I love my job.
Every time I leave San Francisco for Mendocino like I did the other day, whether it’s for an interview like I had arranged or for snooping and sleuthing for an upcoming story, I get giddy. It brings out the Tom Sawyer in me.
That’s me going to Mendo. Being up there’s this sense of walking free and barefoot, even when I have to wear my tight-ass business Doc Martens.
Also, after Cloverdale going north on 101, I like to look up. When I see my first stage-diving hawk or eagle, I know I’m home.
But the other day, there were no hawks or eagles in the air. Only helicopters. Many, many helicopters. More helicopters than in L.A., on a fast news night.
Black helicopters patrolled like nosey crop-dusters or eager teenagers on Toro lawnmowers doing summer work. Going East-West in straight lines and then banking and returning to the next row over. Spotting. Observing. Looking. Inspecting.
With only one goal on the taxpayer-supported to-do list: Try to find marijuana.
I stopped for gas in Ukiah a little before 8 a.m. At the station, strapping young men like trim bodybuilders in green shorts, green khaki short-sleeved shirts with big ol’ guns, 357s or some other large-mouth pistols holstered to their sides, joked and cajoled with each other as they take hits off their Slurpees and Red Bells.
A few grab coffees, smiling, making their way back to their Forest Ranger jeeps. They remind me more of Everglade bush pilots than cops. They seem too wholesome to be police.
They’re more like jocks on a road trip, piling out of a car ready and cocked, waiting for something to happen, then after a pit stop and a look around, it’s back to the two-lane blacktop.
They seem innocent enough.
But then you see they’re everywhere. There are cops catching breakfast in the restaurants and coming out of 20-room motels along the frontage roads. Official cars with patrol lights are suddenly in front of you as the pickup you were behind makes a left. Chrome-plated Hummers close you in from behind.
Before I hit the panic button, I realize I’ve entered a convoy of five or six cars and trucks on their way to somewhere.
And still, there’s more helicopters buzzing overhead.
Welcome to Operation Full-Court Press.
Four hundred agents have invaded the Emerald Triangle for at least a month or so. At first they were doing a little surgical striking north and then south and then just to confuse us, somewhere in the middle.
As of this writing, it looks like they’re starting around Covelo and going north. Yesterday it was reported on radio station KMUD that there were roadblocks on 162 West with DEA and INS vehicles prominent. Seventy-seven people have been arrested. About 305,000 plants have been “confiscated.”
The official statement is they are going after the growers who illegally raise marijuana in our national forest. They will leave the permitted growers who are following Mendocino’s 9.31 alone. All of us agree this is a good thing.
The other major counties like Trinity and Humboldt are adopting the same policy of leaving the local growers who are quietly doing their own thing, while going after the more transient growers.
But everyone knows they’re going after the Mexicans in the mountainous country.
From what is being gossiped about, there’s some heavy profiling going on in Norte California. All press releases make it clear that this “concerted effort” between multiple governmental law enforcement agencies has the main objective of going after only organized growers with their massive outdoor industrial grows who have been shooting at and scaring the straights who have the bad luck to go too deep into the woods.
Again, the locals agree this is a good thing. Plus, the price of marijuana should go up.
Even so, some of the locals are getting very nervous and stressed with the helicopters strafing the compound, looking for illegal grows. The best the legitimate grower can do is pain a 4×8 sheet of plywood with his or her permit numbers, so when Sky King’s looking for the bad guys, they leave Ma and Pa Kush alone.
This still doesn’t satisfy some of the local fears.
One grower complained of paying the $85 per permit and still having to live under this scrutiny as the climate changes concerning the growing of marijuana.
“I went to the Sheriff’s Office and paid my money for permits, which is kinda like taxes and kinda like blood money,” my bandana-wearing source said. “But I did it because that’s what needs to happen on our side for change to occur.
“Now the Feds are here,” he said. “It feels like they’re taking over the town.”
Do you worry that the Feds will go to the Sheriff’s Office to get a list of growers who have come forward?
“No, Sheriff Allman told us that wouldn’t happen,” the grower assured me.
“Right now, the Sheriff is stuck between us and that very hard rock called the Feds,” he said. “The Sheriff lives here. The Feds are like the growers they’re trying to catch. They’ll be here for a month or two, then leave. It is Sheriff Allman that is left to keep the peace. And because the Feds don’t understand the culture up here… Let’s just say things are going to be tense before they’re better.”
Another legitimate grower chalked up the whole operation — the Feds, the tension — to the cost of doing business in Mendo.
A gentleman in his 60s with a silver ponytail wrapped in leather laughed at the other locals who were getting upset with the flyovers and the heavy police presence.
“It’s the cost of doing business up here,” he said. “There’s nothing illegal about hating marijuana. Some cops and most of the Feds hate marijuana. But you’ll see the pendulum swings wildly one way and then slowly, it starts to swing to the other side. That is the way it is up here.”
You don’t seem too worried.
“Today it’s the Feds. Come the middle of September, beginning of October, the rip-offs come. When it starts getting close to harvest… time to start sleeping in my grow, locked and loaded.”
You’re pretty serious when it comes to guns and intruders?
“We don’t give warning shots up here. We don’t give the courtesy over-the-head warning.”
“Naw, that’s the way it was maybe five years ago, maybe even three,” the old coot continued. “See, that’s what the Feds don’t understand. If I have someone trying to steal my crop, now, I call 9-1-1. I call the cops. It wasn’t that long ago that we shot to kill. See, stealing is stealing, to us and the cops.
“Last year in Laytonville, a couple of kids — that’s who most of your unsophisticated robbers are, kids through about 24, y’know, stupid kids trying to get rich quick. These kids try to rob a Mom and Pop. A small local garden with white picket fence at the end of someone’s road.
“Well they come into these folks’ living room with a pellet gun… I can’t really remember, maybe it was as big as a .22. One kid shoots the husband in the leg with his toy gun while the wife grabs the Dirty Harry and blows the kid away in her living room with a .357. Cops came and left just as quick, saying it was justified.”
It seems better for the community to not have the frontier justice kind of retribution that you’ve had up here for the past half century.
“That’s what the Feds don’t get,” the veteran grower said. “This isn’t Iowa. This isn’t Virginia. It’s Mendo. We’re changing. We’re trying to become more law-abiding citizens. I don’t know what they have against us.”
Sitting in hand-carved wooden chairs in the hot sun in front of his cabin, we listen to the clamoring birds in the trees and the rotor blades slicing the air as helicopters migrate above us.
“But it’s like Buddha says, this too shall pass.” The old man’s eyes traced the copters as they fly out of sight over the mountains as they go north to their next observational gig.