MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Today we have the first of two stories about marijuana in California. First the basics: There's medical marijuana, which is legal and recreational pot, which isn't. The problem it's not easy to tell the difference, that's because doctors are prescribing pot to just about anyone who wants it. The result: These are boom times for the marijuana trade.
And as NPR's Mandalit Del Barco reports, that's especially true for one Northern California county.
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MANDALIT DEL BARCO: Decades after back-to-the-land hippies first moved to rural Humboldt County, it remains a Mecca for marijuana. At the plaza in downtown Arcata, you still find wandering tie-dyed souls playing guitar and bartering for handmade bongs. As we saw, they openly buy, sell and trade small bags of primo weed.
Unidentified Man #1: Why does everybody come here? It's because of the industry that we have: Marijuana.
Unidentified Man #2: Any flavor you want, you could find it.
Unidentified Man #1: Man, Hoopa Purple Kush. Yeah, buddy. That's some Humboldt, for sure, for sure.
DEL BARCO: Nick Larson and his buddy hitchhiked here to see if the streets truly are paved with pot.
Mr. NICK LARSON: We've heard stories all the way down, just, dude, get down to Humboldt. You got to try their weed, it's amazing. Me and my friend were, like, okay. So we get down here and people are tossing handouts and stuff. And we're just, like, oh my god. Like, whether it be trim or just straight buds, it's just amazing.
DEL BARCO: In Eureka, the town next door, a long line stretches outside the Humboldt Patient Resource Center. The pot dispensary is marked with the familiar green leaf logo and a Tibetan prayer flag.
Mr. LYDIA KATZ: Truth is that Humboldt County is one of the best growers and distributors of marijuana in the world.
DEL BARCO: Lydia Katz, who's 22, came to stock up on what he calls his medicine.
Mr. LYDIA KATZ: People here understand how much a part of the life's blood it is. Truly, without weed, this county would go belly up. Our economy depends on it.
DEL BARCO: Retired Sheriff Steve Cobine recalls that when logging and fishing jobs dried up in the late 1960s, hippies moved in and bought the cheap land.
Mr. STEVE COBINE (Retired Sheriff): And I'd see people living in tepees, and tents and dead school buses and whatnot.
DEL BARCO: Today, he says, the local counterculture pastime - growing marijuana - has become a thriving business.
Mr. COBINE: And now those people that were living in school buses and stuff own a nice, big house and ski in Telluride every year.
DEL BARCO: Marijuana is now infused in almost every aspect of the region's economy. In Humboldt County, you see a glut of hydroponics stores, selling fertilizer and grow lights for cultivating cannabis. At the food co-op, you can order hemp milk and hemp butter.
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DEL BARCO: Cafe Brio owner Serge Scherbatskoy says many transactions in town are made in cash.
Mr. SERGE SCHERBATSKOY (Owner, Cafe Brio): We see a lot of $100 bills in the cash register. There's a lot of money around and so it's good for a lot of businesses.
DEL BARCO: Scherbatskoy can't say that all the money comes from the marijuana trade. But he claims it's the only job here anyone really wants.
Mr. SCHERBATSKOY: Cause it's really easy for somebody to make thousands and thousands of dollars. And why would they want to work for $10 or $12 or $14 an hour?
Ms. TARA DEVLIN: If I find a job, it will be awesome. But right now, when nobody is hiring, I have a trim job.
DEL BARCO: College student Tara Devlin earns money to help pay her tuition. She trims marijuana buds for medical marijuana collectives and illegal growers.
Ms. DEVLIN: I'll work a couple months for a good amount of money. It's always cash.
DEL BARCO: Humboldt County has lots of pot entrepreneurs. One of them calls himself Bucky Buck. He gets paid to convert homes into indoor marijuana operations, or grows.
Mr. BUCKY BUCK: It used to be like the Grateful Dead-style hippie thing and all, everyone was peace and chill. But now it's more like these aggressive, just transient kind of lifestyle. It's not like that whole peace, love, granola thing anymore.
DEL BARCO: Bucky Buck says Prop 215, California's medical marijuana law, spawned a flurry of get-rich-quick businesses here.
Mr. BUCK: With the whole 215, people, it's just like you get people who aren't here for the beauty and the love in the area and - they're just here to reap the profit.
