The Green Gold Rush

How Cannabis Came to Humboldt County

By Colleen Ferguson

As the world-famous home of some of the best cannabis on the planet — as well as towering redwoods, scenic rivers and a stunning coastline — Humboldt County is a unique place. 

New arrivals to Northern California during the ’70s. / Stan Creighton - San Francisco Chronicle - Polaris.

To understand how cannabis became such a large part of Humboldt’s history, begin by looking back more than four decades at what was happening in America in the 1970s. Much like today, the ’70s were a time of social and cultural upheaval as the “Great American Ride” was coming to an end and skepticism toward government was on the rise. The social and cultural movements that had flourished in the 1960s began to take on new forms, manifesting for many people in a desire to go “back to the land” and live simply and sustainably.

Riding high on the crest of this counterculture wave were the hippies of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. These pot-savvy pioneers heard land was cheap in Northern California, and they flocked to Humboldt County by the VW Bus-load to carve out homesteads on harvested tracts of former timber country.

As the timber industry declined from its early 20th century heyday, much  of the logged land was considered worthless and sold for next to nothing. These areas had been cleared of trees, but they remained rough around the edges — no electricity, no plumbing and no clear access roads. The newcomers often had little to no income to put into their properties, but they had plenty of cannabi seeds that they planted far and wide.

Stan Creighton - San Francisco Chronicle - Polaris.

In the early days, most of the seeds came from tightly-packed bricks of cannabis smuggled in from Mexico and Central America with now-famous names indicating their places of origin: Acapulco Gold, Maui Wowie, Oaxaca Highland Gold, Panama Red. In addition to the THC-laden flowers, these bricks often included leaves, stems and seeds. Prospective gardeners could simply remove the seeds, stick them in the ground and wait.

Sinsemilla Changes the Industry

At least in the beginning, these plants weren’t necessarily sold for income, and they weren’t in the same league of potency and quality as the cannabis strains American consumers are familiar with today. But all that began to change as the booming underground industry fueled a metamorphosis that helped turn “marijuana” into the high-grade cannabis known as sinsemilla.

Sinsemilla — “without seeds” in Spanish — refers to the buds of female cannabis plants left unfertilized by removing male plants from the garden. The flowers of these plants are encrusted with cannabinoid resin glands — “trichomes” — evolved to capture pollen produced by males. When no pollen is present, females produce more flowers and create larger, more potent buds that fetch a much higher price.

Coincidentally, the production of this new, stronger cannabis was accompanied by a sharp decline in the quantity of cannabis imported from Mexico. The mid-1970s saw the U.S.-led spraying of paraquat, a toxic herbicide, on Mexico’s cannabis fields in order to destroy the industry and stop imports to the United States. These efforts were only partially successful as American consumers feared the health turned instead to safer, domestically grown products. Humboldt County, with its powerful sinsemilla, was well-positioned to fill the void.

Word spread quickly and soon the local industry was booming. By 1979, even the New York Times was clued in to Humboldt’s notoriety, publishing an article by William Carlsen that described the “astronomical price being paid for the local marijuana, which many connoisseurs consider among the most potent in the world.”

Stan Creighton - San Francisco Chronicle - Polaris.

Growing A Community Around Cannabis

Before long, it wasn’t just hippies who were cashing in on this new, lucrative industry. Ranching and timber jobs had been declining in the area for years, and many former ranchers and loggers began experimenting with growing cannabis as an alternative way to provide for their families while remaining in the region they loved and called home. Self-identified hippies and rednecks alike were drawn by the possibility of making a good living working close to the land, and both groups continue to shape the diverse cultural milieu of Humboldt County today.

A lot has changed since 1979 — the War on Drugs and its countless casualties, raids on homes and farms and businesses, outdoor growers moving indoors, Propositions 215 and 64 — and while the social and political boundaries of cannabis have changed a lot over the last few decades, one thing has not: Humboldt County remains the cultural and spiritual center of the Emerald Triangle, the source of the highest quality cannabis in the world. Here’s to you, connoisseurs Humboldt County cannabis. Welcome home.