ARCATA, Calif. — Happily isolated on California’s remote Humboldt County coast, Arcata has long made room in its heart for marijuana, whether grown illegally in the back woods by refugees of the Summer of Love, or legally in the back rooms of homes by medical pot patients.
But the mellow days are coming to an end. Even Arcata residents who support legalization of marijuana have become fed up with high-volume indoor growing operations that take over much-needed housing and take advantage of the state’s loosely written medical marijuana law.
The neighbors of these clandestine pot farms — operated behind curtains, shutters and alarm systems — complain of the skunk-like stink of cannabis, fire hazards, rising rents, vicious guard dogs, caches of guns, illegal pesticides, roadside dumping of unwanted growing gear, and late-night visits from shady characters.
Rather than throw more cops at the problem, the City Council is fighting back in a way befitting this liberal outpost that would rather be known for its pioneering community forest and sewage treatment marsh than marijuana.
Measure I on next week’s ballot would impose a 45 percent electricity tax on households — with medical and other exceptions — that use three times the amount of power a typical family home does. The measure takes aim at commercial growers who maximize production by packing homes full of high intensity lights and irrigation systems that gobble electricity and sometimes cause fires from overloaded circuits.
“Our hope is to drive the large-scale growing operations out of town,” said Shane Brinton, a city councilman and vice mayor who has pushed the novel idea.
“I don’t view it as anti-marijuana,” said Brinton. “It’s a land-use issue, a public safety issue, and environmental issue as well.”
If it passes, it would be the first measure of its kind in the nation aimed at marijuana growers, said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
The amount of electricity that would subject a resident to the tax amounts to a $700 per month bill, and is equivalent to the power used by a big chain drug store. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. reports that 633 homes — one in 15 — are using that much juice, indicating they are raising pot rather than families.
If that many growers decide to absorb the tax instead of getting out of town, the tax would generate $1.2 million, or nearly 4 percent of the city’s $31.7 million budget.
Located on the rainy coast 280 miles north of San Francisco, Arcata is a city of 17,000 that dates to the days when mule trains carried goods from the shipping port to the Gold Rush Country. The lumber and fishing industry here have fallen on hard times, but Humboldt State University is a foundation of the local economy, with contributions from niche manufacturers of gourmet cookies, kayaking gear and goat cheese.
Since the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s, marijuana has been creeping into the culture and economy, and now permeates it, said Tony Silvaggio, a Humboldt State sociologist and a founder of the Humboldt Institute of Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research.
“This is the center of marijuana culture in the universe,” he said. “One of the reasons is we have a very tolerant attitude toward marijuana. Word gets around, and people come here with the sole purpose to grow marijuana indoors ...”
Unlike some other states’ medical marijuana laws, California’s Compassionate Use Act of 1996 sets no limits on plants or processed marijuana, does not prohibit the sale of excess medical marijuana to other patients or dispensaries, does not require patients or growers to register, and does not lay out which diseases or conditions can be treated with marijuana. When growers get busted, they often claim they are growing for patients.
Based on interviews with hundreds of growers, Silvaggio said even medical marijuana growers usually sell their extra, so the two markets cannot be separated. “Part of the problem with the marijuana economy is it is unregulatable,” he said.
Several years ago, people here began realizing that whole blocks of houses had been taken over by illegal growers, said Kevin Hoover, editor of the irreverent weekly newspaper The Arcata Eye.
“We came to realize we weren’t really dealing with hippies and the Zig Zag man. It was this industry,” said Hoover. “More than the dangers, it was this loss of neighborhood community. You can’t have your neighbor take in the paper when you’re on vacation. You can’t borrow a cup of sugar.”
To get their neighborhoods back, more and more people are informing on their neighbors, said Police Chief Tom Chapman.
Police are making progress, but still hardly making a dent.
In 2010 Arcata police served search warrants on six houses and in 2011 that rose to 14. So far this year, police investigated 48 houses, and got warrants to search 17. But only nine produced enough evidence for criminal prosecution. Police had to buy two huge shipping containers to haul off growing equipment.
Driving an unmarked SUV with his guitar in the back seat — he plays in a classic rock band — Chapman points out house after house. One bust produced 750 plants and 13 pounds of processed marijuana. Another was a half block from a grassy playground where kids and dogs romped.
“This is Small Town USA,” he said. “The people who live here are a bunch of working folks, salt of the earth, people just trying to get by.”
A typical grower, the chief said, is a 20- or 30-something from outside the area, who has moved into a house with an absentee landlord. They pay their rent on time with cash that stinks of marijuana.
“Most of the landlords claim ignorance,” he said.
Marnin Robbins has seen a half-dozen houses in his neighborhood raided by police.
“I don’t have a problem with marijuana,” he said. “But I do have a problem with people turning their houses into factories and bringing a violent element into our neighborhood.”
Measure I has no organized opposition. But Mark Sailors, who drives a pedal cab downtown and grows medical marijuana for himself, his wife and his mother, has long felt city attempts to control medicinal cannabis are hypocritical.
“This is just another in a long line of what I call Arcata’s medical marijuana Jim Crow laws,” Sailors said. “They pay a lot of lip service to being pro-Compassionate Use Act. But all their actions are trying to limit people and discourage the use” of medical marijuana.