Ms. ROBIN HASHEM: If you look around here right now, that house, that house and that house are all grows.
DEL BARCO: Robin Hashem points out all the homes on her block that are now outfitted to grow marijuana.
Ms. HASHEM: You know, there's a lot of electrical energy being used by grow houses. And so if you go past and you look at the meter, it'll be spinning rapidly.
DEL BARCO: There are other telltale signs, she says: Windows covered with plastic, people coming and going at all hours, the smell of marijuana.
Ms. HASHEM: Like this house here. If you look at this house, there's mildew on the curtains and everything. You're not going to be having a house full of mildew and be there all the time. You know, they're just not there on a regular basis.
There's a, you know, they have the kids' bikes out there all the time. Kids aren't there all the time. It's just making it really, oh, we're normal. Nothing going on here.
DEL BARCO: Hashem says she believes in the compassionate use of marijuana. She voted for Prop 215. But she's had it with the grow houses that surround her. She's been lobbying the city to curb the spread, a campaign she calls Nip It in the Bud.
Ms. HASHEM: Our neighborhoods are being taken over by illegal grows and we need to do something to stop it.
DEL BARCO: The mayor of Arcata, Mark Wheetley, says the grow houses are a menace. With jury-rigged electrical wires and toxic chemicals, they sometimes catch fire. And they're easy targets for robbers.
Mayor MARK WHEETLEY (Arcata): Either drug deals gone wrong, or people trying to come in and make some quick money and either steal cash or, you know, marijuana from people. A lot of it has been people from outside the community that have come into the area and see this as a quick way to make money. And so it's kind of a Wild West mentality that we had to get out in front of and kind of rope back in.
DEL BARCO: You may be thinking, why doesn't somebody just pull the plug on the pot business here? That wouldn't be so easy in a place where marijuana is such an accepted part of life. Authorities admit the county has a very lenient interpretation of what's legal under the state's medical marijuana law.
Anyone with a doctor's order for marijuana � they're called recommendations � can grow as much pot as they want in 100 square feet. But some of the locals have gotten carried away, says California narcotics special agent Jack Nelson.
Mr. JACK NELSON (Narcotics Special Agent): They've had anywhere from 10 to 100, maybe even 200 plants. And they think that's okay, because we've got 15 recommendations around the house for my dog, my cat, my cousin and my brother.
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DEL BARCO: Surrounded by pet ducks and boa constrictors, we meet a grower who introduces himself as Mr. Green. He leads us inside the house he shares with his teenage daughter. We pass bouquets of marijuana drying like a canopy over the guest bed and we enter his garage.
Mr. GREEN: This is probably a typical Humboldt County garage. And it's - I fold my laundry right there. There's my washer and dryer. And over here we have some pot plants.
DEL BARCO: The garage is a jungle of marijuana plants growing year-round under emerald green grow lights.
Mr. GREEN: It's unlimited plants, unlimited number of lights. It's as much as you can cram in a 10-by-10 room or 100 square feet of canopy. If you stand above it and look down, it looks like a sea of green.
DEL BARCO: Mr. Green shows us his California 215 card, which he says lets him grow his own medicinal marijuana.
Mr. GREEN: And I got my permit hanging on the wall here.
DEL BARCO: The 46-year-old carpenter claims he uses pot to relieve back pain. But he hints that he also has buyers in Southern California. And Mr. Green has plenty of marijuana. He has two other grow houses like this.
In a year, you would consume all of this?
Mr. GREEN: Yeah, this is a year's supply for me.
DEL BARCO: Oh, yeah?
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Mr. GREEN: I grow as much as I can consume in a year. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
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DEL BARCO: But even here in Humboldt County, where the pot business is routine, authorities still occasionally go out looking for illegal growers. We'll tag along tomorrow.
Mandalit Del Barco, NPR News.
BLOCK: And when law enforcement finds a clandestine marijuana operation, there are often weapons and a feeling that someone is watching.
Unidentified Man #3: You never think you're alone. At least I know I don't.
DEL BARCO: You mean that there could be somebody out there watching us right now?
Unidentified Man #3: Oh, absolutely.
DEL BARCO: We could be surrounded right now by marijuana growers.
Unidentified Man #3: Yeah, they run off and hide in the brush. They don't run far.
BLOCK: That's tomorrow when we hear more about California's booming marijuana trade.