By Gioia Diliberto
May 10, 1982 12:00 PM

Two hundred miles north of San Francisco, nestled below snow-fringed, redwood-studded hills, lies a remote valley. Here, in the town of Garberville, the West is still wild and the sheriff is on the other side of the mountains. Every night outside the Branding Iron saloon, the curb is lined with four-wheel-drive pickups. Their owners, 1982-vintage cowboys, shoot pool inside beneath a Tiffany-style lamp, drink beer, and sway to reggae music. When they drink too much and begin to fight, Rita, the plump proprietress, tosses them out. Often they stumble into the Cellar discotheque nearby. “Half the people in here have been eighty-sixed from the Branding Iron,” the Cellar’s proprietor, Jerry Fernandez, wryly admits.

Garberville has the look and feel of an outlaw town, and so it is. But nowadays the outlaws aren’t rustling cattle. They are taking part in a distinctly modern California gold boom. It is a phenomenal increase in the illegal cultivation of marijuana that has made pot the largest cash crop in California and the fourth largest in the country. Officials estimate that the nation’s annual output is 5,000 tons, worth more than $8.2 billion. California alone produced an estimated $1.5 billion harvest last year, to which the people of Garberville and the surrounding area contributed some 50 tons of sinsemilla marijuana. Taking its name from the Spanish word for “seedless,” sinsemilla is known to connoisseurs for its extreme potency—and, at up to $250 an ounce, its heady price. Garberville’s economy has felt the effects. Once bustling with timber mills, the town was slowly dying until the dope industry arrived. Now prosperous new stores and restaurants have sprouted on the main street. The surrounding hills are dotted with picturesque redwood chalets and log cabins—many with expensive solar collectors on the roofs and new cars parked in the driveways. Says Joe Allen, the district attorney of nearby Mendocino County: “Garberville’s prosperity is definitely founded on dope.”

The fact that marijuana is illegal seems almost incidental to the locals. An unincorporated town, Garberville has no mayor, no city council and no local police. Gene Cox, the Humboldt County sheriff, 70 miles away in Eureka, is in charge of enforcing the law. But he has neither the time nor the manpower to vigorously prosecute growers. “Marijuana is illegal, and it is proven to be harmful to the body,” says Cox. “But we can’t eradicate all of it. We are short of help.” The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors has not been able to erase the problem. Two and a half years ago they accepted a $15,000 grant from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration to fund their own local investigations but turned down a $20,000 grant, which would have brought in federal narcotics agents. As one businessman told Humboldt County’s irate District Attorney Bernard De Paoli at a recent Rotary Club luncheon, “I owe a good part of my business to marijuana.”

California’s Acapulco gold rush began in 1978, when Mexico began spraying its pot fields with the herbicide paraquat and shipments to the U.S. were cut. Garberville quickly became a garden spot for the new industry. Many of the town’s 600 residents are urban hippies who came seeking a pastoral Utopia and took to pot farming with alacrity. “I’m here because I’m addicted to beauty,” rhapsodizes one 33-year-old farmer named George, who insists on disguising his identity. “Pot growing was something I discovered after I got here.” Adds Sam, the owner of a local gardening shop that sells 50-pound bags of “high tech” (very potent) marijuana fertilizer: “The worst insult you can hurl at someone in these parts is to say, ‘Why, he can’t even get it together to grow dope.’ ”

Most of Garberville’s pot growers belie the “reefer madness” stereotype. The size of a marijuana garden may vary from a small patch with but a few plants to a two-and-a-half-acre field yielding some 4,000 sinsemilla plants. Many producers are like Ellen and Joe (not their real names), a married couple with four children, ages 5 months to 17 years. Ellen and Joe each have their own marijuana plants and their own gardens on opposite sides of their house. In the wintertime they even keep their plants in separate areas of their greenhouse. Sinsemilla, planted at the end of April, requires copious sun, water and care. Harvested in September and October, the plants are then cured, cleaned and manicured. Thanks largely to marijuana, the couple have a rustic redwood home, with another, larger one going up nearby.

