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How the Emerald Triangle Became America’s Cannabis Epicenter

September 26, 2017
This three-part series by wine and cannabis writer Tina Caputo explores the past, present, and future of the Emerald Triangle, looking specifically at factors that have made the area a venerable growing region; current efforts to divide the region into cannabis appellations; and questions of whether the region can maintain its preeminence as adult-use legalization hits California in 2018.

Ask any cannabis enthusiast today where America’s best buds originate, and the Emerald Triangle will invariably top the list. In fact, the Triangle—a triumvirate including Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity counties—grows some of the best cannabis in the world, and has for decades.

The region’s rise wasn’t the result of great marketing or even intention; it took a serendipitous confluence of hippie fatigue, cannabis-friendly topography, and prohibition-inspired creativity—not to mention 40 years of growing great pot—to earn the Emerald Triangle a reputation as the nation’s cannabis capital. Now, with prohibition falling away and adult-use legalization set to hit the Golden State in 2018, many are wondering: What will it take for the Emerald Triangle to preserve that reputation?

Origins of the Emerald Triangle

Marijuana Appellation Growing Regions in the Emerald Triangle | Leafly

(Courtesy of Scott Buttfield/Humboldt Legends)

It all began in the 1960s and 70s with the back-to-the-land movement.

It all began in the 1960s and 70s with the “back-to-the-land” movement, when thousands of young people, disillusioned with mainstream society and disheartened by the Vietnam War, moved to the countryside in search of sustainable living. Northern Californians who went “up the country” chose the region now known as the Emerald Triangle for its beautifully remote location a few hours north of San Francisco.

The settlers didn’t initially view the area as an ideal place to grow pot, but they soon realized that its rugged terrain and redwood forests provided the perfect cover for illicit farming.

“The first folks to move there were part of a group called the Diggers, community activists and organizers from Haight-Ashbury,” says Martin A. Lee, director of Project CBD and author of the book Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana. The group had a passionate interest in ecological restoration, and sought to continue its efforts in the wilds of Northern California.

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“When they moved to the countryside they quickly encountered the hard realities of earning a living,” Lee says, “and it became easy to grow a little weed on the side. It was really a matter of augmenting what they were already doing to make ends meet. A lot of the impetus was to support their ecological activism.”

It didn’t take long for their side hustle to become a significant source of income. The surrounding area offered a relatively easy place to grow cannabis, and its nooks and crannies were difficult for law enforcement to access. It was also fairly close to the Bay Area’s pot-loving population, and word of mouth helped spread knowledge of the Emerald Triangle’s primo products.

Ties to Off-the-Grid Living

Marijuana Appellation Growing Regions in the Emerald Triangle | Leafly

(Courtesy of Real Goods)

“Part of what made the Emerald Triangle a crucible for the cannabis industry was its proximity to the frontier of the off-the-grid rural environment,” says veteran cannabis grower Scott Davies, owner of Humboldt’s Winterbourne Farms and co-founder of Humboldt Legends. “The industry couldn’t have gotten where it is today, out of sight, in a less-remote place.” Such advancements as the availability of solar power, introduced to the region by back-to-the-lander John Schaeffer, set the stage for the industry’s success. Schaeffer moved to Mendocino County in 1972 to live on a commune with 20 like-minded environmentalists, and soon recognized the need for a one-stop shop where hippies could buy off-the-grid living supplies. He opened the Real Goods store in Willits in 1978.

The Emerald Triangle became a crucible ... The industry couldn’t have gotten where it is today in a less-remote place.
Scott Davies, co-founder, Humboldt Legends

Along with drip irrigation systems and organic fertilizers, Real Goods sold the first solar panels available in the United States. When used to charge 12-volt batteries, the panels allowed cannabis farmers—the only ones who could afford to buy the expensive systems—to have electricity out in the woods.

“In 1975 or 76, just before I started the store, people were just beginning to grow marijuana,” recalls Schaeffer, who is also the founder of the Solar Living Center. “It was totally secretive at the time—people hardly even wanted to tell their best friends they were doing it. We started to see helicopters flying over the area and people were very paranoid about getting caught and spending years in prison.” Logging was the region’s main industry at the time, and the local population was not cannabis-friendly.

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“People were very conservative,” Schaeffer says. “It was just logging trucks, apples and pears, and good ol’ boys and girls.” When a man from Schaeffer’s commune decided to run for local office, his political opponent created yard signs that read, “Don’t Let Anderson Valley Go to Pot.”

