When a county gets addicted to pot

Mendocino, Calif., has been taken over by the illegal marijuana industry. Can it kick the habit?

By Trish Regan

Published April 20, 2011 8:19PM (EDT)

The bud of a marijuana plant grown at a home in Mendocino County.
The bud of a marijuana plant grown at a home in Mendocino County.

Ukiah police chief Christopher Dewey is not just ashamed his hometown is known for marijuana, he's concerned about the effect it may be having on the community's youth. A tall, clean-cut, forty-something-year-old man with a baby face and soft- spoken voice, Dewey says his community has been overtaken by pot, and young people are increasingly turning to an illegal business, in part, he believes, because they have no choice. Chief Dewey moonlights as the coach of the local youth football team, working with boys between the ages of thirteen and fifteen. He sees sports as a way to help keep kids out of trouble, but more often than not, in Mendocino County, he complains, the trouble finds them.

The Emerald Triangle is known for exceptional pot. The area, especially Mendocino County, has been honing its expertise since the sixties when the region first became a haven for people using marijuana. Driving into Ukiah, I was struck by the multitude of huge gardening store billboards scattered along the side of the road, advertising the best fertilizers, sophisticated irrigation systems, and pretty much anything else you can imagine to help your "plants" grow. County officials tell me, per capita, there are more gardening shops in the Emerald Triangle than in any other part of the country.

Dewey tells me the story of his most talented player, who missed a week of practice. "When he came back," he says, "I asked why he missed a week. I mean, it was really important for him to be at practice. He was our star player. And he said, 'Look, I needed to help my parents.' I said, 'Well, what were you doing?' And he says, 'Well, I was helping my parents trim their bud, so they can package and sell it.'"

"This is a kid," the chief continues, "that had already been in trouble and was playing football to stay out of trouble. Now, he's trimming bud, so he's back involved in criminal activity." And he told the chief of police? That wouldn't necessarily be my first choice for the confession.

"It's really hard. You're wearing a hat that says police officer, but you're also wearing a hat as a coach. The idea is to keep the kids out of trouble. I want him on the football field, not trimming bud."

Still, when a community -- and in this case, a family -- depends on marijuana for its livelihood, the lines between right and wrong can quickly blur, even for the chief of police. "You know, day in and day out, we arrest people. But when you have a kid telling you, 'Hey look, I need to help my parents. This is how they make a living,' then you suddenly realize this is serious. We really have a problem here. Are we sending the message to kids that drugs are okay? They're forced to make these ethical decisions at such young ages."

More and more young people are facing this kind of pressure because more and more residents are turning to marijuana as an income stream. "People that never grew marijuana before have decided to start growing for profit," he says. It's a new phenomenon. "In years past, marijuana was grown in the hills. It was grown out of sight, away from people. But over the last few years, it's moved into residential communities."

In the middle of our morning interview, Chief Dewey gets a call. "Sorry," he says, looking apologetically at me as he scrambles to grab his cell phone. "Hello? Hi, Bob. It did? Where are you at? 4681? Okay, we're on our way. "

Putting his phone down, he yanks off his microphone.

Adrenaline in his voice, he says loudly as he stands up from his chair, "They've hit one house. They're at a second house. If you want to get it, come now!"

"They" refers to the Mendocino Major Crimes Task Force led by Bob Nishiyama. Every week, Nishiyama and his team head out on a series of raids in an attempt to clamp down on the commercial grows now permeating the community's downtown. Chief Dewey scribbles an address on a piece of paper and hands it to me. "See you there," he shouts at me as he rushes out of the room.

Less than an hour later, the chief and I are standing on a cul-de-sac outside a pale blue townhouse. There are about a dozen townhouses on this street, and each house looks the same. In the front of each property sits a tiny front lawn -- some with bright yellow daffodils adorning stone walkways. In one driveway, I spot a small red tricycle with blue and silver streamers dangling from its handles, blowing in the soft breeze. This is a quiet, family neighborhood -- but, according to Mendocino investigators, it's also home to a significant commercial grow operation. Guns in hand, the officers bang on the door. Pulling out a loudspeaker, they demand entry into the town house. No answer.

They bang again. Nothing. Drawing their guns, they hoist themselves against the door to gain entry. I'm watching from behind, and as soon as that door swings open, the smell hits me. It's pungent. Overwhelming. I hold my hand up to cover my nose and shield myself from the stench. This is not like outdoor grows I've seen. This is far more concentrated. It's like nothing I've ever smelled before.

As the police storm in, their guns pointing ahead, I stand in the doorway, peering into what would be the house's living room. It's dark (every shade is drawn), and all I can see are rows of enormous plants. They're each over seven feet tall and grazing the ceiling. After getting an "all clear" signal from one of the officers, I inch my way into the house — there is barely room to move, because the plants are so close to one another. Everywhere I look — the living room, the hallway, the kitchen, and the dining area — all I see are marijuana plants. Every inch of this town house is being used for growing purposes.

Chief Dewey is standing on the stairs. "Come on, it's clear. There's more upstairs," he yells, motioning for me to follow him. Upstairs I spot three small bedrooms and a bathroom. In the bathroom, the showerhead is hooked to a hose. It's providing a simple irrigation system for the grow operation. Dewey leads me into one room filled with tiny plants. This is a clone room where the growers are creating small plants in hydroponic beds. They're essentially creating a root system on the stem of each plant, Dewey explains. The second bedroom serves as a holding room for the plants' intermediate stage. "They're growing them up in here," Dewey says, his eyes fixed on the dozens of small potted plants in the second bedroom. Meanwhile, in the third bedroom are fifteen large plants, similar to the ones I saw downstairs, all about seven feet tall with mature buds. The chief tells me these buds "have budded" and are ready to be harvested.

