October 31, 2010

In California resort, pot is a cottage industry

Law enforcement means leading a fantasy life in the center of California's marijuana outback.

By SAM QUINONES Los Angeles Times

(Continued from page 1)

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Brian Adams tends to marijuana crops in Shelter Cove, Calif. “You’ve got half the community that doesn’t want it, and the other half that does,” Deputy Sheriff Robert Hamilton says.

Barbara Davidson/Los Angeles Times

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Deputy Robert Hamilton

Over the years, marijuana farming came to Humboldt, first as a countercultural statement, then as a business. Shelter Cove was isolated, with minimal police presence, which made it attractive to growers. the time Hamilton arrived in the fall of 2009, the place had become a concentrate of California's weird weed world.

Pot growers occupied about half of the nearly 600 houses. Young growers drew the blinds and raised marijuana beneath 1,000-watt lights. Others put in greenhouses on denuded patches of hillside. Some installed sensors and hidden cameras to detect intruders.

When they raided large indoor operations, deputies often found photographs of the growers vacationing in places like Costa Rica and Bali.

"There's this outlaw mentality," Hamilton said. "They think they're these drug lords and they're going to take over southern Humboldt. You see them driving $40,000, $50,000 vehicles, and they have no jobs."

Residents say indoor growing also brought a lawless feel to the cove: nighttime gunfire; planes landing and taking off in darkness from the resort's airstrip; late-night parties; trashed rental housing; truck races along Upper and Lower Pacific drives.

"It was the wild, wild West," said Roger Boedecker, a member of the Shelter Cove Resort Improvement District board of directors. "The DA's office is reputed not to be inclined to prosecute small growers. You can grow with impunity."

The indoor marijuana boom split Shelter Cove between younger growers, most of them renters, and older retirees, some of whom desperately hope for pot's legalization, believing it will drain the profits from illegal cultivation.

This was the situation Hamilton found when he arrived. He began by ticketing people for dilapidated trailers, for growing pot on land where they didn't live, which is against state law, or for living on land without a septic system. But Hamilton said the county's building department objected, saying he was doing its job, one he wasn't trained for.

Far from policy debates, Hamilton navigates the roads, armed with skepticism and a smile. Deputies in other counties may have broad citizen support. In marijuana country, he finds, it depends.

"You've got half the community that doesn't want it, and the other half that does," Hamilton said.


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