The grass is always greener somewhere else.
Want to find some of the finest weed California has to offer? You won't find it in California. You'd be better off looking in places like Colorado or Washington state. That's where cannabis growers from the Emerald Triangle, Northern California's legendary pot-growing region, are illegally diverting their product.
Which is precisely why the Emerald Triangle is nearly out of weed. Just ask Tim Blake, who heads up the annual Emerald Cup cannabis contest.
"There's almost nothing left in the mountains anymore," Blake said. It's a result, he explained, of cops busting up grows in Mendocino and Humboldt counties, and also interstate smuggling, with cannabis grown legally in the Emerald Triangle being transported to Colorado and Washington, two states that tightly control and tax both medical and recreational weed.
The Emerald Triangle—comprising Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity counties—has been sucked so dry, Blake told me, that the buds from last year's harvest, that licensed medicinal growers there actually managed to harvest for the state, were "garbage."
It's normal to see a dip this time of year in the amount of available Golden Triangle-grown cannabis. But this year is different, according to Rick Pfrommer, an expert on buying marijuana at Oakland's Harborside Health Center, one of the largest purchasers of medical marijuana in California. Pfrommer told me that dip is far greater.
There are a few reasons for this shortage, and why weed growers here simultaneously risk spiriting their product out of state.
More growers are taking to light deprivation, a growing technique that's become increasingly popular to augment outdoor farming operations, and shipping their product out of state, Pfrommer said. Add to the mix a serious lack of water—it's so dry in California right now, the ground is literally rising—and a subsequently shorter growing season and, well, there just isn't much weed in Northern California.
We don't know exactly how much weed is being grown in the Emerald Triangle, or how much is being smuggled out of state. It's near impossible to say, because even though some of the region's growers comply with the patchwork of county and state cannabis regulations, many don't.
Even if they did, since there's no state prohibition on weed, which remains a Schedule 1 controlled substance at the federal level (alongside heroin, LSD, and other drugs the government considers highly addictive with zero medical value), it is still anyone's guess as to how much marijuana is being produced in Northern California.
Everyone from out of state comes to the Emerald Triangle to buy weed and ship it home.
What we do know is that the stuff is being transported elsewhere. Diverting weed is far riskier than merely tending a few stalks of Punta Roja on the sly. If you're caught shipping California-grown weed out of California, you will face interstate drug trafficking charges. And yet it's an open secret that smuggling is alive and well.
"Everyone knows, right? Everyone from out of state comes to the Emerald Triangle to buy weed and ship it home," Pfrommer said. "In the dispensary world, we don't see much of the light deprivation stuff because of that out of state factor."
This legal grey area did clear up a bit last year when the Justice Department rolled out a new eight-point marijuana enforcement policy, one of which encourages authorities to not bother individuals who are in accordance with state laws that deal with medical marijuana and recreational weed. For their part, even the feds admit that interstate weed trafficking, with roots in California, is a reality.
But farmers in the Emerald Triangle are still willing to smuggle their product to places like Colorado and Washington, because they stand to make a lot more money selling it out of state. Besides, profits in the regional marijuana industry have been declining for years. Four years ago, weed slipped from $5,000 to $3,000 per pound, as the Sacramento Bee reported. And then it cratered.
"Last I heard, a pound of marijuana is $800 for outdoor grown," Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman told the paper in 2012. "That's plummeting. You might do better with tomatoes."
You might do better with tomatoes.
It's not as bad now, but prices remain low. Blake told me that low quality weed grown in the Triangle's mountains, often by drug trafficking organizations, including Mexican cartels, runs between $1,200 and $1,300 per pound. A pound of better quality pot will net a farmer $1,500 to $1,600, he said.
For now, prices are holding steady because pot growers don't want to cut into their margins. Farmers are paying more than ever for water, thanks to a drought that has gotten so bad it's brought on a downpour of pseudoscience and flimsy "rainmaking" tech. Pfrommer, the Harborside buying expert, said the price of water has shot up between 30 and 50 percent, depending on where it's headed in the mountains. Some bud pickers, Pfrommer added, are even getting into the water transportation business.
The conditions have choked everyone in the state agriculture sector, of which marijuana growers remain a big part. This year's outdoor weed growing season is going to see an additional 30 percent drop in production, according to Blake.
"It's been an early growing season," he said. "Cannabis is coming in earlier, flowering earlier, and you don't get that seven to ten more days of growing time, which is extremely important for cannabis plants." The plant tends to follow grapes, which had an early harvest.
That's made water, or the lack thereof, an even knottier issue. Critics argue that weed farming in Northern California is not helping matters. Earlier this year, Mother Jones blamed pot for worsening the drought, pointing out that marijuana cultivation consumes an enormous amount of water.
That might be true, but it's still nowhere near as much water used by the state's big agriculture businesses use, to be sure. That accounts for about 80 percent of the 2.7 trillion gallons of water the Golden State consumes every year, according Brad Rippey, the Agriculture Department's meteorologist.
What's of real concern is the grow operations tapping into water illegally. Whether that's on federal land, or on property a farmer doesn't own, there are concerns over the consequences of diverting untold gallons to marijuana farming operations.
We went to Colorado in search of the future of weed. Watch our doc, High Country.
"Throughout my district and increasingly throughout the United States, trespass marijuana grow operations divert streams and other waterways to irrigate their crop, reducing or contaminating water supply for entire watersheds," US Congressman Jared Huffman (D-CA) said in an emailed statement. Huffman's district includes the Emerald Triangle.
Huffman recently lobbied to have the White House designate Humboldt a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program, designed to disrupt drug trafficking rights. HIDTAs help law enforcement agencies coordinate, as well as provide additional federal funding for operations. In this case, the feds aim to prevent illegal drug trafficking organizations from trashing the environment, and not go after responsible, credentialed growers.
Which brings us back to the flow of Northern California's weed. Pfrommer said that most of the weed grown in the region with the light deprivation method is going out of state. That's not to say the Emerald Triangle won't be a source of marijuana, and revenue from selling that product in state, for years to come. A lot of sun-grown weed, Pfrommer said, is getting shipped to dispensaries in the Bay Area.
But the industry is changing. And in this case, the grass truly is always greener somewhere else. If the Emerald Triangle isn't what it used to be, Northern California's finest will not be on the menu. At least, not in California.