Pot Pirates, Stashes
of Cash & Glazed Eyes

Dangers of Marijuana Are Understated AND Misrepresented

The guy ahead of me in the checkout line was plucking dimes from a handful of change for a giant Snickers and a Budweiser tall boy. On a warm summer night, he wore a heavy varsity-club jacket and a woolen knit cap pulled down over his ears. His age was a guess, but his lank, shoulder-length white hair was yellowed like newsprint left in an attic. The sunglasses he wore were as dark as deep water, and something told me there would be fishy things swimming behind his eyes if he took them off.

But I was the one who felt weird, buying a bag of chips in my golf shirt, khaki shorts and Topsiders. "One of these things doesn't belong," and it was not Bud Snickers or the tattooed, tongue-studded cashier. It was Midwestern Square Guy: me.

I thought, "We're not in Ohio anymore, Sparky."

Not even close. I was about 2,500 miles west: Arcata, Calif., in Humboldt County, heart of the "Emerald Triangle," sometimes known as "the Amsterdam of Cali" and "Marijuana Capital of the Golden State."

Which is like being the "Sand Capital of the Sahara" or "Snow Capital of Siberia."

War's Over; Drugs Won

Let's face it, for all the carping about legalization, decriminalization and "medical marijuana" (isn't that the great-great grandchild of "Doctors recommend Lucky Strikes"?), pot smoking is de facto decriminalized. Lighting a cigarette in a bar is more dangerous. Even heartland Ohio has some of the most laidback pot laws in the land (see sidebar). During the recent election, nobody talked about the "war on drugs." It's over. Drugs won.

But while Ohio may shake its head and look the other way, California has turned medicinal "herb" into another look-at-me fashion statement.

In Humboldt County, north of San Francisco near the Oregon border, brands such as "Humboldt Headband," "Green Crack," "Yumboldt" and "Purple Haze" are the Tide and Irish Spring of the local economy. "Smashes your day," say the satisfied stoners. "A real couch lock."

Pot "dispensaries" sell to any California resident who has a doctor-approved need for weed, such as cancer, glaucoma or, the popular favorite, "stress." Lost your job? Flunking out of college? Take two pipes of Purple Haze and your troubles swirl away in a dreamy blue cloud of dragon breath.

Estimates say "growers" add $1 billion to the Green Triangle economy, and one out of every two people is involved "” planting, picking, pruning, packaging, delivery or running hydroponics supermarkets for do-it-yourselfers.

Outlaw "¢Brigadoon'

Humboldt is an outlaw "Brigadoon" on the fog-shrouded coast. Police mostly ignore pot pirates if they don't get too greedy "” and politicians get generous donations in return.

But it's complicated. Federal laws prohibit dispensaries. So despite legalization, the black market thrives. Some say, "It's time to bring Humboldt back to the U.S.A." Bumper-stickers reply, "U.S. out of Humboldt."

Arcata boasts of being the only town in America to impeach George W. Bush. Pot laws are extremely liberal, too. Anyone with a permit can grow up to 99 plants, which can reach 8 feet and bear two pounds of potent buds. Under doctor's orders, Cheech and Chong could grow 200 pounds.

I don't think they could toke that much with help from the Grateful Dead and the Rastafarian Marching Band. So most is illegally sold. And Humboldt County seems surprisingly "¢ surprised.

From local news stories: A dispensary was closed with unexplained expenses of $32,000 for supplies (Snickers bars and Bud tall boys?); the boss was arrested for drug trafficking. Growers have been caught padding permits with phony customers who don't have real medical conditions, not even stress. And one grower was busted by his neighbors when his forest of skunk weed violated an "odor ordinance."

In a county where wealthy pot pirates stash cash in plastic 50-gallon drums to keep away mold and the IRS, there's still high unemployment, poverty and violent pot thefts. Central American drug cartels have moved in. A sheriff's deputy told a local newspaper, "We're seeing a large influx of transients and people from out of the state and out of the country who want to come to Humboldt County. It's putting a lot of stress on us."

If you are wondering what all this has to do with Cincinnati, here it is: We have a bit of an inferiority complex. We think Cincinnati is backward, unhip, not cool enough to hang with the California in-crowd. But by nearly any quality of life yardstick, I'd say we are better off.

In Ohio, we still relieve economic stress the old fashioned way "” with beer and casinos. (I stumbled on Arcata on a tour of wine country, where tourists swarm like fruit flies to sip Cabernet that potheads insist is more dangerous.)

Children Time Forgot

But in the Olympics of Weird, we're a lot farther than 2,500 miles from California. And it doesn't look like California is "ahead."

In a 1987 essay for the American Spectator, novelist Tom Wolfe introduced "The Great Relearning." He noticed that ancient diseases "” grunge, rot, mange, thrush "” bloomed in San Francisco, a symptom of the sexual revolution that "sought nothing less than to sweep aside all codes and restraints of the past and start out from zero."

The hubris to toss aside thousands of years of civilizing manners, hygiene and standards was a 20th century legacy that would curse the 21st century, he warned.

I saw something like it on the streets in Arcata: aimless young people who were scrofulous, tattered, shiny at the elbows and worn through the seams, adrift in some netherland between homelessness and the outskirts of reality. They were colorful leaves riding an autumn breeze to "freedom," drifting slowly into gravity's unforgiving embrace. They were ambling advertisements for the unforeseen consequences of legalized drugs.

The debate will continue. But those children that time forgot, with their eyes glazed like marbles, are something to consider. And more join that Pied Piper pot parade whenever we make drugs sound safe, healthy, harmless and "medicinal."

The Great Relearning is not over yet.