The “Surf City” Strategy

Kym enticed me into reading her latest article on legalization for The North Coast Journal by citing one of my previous comments.  Yeah, I’m that vain.  It’s a great article.  I hope everyone in Humboldt and Mendocino and Trinity reads it.  That’s not enough, though.  Really, I hope Jerry Brown reads it.   Crazy as it sounds, I think he’s going to be our next governor, and I think the Emerald Triangle needs a friend in Sacramento.

Grassroots organizing is powerful.  Despite all of the negativity coming from the rabbit-hearted growers afraid of the prospect of losing money, and despite the paralyzing paranoia of conspiracy theorists convinced that big Pharma will engineer all the fun out of marijuana, history teaches us that small groups of motivated citizens can shape public policy and culture.   If you don’t like what you think you see, you can do more than criticize those who are trying to create a better future.

Another thing history teaches to those with eyes to see is that authenticity is a powerful commodity.  Even if every cynical, self-defeating statement coming from those who insist on seeing the glass as bone-dry and shattered into a pile of dangerous shards is true – that ADM and RJ Reynolds will set up stadium-sized schwag-fields in Bakersfield or Sonora, Mexico, undersell every small-time grower, and have the audacity to market their fly-specked, dusty shit as “Humboldt Red” – no one can steal history.  Arguments about terroir and hybrids and knowledge aside, there’s a specific history here that can’t be undone, for good and bad.  It might be true that those by-gone outlaws who created strains of dank just to buy tricked-out Humvees had their own self-interests at heart, just like it might be true that those unlucky enough to lose their crops to CAMP or end up in prison after being busted for speeding in Utah with pounds in their trunk suffered by themselves, but their stories ultimately belong here.  This is – largely – where it went down, and agribusiness can’t buy your past.  At least, not easily.

Take the fight over “Surf City” as an object lesson.  I’ve lived in Santa Cruz and Huntington Beach, the two cities that have spent the better part of a decade fighting over the rights to that name.   Surfer magazine labeled it “Moniker-Gate.” Both cities fought hard.  Huntington Beach filed a patent on the name.  Santa Cruz filed a complaint with the U.S. Dept. of Commerce.    Hear what I’m saying?  The waves roll in and out, regardless of what people do, but Santa Cruz and Huntington Beach fought tooth and nail over a nickname because of what it signified.

Beyond the specific nickname, what those two cities were really fighting over was authenticity.  Objectively speaking, Santa Cruz has it – that’s where California surfing was born, after all – but Huntington Beach wanted to make money from it, so both cities worked the levers of power until it was settled in the eyes of almost no one except for the people making money from tote-bags and t-shirts.  There’s decent surf in Huntington, but no matter what is says on some tourist’s t-shirt in southern California, no one with a board would choose the dirty, warm-water slop of the cliffs over the cold-water perfection of Steamer Lane.  And no matter what the courts decide, it’s far too late to change what happened in 1885.   The same is true up here, with the significant exception that no one is trying to take your authenticity away from you – it is indisputably yours right now.

I’ve read the comments from readers disparaging those people – like Kym – who want Humboldt to embrace its shady past.  Cindy H. offered this fairly-representative point on Kym’s North Coast Journal article:

Yes, this is how we should advertise and want the world to remember the beautiful north coast of California – Weed, not for the giant redwoods, not for the magnificent coastline, not for the historical victorian homes, not for the wonderful artist community, not for the colleges, no not any of those things.

I like the sarcasm more than the sentiment.  Not to belabor my earlier point, but there are people in Huntington Beach and Santa Cruz who think their towns have more to offer than water, too.  They may even be right.  Should they pretend that they’re not coastal, though?  The waves arrive whether you acknowledge them or not.  Take a cue from nature – the weed grows alongside the trees, not instead of them.  What is there to be gained by trying to pretend that marijuana growing isn’t a significant element to the culture in this part of California?  You can disparage it if you want, but you can’t honestly deny it – it is, regardless of what you want to believe.

