All Is Not Well In the Emerald Triangle: Marijuana, Conservatism, and Backlash

California, the ‘green state,’ is sometimes treated as a cultural touchstone when it comes to marijuana in the United States. It’s the most progressive, forward-thinking state, the one where it’s safe to grow, sell, and smoke. It’s the state advocates in other regions point at as an example of a leader in the field, the place where people expect to see marijuana legalised first. The test case for the rest of the nation; can California exert enough pressure to force the federal government to legalise marijuana? Is it possible to do the same with other drugs?

There are fault lines, though, which appear to be growing, not shrinking, over time. The emerald triangle is a bit of a ground zero for this, as residents grow increasingly resentful and angry about the marijuana industry. Anger from the populace isn’t widely covered in the media, unless it wants to run a self-serving piece on how marijuana shouldn’t be legal. Growers should be engaging with it, rather than lashing out at people with formerly positive perceptions of the industry who have changed their minds in response to emerging trends.

It is a telling sign that people who historically felt neutral or indifferent about marijuana cultivation are angry. Angry enough to view law enforcement as an ally, to report people for growing, to show up at public meetings to express their discontent. And, critically, to appear at the polls to send a clear message to law enforcement, to regional politicians, to growers themselves that something has to give. Mendocino County repealed highly progressive marijuana legislation in the wake of increasing problems with marijuana. This didn’t occur in a vacuum.

The perception of marijuana tends to be rather dichotomous. Outside regions with a marijuana culture, it’s either idealised or demonised. In the idealised form, people run small, organic grow operations, get along peacefully with the neighbours. Small time growers like to promote this image. They claim that they contribute to their communities with charitable donations, job creation, engagement with the people who live around them. They’re just small time operators making a living just like anyone else. They’re hasty to dismiss people who raise concerns, arguing that they are ‘maligning’ the industry. At the same time, though, they are complicit and benefit from industrialised marijuana production, which keeps prices high. They may not engage directly in the practices being criticised, but they get something out of them nonetheless.

On the other hand, you have the marijuana as spectre of evil view. Growers with vast plots on state lands, guarded by men with guns and aggressive dogs. Marijuana as instigator of violence. This view often accompanies moralising about the consumption of the drug from people who try to claim that it destroys communities and ruins opportunities. People talk about ‘cartels’ and argue that the drug wars sensationalised in Mexico and Latin America are coming to California, and those lax liberals are sitting around and letting it happen.

The truth lies in a middle ground; yes, there are industrial growers who pollute the environment and make public lands unsafe. Yes, their numbers are also growing. There are also small-time growers who have a few plants and behave responsibly with respect to the environment and their communities. Some of them even pay taxes and attempt to go legitimate, through the sponsorship of programmes to regulate growing in a more functional way. Some of the people who claim to make large anonymous donations to community organisations actually do it, even.

But the perception of marijuana is still changing, and becoming more conservative, which means that something is happening. It’s not as simplistic as everyone suddenly deciding that marijuana is evil. Marijuana is causing increasing social problems in regions like the emerald triangle, but that’s not necessarily a consequence of conservatism. It’s a consequence of changing cultures and increasing desperation. More people than ever before are turning to it as a source of income and economic stability and when a market floods, inevitably, ugly things start to happen. Competition can turn particularly dangerous when you’re talking about traffic in illegal goods, just as was seen during Prohibition.

It’s telling that the increasing rage from members of the public, including people who formerly supported growers and parroted the rhetoric about how they were good for the community, is closely tied with the economy. The shift started to happen in 2008, when the economy started tanking and viewers approved Measure B. Increasingly, people view growers as the enemy, as something to resent, and it’s hard not to when they’re driving nice cars, living in nice houses, and flashing money around. The big growers are the de facto upper class here, and that makes them targets for hatred. The fact that they’re engaging in illegal activity becomes a neat hook to pin rhetoric on.

If growers were paying taxes, citizens argue, the community as a whole would benefit. People struggling to make their tax bills, getting by on jobs that do not pay nearly enough, see big growers and get angry, as well they should, and start to view all people in the industry in the same way. Growers benefit from the public services we pay for, which wasn’t a problem when most of us were surviving, but becomes a critical bone of contention when unemployment spikes and hardship grows along with it. Suddenly growers are living high, so to speak, from the fat of the land. The growth of the industry and the creation of tensions that sometimes lead to violence exacerbates the problem, as people feel justified in their rage, in the view of growers as leeches, deadweight on the community.

Growers ignore this shift, the class rage, the anger about violence and environmental pollution, at their own risk. Those who claim that marijuana is a benign and beneficial industry should be putting their money where their mouth is, instead of hiding behind harmful industrial operations. But to do so, they’d have to admit that they benefit indirectly from the rising prices created through the ferocious market competition which leads to closer law enforcement attention, more danger, a growing market outside the state.