Northern California's Mendocino County. A picture postcard of the far west and the site of a controversial, profitable and increasingly violent criminal enterprise... the marijuana trade. Officials estimate it to be a $1 billion a year industry accounting for two-thirds of the local economy.
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Growers in Northern California cultivate as much marijuana as possible without triggering a legal crackdown. Authorities are overwhelmed by the sheer number of growers and are hampered by conflicting laws. While California state law permits residents to grow a small number of pot plants, under federal law pot is flat out illegal.
Mendocino local and “Grow” magazine publisher Eric Sligh tours a backyard pot garden with CNBC’s Trish Regan. How much can a single plant be worth? “A plant like this, assuming that it’s gonna yield about two pounds, would be worth about $5,000,” according to Sligh.
Ukiah Morrison is a Mendocino pot grower. In most places that would make him an outlaw but not in this neck of the woods. Morrison says “I don’t think there’s anything more important in this economy. To take this out would be a major blow, economically speaking.”
Many residents are upset about the gardens and feel their neighborhoods have literally gone to pot. The Tucker family is leaving the town of Potter Valley, CA. Wife Joy Tucker says the final straw came when the house next door used to grow pot went up in flames.
Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman is on the front line of the community’s struggle with marijuana. Allman says some houses are a complete façade…there’s nothing inside except mature marijuana. Dealers are so brazen, Allman says they often ship pot via FedEx and UPS, though without the company’s approval.
Just how “wild” it is can be felt in a new crime wave hitting Mendocino County. More and more thieves are targeting homes believed to contain pot. Jim Wattenburger, former Chairman of Mendocino County’s Board of Supervisors, believes up to 60% of the populace is involved in the marijuana industry.
In neighboring Oakland, Richard Lee owns the local marijuana dispensary…also know as “Blue Sky Café.” Lee, an out-in-the open pot entrepreneur, offers a marijuana menu of four pot varieties. There’s also marijuana to eat...caramels, brownies, chocolate truffles and salad dressing... just to name a few.
Dispensary owner Richard Lee says he pays the State of California about $300,000 in sales tax every year and about $600,000 in federal income tax.
His enterprise comes with a big risk…processing marijuana may be legal under California state law, but selling marijuana is illegal federal law. The more you sell, the greater chance of being busted by the DEA.
A sudden surge of guns and helicopters signals a big bust in Garberville, CA…a place some call the “Ground Zero” for marijuana production in the U.S. Meanwhile, Mendocino County Deputy Sheriff Butch Gupta heads one of the state’s CAMP program “Search and Destroy” squads bent on attacking pot gardens hidden in the rugged wilderness.
California is believed to supply more than half of America’s domestic marijuana supply.
Bruce Perlowin, once described as a “nice Jewish boy” from Florida, became nothing less than the West Coast’s marijuana kingpin. “At a certain point, you know, I wanted to be a big marijuana smuggler and I wanted to bring in as much marijuana as I could possibly bring in.”
Bruce Perlowin smuggled more than 300,000 pounds of marijuana into the U.S. with a street value approaching a billion dollars. Most of it was slipped in under the Golden Gate Bridge using hired boat captains and their fishing vessels.
The 4 year crime spree came to an end when Perlowin lost a notebook with details of his entire organization. He spent 9 years in prison. Would he do it again? Perlowin says “My gut reaction is yes, I would live my life exactly the same way.”.
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