French journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr might have been thinking of marijuana when he coined the phrase “plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose” which translates more or less as “The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing.” An internationally renowned floriculturist, Karr once cornered the market for cut flowers on the French Riviera. If he were alive today and could smell the potent female flowers of the pot plant he’d no doubt nod his head and say, “plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose,”
Marijuana in Mendocino County and all across the Emerald Triangle, which includes Humboldt, Lake, and Trinity, continues to be a multi-billion-dollar a year industry and to grow bigger and bigger every year with no end in sight.
Moreover, while medical marijuana has been legal ever since California voters approved the 1996 Compassion Use Act, pot farmers are still arrested. They still go to jail in Ukiah and elsewhere in the state. Then, too, marijuana crops from Covelo to Yorkville and Willits to Leggett are still confiscated and destroyed by law enforcement officials.
Indeed, the more that marijuana laws change, the more the situation seems to remain the same. Some get rich and dream about tropical vacations, new trucks, new toys and new drugs. Others are ripped off and end up on the slagheap of history.
Sheriff Thomas Allman likes to say, as he said to me the other day: “Every year the questions about marijuana are the same, and every year the answers are different.” In fact, this year, the questions are nearly the same as they have always been: will pot be legalized and if so when; will the big banks begin to take money made in the pot industry; and when will pot smokers be able to come out of the marijuana closet and not lose their jobs. This year, the answers are quite different because of new, complex laws that require the expert advice of lawyers. Only fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
On January 1, 2016, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act (MMRSA) that establishes the Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation (BMMR) with Lori Ajax — formerly the chief deputy director at the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control — as the first “marijuana czar.”
Then, too, on Election Day in November 2016, voters will have the opportunity to either accept or reject Prop 64 that would legalize recreational pot and allow the government to tax it. Billionaire entrepreneur Sean Parker and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom both support prop 64. Some, but not all, law enforcement groups oppose it.
Allman has not met the new marijuana czar, though Undersheriff Randy Johnson did meet with her and came away disappointed. “Randy had more questions then she had answers,” Allman told me during a morning telephone interview from his office on Low Gap Road in Ukiah. “He was looking forward to the meeting with Ajax and he left feeling discouraged.”
That’s not surprising. After all, Ajax knew little if anything about marijuana when Brown appointed her to head the new state agency last spring. She has said that she has never smoked marijuana, doesn’t know anyone who does smoke it and isn’t eager to try it. She might not be telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Ironically, if she had smoked dope and admitted that she had, she probably wouldn’t be the pot czar today. Ajax has also said that she doesn’t remember which way, yea or nay, she voted on the 1996 Compassionate Use Act. Sometimes a good memory can be a dangerous thing. Still, Governor Brown might have appointed someone who knew the history of marijuana law and marijuana as a medicine that was in fact prescribed by U.S. doctors until the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act outlawed it. (In those days they spelled it with an "h" not a "j".)
Moreover, it doesn’t make much sense, except perhaps to a veteran politician at the end of a long career in public office, to take a bureaucrat from one state agency, namely the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, and make her the head of a new state agency, the Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation. Marijuana and alcohol aren’t in the same league, the same ballpark, nor do they belong to the same culture.
Potheads and boozers don’t think the same ways, though some consume both. Marijuana is a plant; alcohol isn’t. Marijuana is mostly smoked and eaten. Alcohol is a liquid in six packs and fifths. Then, too, while state, federal and local governments have prohibited both alcohol and marijuana, the prohibition against marijuana (on the federal level) has lasted much longer than the disastrous prohibition against alcohol that lasted during the Jazz Age of the 1920s. The prohibition of alcohol led to bootleggers, speakeasies, gangsters, and brought about a new generation of American millionaires who realized that crime pays.
