, residents in November will sort out an existential crisis at the ballot box.

Michael Horner has the smooth pitch of the medical cannabis movement: no stoner chuckle and no cough. His hair is gelled into a fashionable peak and his beard is trimmed.

Sitting among the pines in his backyard on Boggs Mountain, the marijuana activist explains the initiative his group, the Emerald Unity Coalition, is pushing.

By making it legal to grow up to 48 plants in Lake County, he says, the measure is about responsibility, environmental friendliness, patients and access to safe, clean medicine. It is not about money.

The former mortgage broker points into the trees. He says there are 70 vacant lots in his neighborhood.

“You can buy one of those lots for $5,000 and grow marijuana on it,” he says. “I know at least five back there that are.” No permits, no legal water source and no inspections.

Under his group’s initiative, the 42-year-old says, a marijuana enforcement division would keep growers in line. But for every bad actor in the industry in Lake County, “there’s 10 patient-farmers who want to be compliant and legal and good stewards of the environment and community.”

Speaking to a reporter about Horner later that evening, an opponent asks: “Did he show you his ankle bracelet?”

It turns out that Horner, who acknowledges that he abused alcohol and meth until sobering up 10 years ago, served time for indecent exposure and fleeing a police officer. After being targeted by the sheriff last year in a raid, he was convicted of possessing anabolic steroids.

He wears an ankle monitor.

Horner’s bail bondsman is Rob Brown — a buffalo rancher, bounty hunter, foster parent and high school wrestling coach. He is also the county supervisor leading the effort to push out the marijuana industry.

At 54, Brown is a third-generation Lake County resident. He is built like a shot-putter, looking and talking much less like a politician than a guy you wouldn’t want to skip bail on.

“It’s not the marijuana, it’s the culture that comes with it,” Brown says, sitting in his county office. “It’s the culture of 20- and 30-somethings that want to come up here because they’re too damn lazy to work. They want to smoke their weed and make their money and not have to work.”

He leans libertarian. If he had cancer and thought marijuana would make him feel better, he would use it. And the current law allows that.

But he doesn’t want people coming here “destroying the county to grow a thousand plants to take to L.A.”

His cellphone goes off — its ring tone a police siren.

He answers it on speaker phone. “What?” he barks.

“I can’t believe I’m in here again,” a young man’s voice says.

“I can’t either, what’s that, about five times this month?… Call me back in an hour.”

Brown hangs up.

“He’s a grower,” he explains. “But he’s also a cranker (meth user). That’s the thing. There used to be the day you’d have the weed people and you had the speed people. Not any more. The lines have blurred. They’re selling weed to buy speed. And they’re doing speed to stay up all night and guard their weed.”

As a foster parent, Brown says, he’s taken in a dozen neglected children from such households over the years. “They’re making their kids miss school so they can garden while their dad sleeps. Ten-year-old kids. It’s disgusting.”

As a rancher, he’s found 7,500 pot plants hidden on his property, along with a booby trap. After he ripped them out, someone shot some of his buffalo and sawed down his fences so the animals could escape.

But it’s as a bounty hunter that he’s seen the darkest side of the industry.

A young woman jumped bail on him in 2010 and he got a tip from her mother that she was being held as collateral until her boyfriend paid off a marijuana debt. Brown found her in a house, beaten and drugged. She had been sexually assaulted.

“Just dirt-bag meth addicts,” he says. “But it was about marijuana.”

With a salt-and-pepper beard to his sternum, the maverick in the Lake County marijuana war believes weed is an inalienable right.

Kiczenski’s ballot initiative is grandly called The Freedom to Grow Plants, Human Rights Restoration Act of 2014, and it would allow anyone to grow any plant for their own use — including, as his opponents note, coca leaves and opium poppies.

But by limiting people with less than an acre to four plants, Kiczenski says, Horner’s measure would keep most of Lake County out of the market. He says that is the path to the corporate takeover of marijuana.

Kiczenski, 50, is not new to the legalization movement.

In 1993, he mailed half a pound of marijuana and a pair of hemp running shorts to President Clinton. He then showed up at the White House to get arrested, hoping a show trial would highlight his cause. But they turned him away.

The next year, he and some friends put up a giant hemp banner that said “re-legalize farming” along a highway into Yosemite. They called the sheriff and the local television station and said they had planted 20,000 cannabis seeds, saving some to plant right in front of them.

Kiczenski was charged with cultivation and faced three years in prison. He represented himself at the trial in a conservative county. Proposition 215 allowing medical marijuana use hadn’t passed yet. He kept blurting out why he believed growing cannabis was a human right, as the judge told him to stop.

The jury acquitted him.

Now a resident of Lake County, Kiczenski says the right-to-grow initiative is the next epic battle.

“What are people supposed to do up here?” he asks. “There’s no work. Half the people grow.”

County leaders, he says, “want to create a different demographic. If they could, they’d just bulldoze this place to get rid of us and make it look like Napa County.”

“Where are we supposed to go? We’re like an island of misfits.”

Twitter: @joemozingo