Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT – The tentacles of Humboldt’s inexorable drug scourge reach into virtually every part of its society, officials say.
The dismal impact is not confined to law enforcement, the jails, the criminal justice system and community safety.
The drug trade distorts business and the economy, overburdens hospitals and mental health services, drags down family life and single parents, depresses child welfare, jeopardizes food security, threatens residential neighborhoods with indoor grows, consumes massive amounts of energy and inflicts severe damage on the natural environment.
Humboldt County is hostage to what legal authorities call its sinister, corrupt and fatal demimonde.
Illustrative are the soaring demands on the medical establishment. Statewide data show Humboldt ranks first among California’s 58 counties for opiate overdose hospitalizations. It ranks fourth for opiate overdose deaths.
The suicide rate is four times higher than the state average and the homicide rate is nearly double the state’s.
Officials and academic specialists warn that the fusion of Humboldt’s epidemic drug trafficking with its sprawling marijuana industrial complex (8,400 grows or more) has created a society immured in a way of life that is illegal, invasive and pernicious in equal parts.
The caseload of addicts, for example, continues to beggar social welfare, rehabilitation and mental health services.
The impacts ricochet through every dimension of local life. “If you’re involved in criminal or quasi-criminal activities, you’re dealing with high risk, violent criminals each and every time you do business,” observed longtime lawyer and Humboldt County Conflict Counsel Marek Reavis.
“I think the violence endemic to Humboldt can be directly traced to the county’s deeply entrenched drug market, cannabis as well as all the other controlled substances.”
He elaborated: “The nature of the business, the players in the industry, the allure and abuse of controlled substances themselves, all contribute to the atmosphere of violence that so frequently erupts in the most horrific acts that the Union covers.”
Echoing Sheriff Mike Downey, Reavis added, “And, of course, many of these crimes of violence are never discovered, much less investigated or prosecuted.”
Analysts warn that the marijuana industrial complex has driven the county into yet another regression, its historical overdependence on a single commodity. In the past, it was mining, fishing and timber. Today, it is the near-monolithic economy of marijuana, which shortchanges investment in economic diversification and legitimate productivity.
Authorities fear the county is mortgaging itself to decades to come to a false and criminal economic base that harnesses too much of its livelihood to environmental destruction. Some of that damage may never be repaired. The fanatically competitive forces of globalization threaten to imprison Humboldt in a permanent state of stunted growth and wasted opportunities.
Reavis sees the weak economy as reciprocal with the drug infestation. They reinforce one another with corrosive effects on the social fabric, the job market and everyday life.
At ground level, he said, “It’s hard to feel all that good about yourself and your prospects if you’re struggling to make ends meet working one, one-and-a-half, or even two minimum wage jobs, while all around town you see 20-year-olds driving huge Toyota Tundras, pulling trailers full of quads or jet skis, all paid for with huge wads of cash.”
Reavis echoed Downey’s fatalism. “I certainly don’t know what the answer is, but continuing along the path we’ve already trodden for decades isn’t going to turn up the solution.”
Downey said in an interview in his office that the intrusiveness and omnipresence of the marijuana industrial complex have deeply altered Humboldt’s character and what was once a species of small-time innocuous if illegal agriculture.
Growing foreign influence is part of the criminal change. The sheriff met several weeks ago with residents of Bridgeville, “who are outraged by the Bulgarian connection. They see commodities, soils and water tanks going up and down Highway 36. They say, ‘Our area was much quieter five or 10 years ago; we had a respectful, small-scale native industry.’ Now the character of the industry has changed, altered immensely.”
Downey suspects the clandestine foreign influence is expanding, with “a high percentage of Bulgarians in the county, including enclaves in Petrolia as well as Bridgeville. There could be some other East European nationalities involved. Why there are Bulgarians in Humboldt County, I don’t know.”
The upshot, he says, is that Humboldt’s so-called “mom and pop” marijuana grows are being pushed out at a rapid rate. Big-time producers have an abundance of administrative resources, finance and infrastructure that “cottage” growers cannot match.
This development compounds Humboldt’s murder and crime rates, Downey lamented, making public safety, law enforcement and crime prevention a near-Herculean task, adding more and more responsibilities to officer workloads.
Burgeoning opiate overdoses have compelled the Arcata Police Department to equip its officers with Naloxone (Narcan) to reign in fatalities. A county initiative, it requires extra hours of training and adds weight to and diversions away from the daily beat (Union, June 15). Cops serve as medical personnel as well as law enforcement officers.
Additional police responsibilities and training are in store statewide if California voters adopt Proposition 64, the recreational marijuana legalization measure on the November ballot.
Dallas Police Chief David Brown drew a chorus of agreement last when he uttered a truth that had been casually overlooked until five of the city’s officers were shot to death by a sniper, some in the back.
“We’re asking cops to do too much in this country,” Brown declared at a press briefing. “Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cop handle it. Not enough drug addiction funding, let’s give it to the cops. You know, schools fail, give it to the cops. Seventy percent of the African-American community is being raised by single women. Let’s give it to the cops to solve that as well. That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all of those [social and family breakdown] problems.”
In Humboldt, the sheriff makes plain the intensity and the scale of the threat which embattles county law enforcement day after day, year-in, year-out, in a long twilight struggle. The grip and scope of the black market, and the multitude of arrests reported piecemeal in the press, convince him that legalization will change little.
As if the triple threat of marijuana, meth and opiates was not bad enough, the county is the scene of a nationwide proliferation of synthetic drugs aggressively marketed to children and teens, including K2, Spice (both sold locally) and a host of others like Blue Magic, California Dreams and Diablo (Union, also June 15).
“Those who are coming from outside the county are [embarked] on another Gold Rush,” Downey said, a rapacious exploitation of the society, the economy and the environment that is unstoppable.
In his words, “They’re coming here to make their millions and then they’ll get out. They have no buy-in to the county and they don’t care what they leave in their wake. As in the Gold Rush days, they say ‘This is my claim and I’m going to protect it’.”