I’m no more sympathetic to those people who try to hide the massacres of Indian and Chinese residents that took place up here in the 19th century.  Deny your history if you want, but that won’t change it.  Sorry, but the past has already happened, and you’ve missed your chance to stop it; now all that’s left is dealing with the fallout.

So, you can try to organize to protect your resource base, or you can organize to deny it and sweep all that money out of the county… or you can just sit on the sidelines and watch what happens to your county when people who have no connection to this place decide the matter for you.  Good luck with that.

There’s one more facet to the political dance that we shouldn’t overlook, too.  The state of California didn’t really have a dog in that “surf city” fight between Huntington Beach and Santa Cruz, because the money was going to end up in the state one way or the other.  Buy your t-shirt in Huntington Beach or Santa Cruz, California gets its 8.25% cut either way.  The same isn’t necessarily true about the money that will come after legalization.  Before you give up what you already have for the prospect of something that might replace it, you should consider the upside to the status quo.

I’ve lived in lots of places that make their money from tourism, and I’m of two minds on the subject.  It can bring in money and provide a stable economy of sorts, but it’s not an economy that I’d want to have anything to do with.  I know myself well enough to know that I can’t live in service.  But beyond my personal preferences, I’m not sure I’d even  want to be here to see the coastline and culture change to accommodate for tourism.  I’ll take old trees and rocky cliffs over convention centers and golf courses any day; the same goes for farms and forests.  I like the redwood curtain, and the last thing I’d want to see up here are wider freeways and bigger airports.  Let San Francisco cash in that way.  You’d do better to try to get the state government to structure the coming legalization to support the small-scale grower economy you already have, rather than trying to create an entirely new tourist economy out of nothing.

One final point on money.  There’s been lots of speculation about what will happen to prices in the aftermath of legalization.  Most people who’ve weighed in on the subject have argued that prices will drop, and the arguments I’ve seen in support of that opinion seem reasonable.  Unlike the past, though, the future can’t be accurately described, and there’s really no way of knowing for sure what will happen.  California’s central valley might be the best spot to grow marijuana, but don’t forget about the people who live in the central valley – you know, the people who keep electing those comically uber-conservative representatives?  the same people who have been passing laws to keep dispensaries out of their communities, even though they’re sort of legal under California state law?   Consider the possibility that the cultural landscape might trump the agricultural potential for those places that don’t share the Emerald Triangle’s unique history.

Consider, too, the possibility that the sky might not fall.  Just to end on a positive note, I’ll pass along a happy thought from one of Andrew Sullivan’s readers:

Gillespie is wrong — legalization of weed generally leads to higher prices, not lower (have you *seen* the prices in Amsterdam?).  Of course the sin taxes are a factor, but it also shouldn’t have been hard for a free market fetishist like Gillespie to see the other reasons.

Once it moves off the black market people have a lot more choices of product and aren’t limited to whatever their connection has this week, and so many start choosing quality product over the only stuff that’s available, which provides upward price pressure.  You also open up the market to consumers who often feel there’s too much risk vs. reward in participating in the black market, which also drives up prices as demand increases and a more affluent clientele enters the market (many of us with straight, non-pro-athlete, non-writer jobs can’t afford to have a pot bust on our record…).

So, consider the possibility that the future might be wide open.  And unlike the past that can’t be changed, it’s not too late to take action to shape that future, if you feel like nudging it in a particular direction.  Or you can just let it roll over you.  Don’t take too long deciding, though  – you know what they say about time and tide?