The prohibition of pot also created a dynamic black market, the drug culture, and a vital underground economy. It also led to the arrest and incarceration of tens of millions of American citizens, many of them African Americans, most of them in possession of less than an ounce, a story that Michelle Alexander has told eloquently in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
Sheriff Allman knows the history of marijuana; he laments the fact that a generation of young Mendocino pot growers doesn’t know much about the pot past.
“Old hippies are part of the solution, not the problem,” he told me. “I have said that repeatedly from the highest mountains. Old hippies are responsible, easy to have a conversation with and don’t abuse the law. A new generation doesn’t understand the history that has gotten us to where we are today. They try to figure out ruses to make millions and still be within the law. Three-hundred-and-sixty-days a year they grow medical marijuana. They also divert hundreds of pounds a day to the illegal black market.”
If pot growers had wanted to write the marijuana laws they could not have written better laws than those that exist now, Allman argues. “The main problem we have,” he insists, “is the ambiguity of the law.” He adds, "If I wanted to make a lot of money in pot, I would make the marijuana laws as murky as possible, and not black and white. That’s what we have now.”
What seems to bother Allman more than anything else is that outsiders, many of them from other nations, have flocked year after year to Mendocino, abused the land and the water, cultivated huge marijuana crops, made millions of dollars, then ran the other way and didn't spend profits locally or donate to schools and fire departments. “If you grow within the legal limit, don’t illegally divert water, don’t antagonize neighbors, don’t stink up the air, it’s not gonna raise my blood pressure,” he told me.
When growers suck water out of a stream until it’s bone dry, and when they cultivate 9,000 plants in Covelo, the long arm of the law is swift, indeed. Eugene (Bear) Lincoln was arrested in July on “suspicion of marijuana cultivation, possession for sale and possession of prohibited ammunition.” One of his former attorneys observed, “Some people can’t stay out of trouble.”
Is there anything that surprises Sheriff Allman? Yes! “I’m happy to say that when we fly over Mendocino County I am pleasantly surprised about how many citizens are growing within the boundaries of the law,” he told me.
When I told him that I knew hippie pot growers who used Meth in the 1970s, he said, without missing a beat, “the only hippies who used Meth that long ago are dead.”
“Does the name ‘Emerald Triangle’ still have cache?” I wanted to know. “I have seen it in marketing,” Allman said. “Not long ago I read a sign in Colorado that said, ‘Emerald Triangle Marijuana.’ Moreover, in the last twelve months, the Mendocino Sheriff’s Department has received phone calls from thirty states all across the country about multi-pound packages that originated from here.”
What about the future? Allman doesn’t have high hopes (if you’ll pardon the expression) for the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act (MMRSA) or the Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation (BMMR). Moreover, he thinks that Prop 64, which would legalize recreational cannabis in California — as Oregon, Washington, Alaska and Colorado have already done — might not pass in November 2016. “There’s a backlash,” he said. “Many people don’t like the world that the growers have created.”
Martin Lee, the author of Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana — and one of the world’s experts on the subject of pot — urges Californians to be wary of what they wish for when it comes to the subject he has studied for much of his life.
“Marijuana always does a trick on everyone,” he said. “Humans have been trying to control it for millennia and they’ve never succeeded. There have always been untended consequences for both the pro- and the anti-pot forces; that pattern could very likely continue.”
Sheriff Allman would probably agree with Lee.
While he’s still in office, he’d like, he told me, for “the marijuana dust to settle.” He added: “I hope the situation will stabilize in the years ahead and that my successor will be able to address other issues, perhaps equally important as marijuana, though I know that some people will always want to be outlaws and push the envelope.”
Californians on all sides of the marijuana fence have been hoping it would settle for decades. It hasn’t happened yet.
Allman is not a born complainer, nor a born boaster, either, though he knows he still has a big job ahead of him, not only enforcing the laws, but, as he put it, “helping to improve the quality of life for all our citizens.”
(Jonah Raskin is the author of Marijuanaland: Dispatches from an American War. He created the characters and the story for the feature film Homegrown.)