About 85 miles north of San Francisco, the Emerald Triangle comprising three counties — Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity — hugs the Pacific coast as it expands northward to Oregon. The Triangle hosts some of the finest cannabis growing conditions in the world, thereby producing some of the world’s best and most robust herb, with many plants reportedly growing up to 15 feet tall and producing epic yields. In no small part, this is because of the area’s exceptional microclimate, balance of rain and sun, and weather that is neither too hot nor too cold.
No doubt the fertile, loamy soil and clement weather play a part in producing such fine weed, but many of the growers in the area are cannabis veterans who earned their chops long before California Proposition 215 made cannabis legal for medicinal purposes in 1996. Knowing how much cannabis had yielded prior to legalization is difficult to know, but today, growers in the Emerald Triangle produce 1.7 million pounds of cannabis each year, making the region the number one domestic supplier for the United States market, according to California state estimators.
The transformation of the Emerald Triangle
But how did the lush region transform from sparsely populated logging towns to booming cannabis mecca? In the 1960s and 70s, many people adhering to the Back-to-the Land movement that rejected urban lifestyles and other social mores migrated to the area to seek solace and act with self-sufficiency. Cannabis, despite its illegality at the time, soon became a crop of choice to support their families and community. The topography of the Triangle also provides a lot of cover with its towering trees and remote locations, while the population is spread widely throughout dense woods and mountains. It’s a good place to get lost.
Though Emerald Triangle cannabis thrived when it was illegal across the board — and came from the black market — a new era of legalization has presented some challenges to local growers and the surrounding communities. Since Prop 215, there has been significant growth in the area, not just in the industry but also from outsiders without much skin in the game, like poser growers, seasonal trimmers, and tourists. While an influx of workers and visitors can be good for localities in terms of tax revenue and tourism exposure, it can also bring its share of downsides and risks.
The hard-to-access terrain of the area helped shelter the hippie farmers who grew there in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, but today, it too frequently provides good cover for criminal cartels and illegal domestic growers that plant clandestine crops. Not only does this produce unneeded competition between legal and illicit growers for workers, it weakens the legal cannabis industry on the whole and often leaves devastating environmental impacts, like diverted and poisoned waterways full of toxic chemicals to grow supersized cannabis plants that can harm downstream crops, animal and plant life.
Why is there high crime in the Emerald Triangle? Is Humboldt County dangerous?
Despite its idyllic appearance and its reputation as a “stoner’s paradise,” the Emerald Triangle has its fair share of crime. In addition to the aforementioned activities of cartels and illicit growers, Humboldt County in particular — despite a small population — has a lot of murders. In 2018, Humboldt Country claimed the dubious distinction of California’s second highest homicide rate, as reported by San Jose-based outlet The Mercury News.
One such incident caught the attention of Netflix, who in 2018 created a show based on a murder in the Emerald Triangle titled Murder Mountain. The series explored the 2013 disappearance and homicide of a local grower named Garret Rodriguez and the ensuing tension his murder created with local cannabis insiders. To this day, Rodriguez’ case remains unsolved.
While Netflix creates drama for viewers, real-life growers in the Emerald Triangle have drama of their own as they continue to adapt to changes brought on by the demands of operating in the legal cannabis marketplace (California legalized weed for all adults in 2016). Many growers in the area, some of whom have been successfully cultivating cannabis for decades, have been concerned that widespread legalization prioritizes corporate weed that elbows out the already established mom and pop shops. For others, there is concern about shrinking profit margins due to the spiraling costs attributed to the legal market, such as licensing fees, onerous paperwork, required security measures, and so on.
The Emerald Triangle is definitely not the place that attracted the back-to-the-landers decades ago, and it has had its share of growing pains as it continues to straddle the complicated legalities of being state legal but not federally legal. Though some positive changes have been made by regulators to bring black market growers into the legal industry, there is still a long way to go.
As long as federal cannabis prohibition remains intact, the Emerald Triangle will retain its sense of literal and figurative wildness. Both licensed and unlicensed growers will continue to cultivate high quality weed, some of whom will supply unlicensed markets, while cartels will continue their solely illegal enterprises under the canopy of trees. Nonetheless, licensed growers continue to supply high-quality weed to California consumers, and cannabis — whether legal or not — remains an integral part of the Emerald Triangle’s economy and communities.