The Story Begins

December, 2015


Dr. Loon returns after a five-year break. This is the first of several excerpts from The Price of a Life: Shells, Gold, Carbon Notes and Weed in the Humboldt Bay / Six Rivers Region.

My story begins several decades ago, with a question: How shall we live? The institutions that were supposed to help with the answers—family, school, community—had failed a generation. They were told: Duck and cover. Cut your hair, get a job. Step forward when your number’s called. So they left all that, and came up with the best answers they could, often in remote places like Humboldt County. Then they had a hundred more questions, foremost among them: What are we going to use for money?  No one imagined that the answer might be a plant.

Four economies have regulated human affairs in this region, represented by shells, gold dollars, carbon notes, and now weed. Each has a story to tell. Each has a lesson for an uncertain future. Because now, in addition to resource depletion and rural depression—the failure of carbon economics—we face the prospect of even greater uncertainty in everything from the climate to global finance. And now, with that greater urgency, we have to ask again, How shall we live? Our answer, including what we use for money, will have to see us through the changes that lie ahead.

They arrived in the late 60’s and early 70’s. They were ridiculed and feared, called long-hairs, hippies, freaks, environmentalists. Their principal offense was bringing to the rural counties of northern California an alternative set of values. And a plant that appeared to represent those values: Marijuana. Mary Jane. Pot. Boo. Muggles. Weed. It was like their flag. Then it was like their money. That’s when law enforcement got serious.

The “war on drugs” had been used for decades to keep certain segments of the population in their place. The fact that these newcomers were mostly young white people, children of the middle class—some of them were even from here—didn’t seem to trouble the authorities. The methods were the same: guns, imprisonment, fines, and the usual forms of harassment—depriving you, if not of your life and liberty, of your driver’s license, your car, your livelihood, your home if you have one, your vote, even the custody of your children. The Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP) was only the most notorious of these efforts, and the most overtly military in its costumes and methods. But the soldiers of the pulp economy also arrived as social workers and building inspectors, sometimes in the uniforms of BLM, USFS, or in the plain clothes of more sinister government agencies. The battles were over housing and permits, land use and forests—and always about the cultivation, sale, and use of marijuana—but the war itself was about values.

Instead of weakening it, this assault made the weed economy stronger. Forced to defend itself, it found ways to define itself through resistance. Not all of its actions were successful or wise. The new people struggled to dissociate themselves from the carbon dollar, but they’d grown up on the pulp fictions of pulp culture and sometimes embraced things as consumers. They believed technology would redeem them, shopped the Whole Earth Catalog, bought anything with the word “organic” on it, like children in a new green supermarket.

But the weed economy was also kindred to the shell exchange, andshell exchange, and recognized it as the ancestor of its own valuations. It honored the great cycles, the seasons, and it worked and prayed for the return of the salmon. It said that wealth comes from the Earth, and that we belong to it, not the other way around. Resistance required that they act on these beliefs, by practicing reciprocity, by sharing, and by caring for people and places.

Besides creating new social forms, this “alternative” community developed effective technologies for low-impact living, for resisting further damage to forests and rivers, and for restoring what was left. The newly developing social and environmental ethic represented a way of giving back, and of fighting back, protecting what remained. It was a rural culture based on life, on growing things—not just marijuana.

The weed economy was here before anybody thought to grow it for money. At the end of the seventies and into the eighties, as law enforcement escalated the economic lifestyle wars into a full-scale assault, their efforts instead drove up prices, created a brand, and opened a market that made it possible for the weed economy to more firmly establish itself. Weed money financed a resistance that ended the helicopter and gun show, and reduced at least a fraction of the prohibition industry’s power and arrogance. Beyond resistance, through legal battles and direct action, the weed economy also waged a counter-offensive against the forces that were heedlessly turning trees into money and rivers into mud.

The marijuana wars and the forest wars were just different fronts in a struggle that was essentially cultural and economic. Now that the crusade against marijuana is winding down, it may be that the more serious threat to the weed economy—the real war—is just beginning.

Click here to view or download The Price of a Life.

The book will be printed locally, funded by fifty $50 pledges which will get you a signed copy and make several more copies available at cost through local bookstores, clinics, and grow shops. Address questions, comments, pledges to drloon4@gmail.com.