7 Responses to “The “Surf City” Strategy”

  1. 1 Goldie
    March 28, 2010 at 9:26 am

    We need a Jan and Dean for the 215. Surf City is a good analogy for it shows the rewards, the profit and benefits of a brand or title. However, surfing was never illegal nor were surfers shamed. Their skill was publicly rewarded.
    The conversation around this is changing rapidly. The history of the area and the plant has been splattered into the press mostly in terms of the extreme or failure: arrests, raids, robberies, murders, fuel spills.
    The shame is lifting and another story is emerging. A plant has been keeping this area alive. A plant that heals and nurtures. A plant that is beautiful and giving. A plant that has killed no one. People have killed people but the plant has not.
    We have a rich and complex history. The people who create that story, that history, create and control the future. Are we heroes or outlaws, dirty hippies or people who live simply, are we greedy polluting land rapers, or stewards of the land? We are deciding now. We are creating that history now.
    This talent rich county is churning with the input of the economic planners, the law makers and politicians, the net workers, the bloggers, the media, the shop keepers, song writers, hoodie designers, and the growers themselves as they step forward.
    The power is in the new story.

    • March 30, 2010 at 11:39 am

      It’s funny that you mention the outlaw thing. I’ve been thinking about that a lot. I don’t think there’s a film or tv show or novel about the trade that doesn’t eventually turn into a law and order episode – dreams of ridiculous wealth giving way to greed and general stupidness, dissipated in a hail of gunfire, and then the quick and easy moral. I know that’s just a standard and stupid requirement for getting the story past the censors, moving paper or attracting advertising dollars, but it has real consequences. Not that violence isn’t present in the industry to some degree, but it’s not omnipresent. In fact, it’s barely present. I imagine that most of the growers I’ve met up here own guns – no, scratch that, I know they all own guns – and I’ve certainly heard a few stories about past episodes of violence, but the fantasy about running gun battles in the redwoods and deals gone bad has more to do with selling stories than reflecting reality. That’s not to say that there isn’t an upside to that glorious mis-characterization, though.

      Surfers are considered pretty quaint today, but that wasn’t always the case. Surfers were considered rebels once, and I think surf culture probably benefited from those former celebrations of violence. I certainly know plenty of surfers who tried to live up to those dangerous precedents, and I know lots of surfers who are far less happy with the way their culture is embraced and portrayed by the mainstream today – a defanged pet rather than a dangerous animal in the midst of middle-class society. Again, there’s an object lesson there.

  2. 3 Kym
    March 28, 2010 at 2:21 pm

    Goldie, AMEN!


    I read the link you posted in the Journal. It was excellent. I hope you are right that the sky won’t fall. I do think that if another state legalizes and we don’t, we could be in trouble. They will be exporting black market pot to “our” customers. If we go legal first “we” can export to “their” customers.

    • March 30, 2010 at 11:52 am

      I agree that the first states to legalize will enjoy a competitive advantage, so I hope it’s us. On the other hand, California produce has been so consistently celebrated at home and abroad that I think we’ll enjoy a competitive advantage even after federal legalization. Interesting times, for sure.

  3. 5 Mr. Nice
    March 30, 2010 at 6:07 am

    Why do folks keep saying oh when weed is legal they’ll grow it all in the Central Valley?

    People grow tons of weed in the Central Valley and have for years. Y’all ever actually been there? Any spot in that region could use the nickname Bammer City if they wanted to. The only advantage of growing next to some methylbromide spray parcel is the shit dries faster and the bugs die off from alla residual poison.

    The folks who keep saying that shit can’t be plant people. They grow mad broccoli in Coachella… but why not the entire valley? Could it be climate? Wine does much better in some quasi-inland misty hills, hmmm… People gotta stop and think for a second. Regardless of if weed is legal or not, the best places to grow are still gonna be the best places to grow. That ain’t suddenly gonna be some 110 degree bullshit ass tule fog “Sacramento Haze” or fucking “Modesto Maui.” I mean, come the fuck on, nobody wants more of that schwag, there is plenty already.

  4. 7 Mr. Nice
    March 30, 2010 at 7:47 pm

    Yea, trademarks…

    “Humboldts OG Kush Cafe” registered in Redway, CA. No joke.

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This blog is for entertainment purposes only. We neither engage in nor endorse any illegal activity; any and all indications to the contrary are purely fictional. Purely fictional.

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