George is a somewhat less established dealer. A former student at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan, he tends bar nine months a year at an inn near Garberville and lives in a trailer in the hills. A self-described “guerrilla grower,” he cultivates 30 plants on four separate patches of public land (all the better to escape detection by police, he says). On average, he makes $18,000 each year, half from pot farming, a trade he says is full of pitfalls. He once lost a package of dope when it was stolen from the mail—probably, he suspects, by a postal clerk who smelled the contents. He now uses airtight containers. Warns George: “If you’re going to be an outlaw, you better be a good one.”

Like most growers, George took great pains to find a safe place to plant. To reach his “demonstration” patch (the only one George will show friends), a visitor must park on a secluded section of the road; then, when other cars have passed and the coast is clear, George leads the way on a one-hour trek through rugged woods where poison oak, brambles and thorny bushes grow in wild confusion. “As you can see, this isn’t the glamorous life of a cocaine dealer,” says George. “This is really a farmer’s life.” His labor has bought him a Datsun pickup and a new wardrobe. “This is Reaganomics at its best,” he says. “It’s capitalism in its purest form—supply and demand.”

Garberville’s capitalism is relentlessly hip. Young men and women, many with babies in their arms, spend languid hours at the Woodrose Cafe, eating tofu and omelets and reading the San Francisco Chronicle. A community center had no trouble auctioning off antiques at a “benefit boogie” to raise money for the local health center. The area’s travel agencies do a brisk business selling plane tickets to Thailand, Bali and other exotic places, particularly after the annual fall harvest.

A few growers do admit to pangs of conscience. “I worry about who’s buying this stuff,” says Ellen. “Is it some junior high school boy in Chicago?” Although sinsemilla’s price is probably too high for most youngsters, its attraction as a crop is irresistible to some: One teenager in Mendocino has reportedly earned $80,000 in three years from a plot.

Still, growing is far from child’s play. Like most lucrative illegal enterprises, it breeds violence. The biggest threat to the crop is armed robbery; at harvest time many growers sleep in their patches with rifles or machine guns. “Everyone has guns,” says George grimly. “After all, you can’t call the sheriff if someone steals pot from you. You either have to shoot it out, go after them, or kiss it off.” Some growers equip their gardens with electronic alarm systems, guard dogs and even Bengal tigers. Last year California’s Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement found three full-grown Bengals (plus a leopard and a pack of Dobermans) roaming a pot farm in San Gregorio Beach, south of San Francisco, where agents confiscated 500 plants worth $1 million wholesale.

Tales of terror are legion: a thief buried in the middle of a dirt road with just his hand exposed as a warning to others; bodies dumped in the forest; growers surprised in their beds by bands of desperadoes. Last September in Briceland, 13 miles northwest of Garberville, a grower named Forrest Clammer was fatally shot in the head and back reportedly by his bodyguard, who then fled with most of Clammer’s dope. The DA says authorities were not informed until November, after nearby properties had been harvested. This violence sometimes spawns paranoia. Says Dr. Ronald Siegel, a Los Angeles drug expert: “Some of these growers are bordering on the psychotic. I think it’s because they can’t live apart from their drug—just like Scrooge, who couldn’t live very far from his money. Once, when I came on a patch, two guys came out of the hills and started throwing rocks at my car. One had a rifle and the veins in his forehead were pulsating as though they’d burst.” Adds DA De Paoli: “During harvest season we get 15 to 20 calls a week from hikers, hunters and ranchers who happen on patches and find themselves staring down the barrel of a gun.”

The mayhem would probably decrease if marijuana were legalized. Occasionally a representative from NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) travels to Garberville with petitions. But few growers will sign them. If pot were legalized, prices would plummet and the boom would go bust. “We really have a paradise here,” says Ellen, surveying the view from the sundeck of her new home and stroking her 3-year-old’s hair. “But we know it could all end tomorrow. The sheriff could come down from Eureka and arrest us all.”