We finish surveying the property and make our way back downstairs toward the garage. It's empty, but evidence remains scattered on the floor: some empty pots, a few lights, and some trimming equipment. "They just finished a harvest," Dewey tells me, folding his arms and shaking his head. "This is a commercial operation," he says emphatically. "This house was rented for one purpose, and that's to grow marijuana." I ask him how he knows it isn't a medicinal operation. "If you were growing for medicinal purposes, you would be growing the two or three plants you need, not that many plants," he says, gesturing back to the main part of the house.

The money being generated from an indoor grow operation like this adds up. "That one room that was ready to be harvested," Dewey says, his eyes looking up at the blue sky as he computes the math, "was probably worth about twenty thousand dollars." The room they already harvested was "twice the size. So it could have been forty K," he estimates. "And then, they had two more cycles on the way, probably at twenty K each."

The beauty of the indoor operation, as commercial growers see it, is that plants can be grown and harvested every ninety days, affording them four major cash opportunities a year.

But the problem, Dewey laments, is that this kind of bust has become too typical. "What used to happen out in the woods -- large commercial operations -- just made its way into our neighborhoods."

According to the Mendocino Major Crimes Task Force, this commercial grow was a family-run operation involving six individuals, including a seemingly upstanding citizen: the city government reporter for the Ukiah Daily Journal paper was allegedly connected to the case. Authorities allege the reporter and his fiancée rented the townhouse (along with other locations) while the fiancée's brother covered a $2,000 a month electric bill. The fiancée's parents were allegedly involved in the scheme as well. Authorities confiscated eighty plants and twenty-two pounds of marijuana, which they claim the ring was selling for $3,000 a pound to local cannabis clubs. It's great money -- until you're caught. Law enforcement and most residents would probably agree that some grows are too big, too commercial, but the question is, Where do you draw the line?

Jim Wattenburger, the chairman of the Board of Supervisors for Mendocino County, is stout, in his late fifties or early sixties, balding, with some rosacea creeping into his cheeks. He is a larger-than-life personality. His booming voice and hearty laugh make him seem more like a good ol ' boy from Texas than a lifelong resident of Mendocino County. But Wattenburger grew up here and has become an outspoken critic of marijuana. He believes the industry has grown too fast, too soon, and he is actively trying to limit the amount of marijuana that can be grown in Mendocino.

It's a position that makes him increasingly unpopular with some growers. When I met him, he had already received four death threats thanks to his efforts to regulate marijuana, and he told me he carries a gun with him six out of seven days a week.

Wattenburger says he knows why his community has gone to pot, so to speak, and it all comes down to one thing: economics. "We used to have timber," he tells me. "We were the timber king in Redwood for the last hundred and fifty years." But that industry has been nearly decimated. "When I was a kid here," he reminisces, glancing up toward the ceiling of the county office, then back at me, "we had thirty-three operating lumber mills of various sizes in this valley. We now have a total of three mills for the entire county."

Plenty of towns lose their lumber mills (or the local equivalent) to overseas competitors, but those towns don't become world leaders in pot production. So why here? "We're the fifth-largest geographically sized county in California. We are one of the most sparsely populated counties. So you have vast areas where you have no people. Out of sight, out of mind."

Wattenburger makes a convincing argument. Driving through Mendocino County, you can go miles without seeing a soul. It's both beautiful and eerie.

The community's natural resources also make it a prime area for growing. As Wattenburger points out, there is "lots of water and a great climate." He stresses the diversity of agricultural products grown here. "We have a Japanese maple tree nursery that ships all over the world. We have award-winning grapes. We have alfalfa. We have cattle. We have more organic acreages under cultivation in this county than anywhere in the United States!" He's getting excited now, almost patriotic, and waves his hands for emphasis, as though he's making a campaign speech.

"How much is all that worth?" I ask, trying to put it in context. He sighs. He knows where I'm going with this, and I've just burst his bubble.

"Well, all the legal agricultural products, wine, raw crops, timber, livestock, about $ 2.4 billion."

And how much is the marijuana worth?

"The conservative estimate for the county, in 2007, was $12 billion." In other words, about five times the legal agricultural products -- and that figure, according to Wattenburger, is just the tip of the iceberg.

"Honestly, Trish," he looks me square in the eye, "I think it's more than that. People are going to say I'm full of hot air if I say fifteen to twenty billion. But I actually think it's around that. This is an illegal industry that reaps huge profits off marijuana. I'd say if marijuana was to be eradicated, this county would become destitute. The small mom-and-pop grocery store, the agricultural supply store . . . they ' re making ninety percent of their annual budget off marijuana [customers]."

Trish Regan is the author of "Joint Ventures: Inside America's Almost Legal Marijuana Industry." A multi-Emmy-nominated journalist, she formerly co-anchored CNBC's "The Call" and she has reported for CNBC's documentary unit, "Today," and "NBC Nightly News." Her 2008 documentary special "Marijuana, Inc." and 2010 sequel "Marijuana USA" garnered more viewers than any other documentary in CNBC's history.

Trish Regan

MORE FROM Trish Regan

Related Topics ------------------------------------------