Into the Emerald Triangle

Travels with OC potrepreneur B. Lucky to California's marijuana breadbasket

It has been raining steadily for days, but the evening sun now pierces the haze like a pink, flaming orb, its broken rays angling downward through a gallery of 30-foot-high windows recently carved into a towering wall of redwoods along the riverbank. The trees are maybe 30 years old, new-growth trees just a few feet wide at the base but already 60 feet tall. A century ago, the entire valley had been clear-cut by loggers, the lumber stacked like wet cordwood on the flat cars of a southbound train whose long-abandoned tracks now lay below the ridge, rusting and overgrown with weeds.

Like dragon's breath in an illustrated children's book, smoky tendrils of the after-rain mist swirl up the steep hillside on the opposite bank of a gully whose ancient creek drains into the main river below. Atop a wide swath of grassy slope stands a house with a wraparound deck. Everywhere in the sky are fine sawdust particles wafting down from the treetops, refracting the sunlight as they descend. The chain saws and wood chipper are silent now; the staccato slap of water against shoal echoes from the fast-running river, swollen from a month-long inundation.

Even though its foundation lies 100 yards or so uphill from the river, the house has a flood-compliant basement for a first floor. Twice, in the 1950s and 1960s, the river flooded out entire towns in this valley; today, few houses or cabins still stand. Below the house is a trailer, where a tree-trimming crew from Santa Cruz bunked last night, and a wooden shack near the river that has a stone fireplace on its front porch bisected by the trunk of a sturdy redwood. In the middle of the clearing, between the cabin and the main house, is a trio of 60-foot-by-30-foot greenhouses rigged with a pulley system so that the roof or walls can be rolled up or down at a moment's notice.

Inside each structure, row upon row of 5-foot-high marijuana plants—4-month-old clones of a high-end Sour Diesel strain created by graduates of UC Berkeley's botany department—sway in the breeze. The farm is one of at least a dozen outdoor growing operations in Humboldt and Mendocino counties that are either owned by B. Lucky (a pseudonym, like all of the names in this story) or by one of his associates, in which case Lucky gets a share of the profits in return for helping distribute the harvest.

In addition to the regular outdoor growing season each summer, this farm typically produces three separate indoor crops per year by using powerful lights inside the greenhouses. In a good year, the total yield is 300 pounds or more of high-grade, medical-quality marijuana that can gross anywhere from $750,000 to $1.2 million, depending on how much of it Lucky sells. In California, awash for years in a glut of pot, a pound might go for $1,500; the same buds would fetch two to three times that amount in Manhattan.

Lucky is a middle-aged man with a chiseled chin, short hair and ubiquitous facial stubble who is partial to hip-hop-style, baggy, athletic gear. As usual, he's wearing a baseball cap perched jauntily on his head. Among various other pursuits, legitimate and otherwise, he's the director of a major Orange County medical-cannabis club that boasts more than 3,000 members. On paper at least, a large portion of the marijuana grown at this farm is for his patients; the rest, he says, is destined for collectives in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

"We're really selling shit all around the nation," Lucky says, quickly explaining he's not referring to himself, but rather to people he knows, and that the same truth applies to most local growers, not to mention the Mexican cartels known to operate massive gardens in the nearby mountains. Although California boasts some 400 medical-marijuana dispensaries, Lucky says there's already so much indoor weed on the market that Northern California mostly ships its marijuana out of state.

"Sure, you maintain your collective so that you have legal validation for your distribution, even though those few collectives are ultimately just 3 percent of your business," he says. "You go to a collective in Southern California, and you might sell 5 or 10 pounds—it's just a small deal. Meanwhile, there are guys who move hundreds of thousands of pounds, in hundred-pound packs, all across the nation."

To reach those customers, whether they're college students in Cambridge or Greenwich Village, buying off the black market, or legitimate medical-cannabis smokers in San Francisco or Santa Ana, the marijuana is stashed inside trunks of cars, hidden within kayaks latched to the roofs of SUVs, or secreted away in vehicles in a dozen other ways. It must navigate a gauntlet of Highway Patrol speed traps and random encounters with drug agents who operate between Eureka and Ukiah, patrolling every road leading in and out of Humboldt, Trinity and Mendocino counties. Cops and smugglers alike have a nickname for this infamous chunk of real estate.

They call it the Emerald Triangle.

*     *     *

My journey north with B. Lucky to the heavily forested breadbasket of America's largest illicit cash crop had started at 10 a.m.—and badly. An unseasonably heavy downpour followed us from the Bay Area. B. Lucky had brought along an ounce of marijuana in his carry-on luggage after verifying via telephone calls to the airline and the local office of the Transportation Security Administration that he wouldn't be hassled so long as he had on him a valid doctor's recommendation to smoke cannabis. The aroma of his fragrant stash quickly filled up the vehicle.

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