In the rural town of Hayfork, California, marijuana has become a defining element. The presence of marijuana cultivation is so prevalent that gardens are visible from most roads, it is a large source of employment, and the reality of black market income is culturally commonplace. Here, the impacts of marijuana are amplified by the realities of rural living. The critical components of isolation, lack of resources, and poverty have created the space for marijuana to become a major economic, political, and social driver.
Hayfork is located in Northern California in the mountains of Trinity County. It is unusual and stunningly beautiful—an insular place where the social fabric is complexly interwoven and highly integrated, and where the isolation of mountain living necessitates and breeds a culture of self-sufficiency and independence.
Spanning 3,208 square miles, Trinity County is dominated by US Forest Service land that occupies 80% of the territory within its borders. The population logs in at just over 13,000. The communities are small, isolated, and sprinkled through the vast stretch of forest like a constellation.
For law enforcement, the geographical realities of this rural county, combined with a severe lack of funding, limit their ability to manage marijuana farming, creating a mood and reality of relative lawlessness. The Sheriff’s department currently operates with 1-4 deputies serving the county at any given time. The travel time between communities is anywhere between 40 minutes to two hours. This means response time for law enforcement can be up to two hours depending on where you are. Depending on circumstances, law enforcement may not have the capacity to come at all.
Hayfork has endured a high rate of poverty for decades. As of the most recent census, the estimated population is 2,480. A 2015 survey of existing jobs offered by employers in Hayfork counted a total of just 424. Of these, only 216 were full-time, with 108 part time jobs, and another 100 seasonal jobs. Of the 216 full-time jobs, 137 were retail or service industry jobs that typically pay minimum wage or close, and are unlikely to offer healthcare benefits.
Employment outside retail includes only a handful of options such as the school district, the US Forest Service, and the Watershed Center, or requires at least a 40 minute commute to towns outside the valley. Self-employment alternatives typically consist of odd jobs such as agriculture, construction and landscaping, and work tied to logging such as tree falling and firewood sales. These self-employment options are often seasonal and don’t offer full-time work, and generally don’t provide an income that will lift someone out of poverty. As of 2013, 23.7% of the population lives below the poverty line.
With the passing of Proposition 215 in 1996, medical marijuana was legalized in California, and the legal repercussions of producing, selling, and using marijuana were reduced. This ushered in an era of softened risk for those who sought to grow for medicinal use and for those who were growing and selling on the black market. Throughout California participation in the marijuana industry began to rise, and has been steadily increasing since.
During this time, Hayfork was suffering from an economic depression following the close of its only remaining sawmill, a devastating turn that caused 180 people to lose their jobs, and cemented the close of an industry that had financially supported the town for decades. In an environment of reduced legal risk and limited job options, more and more locals began growing and selling marijuana. At the same time, people began traveling into the mountains of Trinity County seeking a way to earmark a portion of weed money. Word about Hayfork began to travel through the marijuana food chain. It eventually earned a reputation as a place that offered inexpensive raw land with good growing conditions and greater freedom for the outlaw. Gradually, an increasing number of people began arriving in Hayfork, purchasing land and setting up marijuana farms. The marijuana growing population got bigger, but the capacity of law enforcement stayed the same. In effect, the more people who were growing weed, the safer it became.
Marijuana has flowed into this vacuum of isolation, poverty and lawlessness. In a town with a population of 2,480, the Sheriff’s department estimates that there are currently 2000 individual marijuana grows in Hayfork, and at least another 500 in its residential subdivision, Trinity Pines. The industry is booming, bringing with it a complex variety of benefits and drawbacks that are altering the trajectory of the town and shaping it’s future.
While top down policy has been slowly brewing for decades, Hayfork residents are already living another reality shaped from the bottom up. As California continues to sort out the terms of Marijuana legislation and how it can function in it’s economy, Hayfork is living it out in exaggerated terms. All this policy is borne out in the community, where people are living their lives inside this evolving industry. With the regulatory mood tipping towards a future of legalization, the outcome of legislation could bring drastic changes, leaving the community in uncharted territory.