She denies it when I ask her. But no matter her response, fate’s commanding hand indisputably guided journalist Emily Brady deep into the redwoods north of San Francisco, up dirt paths and winding roads, into the Napa Valley of marijuana: Humboldt: Life on America’s Marijuana Frontier.
Born and raised in Northern California, mere miles south of Humboldt, Brady admits in the author’s note that at age 14 she witnessed a raid on her friend’s home and the father being arrested by the FBI for growing marijuana. She recalls the threat that growers, sellers and smokers faced and the “sweet heady scent of marijuana” at the counterculture events her parents attended.
Brady grew up, went to Columbia University, majored in journalism and went on to write for the New York Times, Time and other prestigious media outlets.
In 2010, she moved back to the San Francisco area. She was in-between lives and had no daily job to occupy her time. That was when fate stepped in.
“When I came back to visit over the course of a few years, I noticed these drastic changes in the industry,” Brady reflects about the pot industry upon her return to California. “It used to be very hidden and it was becoming very commercialized.”
Brady initially intended to write a book about the legalization of marijuana in California, but everything changed after she traveled to a small town in the middle of the world’s largest population of 350 foot-tall, old-growth redwood trees named Humboldt.
Up to that point, the legalization of cannabis was more hippie pipe-dream than anything. Medicalization was apparently the accepted middle ground to the brewing national debate. If any place were to legalize, California would set the precedent.
Brady arrived at an ideal time. Humboldt was hosting a town meeting about the implications of legal weed. The city’s economy is sustained by marijuana; crops are grown amongst the wilderness and sold to friends, neighbors and strangers alike.
Deals are done in cash – leading to rip-offs and homicide – and each grower, each family has an unspoken vow of secrecy. To ask about one’s occupation is taboo because it is assumed that most have a hand in the cookie jar.
A swarm of journalists left after the town held the legalization meeting. Brady stayed. She showed her face around town, earned their trust and made friends with the locals.
Although she earned their trust, many of the town’s citizens requested that their identities remain unknown but still wanted their story, Humboldt’s history, to be heard.
“It is still a federal felony,” Brady explains about the legality of Humboldt’s economy. “Why would someone talk about their felony with a stranger? I realized pretty quickly that I needed to stick around to show that I meant business. It’s a small town, a small community. Once I became known, I made friends and people began to trust me.”
She realized that no one character could accurately depict Humboldt and began scouting for four archetypes. After speaking with nearly the entire town, the four characters she desired managed to find her: the hippie idealist from the back-to-the-land movement; the young, business-minded grower to whom money matters most; the local law enforcement, which knows about the crimes but must pick their battles; and the person born into a world of secrecy who saw the truth and got out.
“I don’t feel that you can write about that country without writing about what it’s like to grow up ‘born criminal,’ as one of them I met described it,” Brady says.
When she found each character, she knew. Each person poured their story out to her and volunteered their insight.
“I think I was sort of meant to write about them because they all wanted to share their story and it was all a smaller part to the whole,” she says.
Brady spent a year following these four characters and was struck by their nuanced complexities that she depicts with faultless detail. One feels almost at home while reading Brady’s depiction of a land covered in giants, caked between mountains and ocean and peopled with a culture unfamiliar to city-dwellers. Each person’s farm lies down a rough, dirt road, off the electrical grid and without indoor plumbing. The town’s people grow their own vegetables and pride themselves on their self-sufficiency.
Although at times Brady found herself lost and in tears at the juncture of two unmarked roads, completely identical to the unfamiliar eye and running from a compostable toilet that is stirred (or churned, if you will) instead of flushed, she earned her way into the trust of this insular pot town.
“I was just like that classic city slicker,” she says.
It was only then that the truth was vivid. This is a family town; a town that as a reader I feel one could easily fall in love with (Brady admits she did, too). Nice, friendly, normal people live here; they just happen to grow pot. There’s a culture clash between the old, minimalist hippies and the young pot farmers in it for massive amounts of cash – often buried in the yard.
Shockingly, a number of the townsfolk are against legalization for fear of disrupting their vibrant cash economy. Others have dreams of Humboldt being the Napa Valley of OG Kush. Marijuanaries would attract tourists and offer pot samplings. It would be the full winery experience, but with weed.
And now that the book is set to release, Colorado and Washington State have passed legalization legislation and California remains in a broken medical marijuana system. Humboldt puts a face to the plant and inspires one to ask the lingering questions about an industry creeping toward legitimacy.
“Is it worth the price that we pay as a nation?” Brady asks. “We spend a lot of money on it. A lot of people get locked up for it. Nobody has ever died from using it. I’d like to gently inform people about marijuana and the question of why it’s legal or illegal.”
Ian Floyd is a journalism major at the University of Texas at Austin and the features intern at Kirkus Reviews.