The early to mid-90s ... that's when outsiders started coming in.
John Schaeffer, owner, Real Goods

Despite local hostilities, the cannabis industry continued to expand. “In the early 80s we started hearing about 1,000-plant gardens and people bringing in ‘trimmigrants’ from the outside world to work on the farms,” Schaeffer says. The Emerald Triangle’s timber industry began to collapse around the same time, which slowly began helping to change locals’ attitudes about the cannabis business. Many who had opposed the region’s pot culture suddenly found themselves in need of work, and turned to cannabis growing as a lucrative alternative. It was no longer the hippies versus the rednecks.

Even so, cannabis didn’t really become big business until the early to mid-90s, Schaeffer says. “That’s when outsiders started coming in.”

The Impact of Cannabis Prohibition—and Repeal

Marijuana Appellation Growing Regions in the Emerald Triangle | Leafly

(Courtesy of Scott Buttfield/Humboldt Legends)

Lee believes that rather than hindering the cannabis industry’s development, prohibition helped it succeed. “Ironically, I think it helped magnify the growth of the whole thing,” he says. “Prohibition was a catalyst for a lot of innovation on the part of the growers, because they had to be very creative to avoid law enforcement.”

Today the Emerald Triangle supports more than 20,000 cannabis growers, by conservative estimate, and is known around the world as America’s cannabis epicenter. A study has never been conducted to measure pot’s economic importance in the region, but local growers’ organizations confirm that cannabis is—by far—the tri-county area’s most important industry.

Today the Emerald Triangle supports more than 20,000 cannabis growers—by conservative estimate.

“Cannabis growing is completely out in the open now,” Schaeffer says. “People come into the store and say, ‘I need a solar system for my trimming crew. How many lights should I get?’ Before, no one would ever let on what they were doing. Now you’ve got ‘The Cannabis Hour’ on the local radio station.”

Even Schaeffer has gotten into the business, at least peripherally; in 2015 Emerald Pharms, a solar-powered medical dispensary, opened in Hopland right next to the Real Goods store and the Solar Living Center, with Schaeffer as its landlord. “Sometimes I see people walking out with bags from the dispensary and lighting up in the parking lot,” he says. “It’s crazy.”

California’s legalization of adult-use cannabis will bring about a new phase of transformation for the Emerald Triangle: On January 1, 2018, the region’s growers will finally be able to step into the light and talk about the factors that make the Emerald Triangle arguably the best cannabis region in the world. (Whether all growers will choose to do so is another story.)

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When the discussion begins, growers in Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity counties will have an important advantage. “What the Emerald Triangle has going for it is a very significant history,” Lee says. “The farmers in this region have a lot of experience and a lot of know-how. They have a name that means something.”

How to harness that advantage? The urgency of addressing that question is increasing as 2018 nears. Many key players believe the answer centers around the potential of establishing cannabis growing regions, or appellations, for cannabis, similar to the way in which wines from Sonoma and Napa Valley may be legally labeled and marketed as such. In the next article, we explore the challenges and opportunities associated with such a project.

Part Two of this series details efforts to divide California’s cannabis country into distinctive growing regions known as appellations.

Tina Caputo's Bio Image

Tina Caputo

Tina Caputo has covered the North American wine industry for 15 years, most recently as editor-in-chief of Vineyard & Winery Management magazine. She writes about wine, beer, food, and cannabis for a variety of publications, including Spirited, Visit California, and Kitchen Toke, and she hosts a podcast called Winemakers Drinking Beer.

View Tina Caputo's articles

3 part series

  • moneyang

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  • Very well researched and written!

  • Wonderful article.
    I’m promoting the Portugal drug decriminalization mechanism in my run for Minnesota Governor 2018.
    My plans call for Minnesota to be the medicinal oil capitol of the world.

    • FLW

      Don’t forget hallucinogens. maps.org

  • Silverado

    The past is always portrayed as “the good ol days”. But compared to their neighbors, Oregon and Nevada, they’ve kind of…stumbled in the legalization department these past few years. So just what IS taking (or took) them so long? That would be a more interesting (and timely) article imo being from another state that also beat them to legalization, Washington state.

