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Book Review: HUMBOLDT: Life on America's Marijuana Frontier

Author Emily Brady is not new to the world of cannabis. She was visiting a friend when authorities removed the friend’s father from their house in a drug raid. Brady was 14 at the time. What is new, she discovered in researching this book, is cannabis culture itself. “What started as a lark 40 years ago,” she notes, “has become the backbone of the economy” in rural northern California.

Brady is not what she calls “a parachute reporter,” someone who drops in for a few days or weeks, then leaves to write authoritative dispatches. She lived in Humboldt County for more than a year, befriending members of this understandably secretive society. She made it clear to everyone she interviewed that she was a journalist, working on a book.

It’s beyond impolite to ask people in Humboldt County what they do for a living; it could be downright dangerous. Yet she is able to tell tales of many aspects of a California county “built upon something that is wrong – not the marijuana itself, but the fact that medical laws aside, it is still fundamentally illegal.”

Her chapters are named for the four composite characters she has created from interviews:

Mare is the old “homesteader” hippie who still grows her own.

Crockett is a young man who grew up in the area and grows cannabis purely for profit.

Emma also grew up there, knowing from a young age that she couldn’t talk about how her parents financed their lives, and neither could her friends.

Bob is the Humboldt County Deputy Sheriff who was on the job about a month before realizing that no matter how much pot he pulled up or confiscated, “it wasn’t even a molecule in a drop of water compared to what was out there.”

While no one has ever died from marijuana, Brady notes that people die because of it. Humboldt County has had 38 murders in eight years; 23 of those were “drug related.” Emma tells of research she did while at UC-Berkeley showing an unusually high youth death rate in the area. High school pot smoking and binge drinking are double the state average.

Brady visits large illegal “grows” that are destroying public lands and finds no sign of the fabled Mexican drug cartels. “There’s no organized crime,” in Humboldt, she says, “but lots of disorganized crime," since every part of the raising, processing and selling of cannabis is illegal under federal law.

“As lawmakers hammer out what medical and recreational marijuana laws look like,” the author says, “pot smokers who care about such things should start thinking about and asking how their pot is grown, just like their tomatoes, and their free-range eggs, and their grass-fed beef.”

Emily Brady lives in Oakland. This is her first book.

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