  • BenSamizdat

    Let me retell this story in context of actual history. Yes, there were ganja growers in the early 60s in northern Cali. But the Seed Banks were down in San Fran, as were the Cannabis Cups. What happened was this: Dave Stewart was a young protege working for the Seed Bank of California. They were busy making all of these juicy hybrids. Dave rises up to run the Seed Bank, and sometime after this, the Seed Bank gets busted by the Federales. All of the entire organization gets busted at once. Dave sends the handful of apprentices who were still free north, into what we call today the Mendo Triangle, and they have thousands of seeds of different hybrids. THIS BEGAN THE EMERALD TRIANGLE AS WE KNOW IT TODAY. We know Dave by another name: “Sam the Skunkman”, because “Sam” obtained a skunky strain from the Modoc Indians of Southern Oregon (who obtained it from their relatives in Kentucky) and then he hybridized it with a few things to make it even better. Sam calls this “Skunk #1”. When Sam gets out of the slammer, he takes his entire stock and flees to Amsterdam and throws himself at the mercy of Neville Schoenmaker – the first “King of Cannabis”. Neville cannot sell Sam’s stuff because he only has a grant from the Guvment to seek out the pure strains and save them from the Hybridization projects of people like Sam. He tells Sam that since the Modoc Skunk had undergone 4 transitions, his strain should be called “Skunk #4” but Sam has already made #1 famous, and so he keeps the Brand. It takes a few years for Neville to convince the Netherlands to allow the sale of Hybrid strains, after which the “Seed Bank of Holland” is created by Neville who puts Sam in charge of selling his own strains once again. Sam, Neville, Arjan Roskam, Shantibaba, Ben Dronkers and other legends begin making even more hybrids, and through Sam’s connections, these make their way to the Emerald Triangle for further research in the super secret Cannabis College that is still there (see Jorge’s videos on the Garden of the Giants etc). This research results in the adaptation of some strains to outdoor growing, and the Triangle takes off to the Moon, into the stuff of legends. There, I managed to tell a story that should take up an entire book in a single capsule HIGH FIVING MYSELF!!

  • David Life-maestro Davidlife

    …hi Tina….i leave in Tbilisi city, Georgia….can i buy some marijuana….i smoke 40 years….please….Tina….in georgia Your name is Tinatin….David with Love…..

  • Habitat Forever

    What Tina doesn’t mention is the environmental impact of the industry on the forest habitat, when grows stopped hiding under the forest canopy. Growing in Humboldt’s forest habitat is as damaging as growing in our National Forests. Countless animals are killed when they clear-cut and bulldoze the forest to make room for their grow. Then, all of these clear-cuts in the forest diminish food resources and degrade the home ranges of the remaining forest animals, leading to smaller populations. That is the result, even if their practices are organic.

    As to the experience of Humboldt growers, most of them moved here recently, during the green rush, which started about a decade ago. Most of Humboldt’s growers have little experience or expertise.

  • JohnPaul

    Be part of history and grow your own. Grow for your own needs.

    I grow the best indoor cannabis in the world because I pay attention to what I’m doing and I grow it right.

    Never under or over water.

    Never under or over fertilize.

    Grow from Seed.

    Keep your grow room clean

    Use a high quality potting soil.

    Use a high quality complete fertilizer

    with micro nutrients.

    Bottom water if you can.

    Add microbes to your plain or fertilizer water.

    Temps 77- 78F 24/7 ~ Humidity 45-55 %

    Fresh air intake. Gentle air circulation. 24/7.

    Pay attention to your plants and their environment.

  • I got to Briceland about a year before the Diggers. I got to know Peter Coyote quite well. There were growers in the area before the Diggers arrived. And yes. You had to keep secrets and watch (listen) for helicopters. The Redway police were not too hippie friendly.

  • Patty Fletcher

    I live in Tennessee, and fear we will be the last to join in legalization. I don’t just use for fun, although it sure helps a bad day get better. I also use for medical reasons, and being totally blind makes it hard to find the right connections, and stay out of the law’s way. So far during all the years of use, I have been able to avoid trouble. I find all this quite interesting, and wish you great success.

  • Mr Kirk

    free burning British Columbia

  • Ann Brigit Waters

    Good story – and – are you sure that John Schaeffer created the solar industry in Mendocino county?
    Despite actual history as many remember it – that has become the story lately, and it is now becoming biblical. Too bad, as that is now how we are hearing it. Truth – John was learning from some others, who also deserve credit. Steve Troy & Open Circle of Garberville was John’s mentor & then became his partner and helped John open the first Real Goods in Willits. People were also getting panels from Alternative Energy and Dave Katz in Garberville. Ask around. Let’s not deify anyone, it took a village, and some people don’t like each other enough to tell the whole story. Solar history is important, let’s get it right.