Dark Days: CAMP and the Emerald Triangle

The Emerald Triangle is the powerhouse of California’s cannabis industry. It produces vast quantities of premium weed that is consumed and enjoyed by connoisseurs throughout the country. Yet, if you inquire about the area further, you will likely encounter mixed opinions regarding this more than 10,000 spare mile stretch of land in the northernmost corner of the state. In the densely forested mountains of Humboldt County, Mendocino County, and Trinity County lies a rich decades-old tradition of cannabis growing with a dark, complicated past. 

Given its remoteness, the Emerald Triangle was, and still is, the perfect fit for clandestine cannabis cultivation. But, during the 1990s, efforts by authorities to crack down on illegal grow operations through the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP) were considered by many residents of the area as one thing; war. 

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Living “Off The Grid”

The regional trifecta of counties known as the Emerald Triangle is located in over 10,000 square miles of sparsely populated wilderness in Northern California. Fewer than 240,000 people live in the area, and its closest major city, state capital Sacramento, is over five hours’ drive away. This isolated landscape is a far cry from the skyscrapers of Los Angeles and the pristine pavements of Palo Alto. There’s no urban sprawl, few amenities, and near-zero cell phone bars. In short; it’s a wild, rugged kind of place! 

CAMP coined the name “Emerald Triangle” to describe the three Northern California counties of Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity County in 1985. (1)

Beyond the Green Curtain

Though it’s an isolated community, many people from around the world have taken an interest in the history of the Emerald Triangle’s most famous export: cannabis. Since its burgeoning beginnings in the 1970s, the region’s cannabis industry has attracted its fair share of journalists seeking engaging news stories. They wanted the latest scoop on the “growing” success of the industry and those who founded it. Despite the enthusiasm of these outlanders, many growers adopted a “Don’t talk to outsiders” attitude. When faced with a stonewall from its residents, writers and filmmakers were often forced to report from only one side of the story; local law enforcement. Many in authority claim the wilds of the Emerald Triangle are fraught with danger and illicit activity, while others consider its communities bastions of free thinking and good old-fashioned homesteading. 

So is the Emerald Triangle a lawless enclave, or is it a weed utopia? And how did we get to where we are now?

Largest in the Nation

Prior to the 1970s the vast majority of weed was imported from overseas. Then, in the early years of the decade, smuggled seeds found their way to the hilltops of Humboldt. Over time, micro farms multiplied, creating a world-renowned illicit cannabis industry. It was composed of independent growers from Eureka, Garberville, Arcata, Petrolia, and other smaller towns. However, these cultivators had a huge hurdle to get past; cannabis growing and its use was still completely outlawed. The agents of CAMP were ready to launch an offensive that would complicate the lives of many people who relied on cannabis cultivation for a living.

Nowadays, CAMP is still around, but the legal landscape is very different with regard to cannabis. In fact, California has gone to greater lengths than any other state in the nation to liberalize cannabis laws.(2) The Emerald Triangle produces more cannabis than anywhere else in the country. So what occurred in the 90s and early 2000s? And what exactly happened in the “dark days’ of the past?

The Campaign Against Marijuana Planting

During the 1990s, prior to legalization, metaphorical storm clouds were settling above the heads of established growers. The prospect of a clash with the authorities loomed. CAMP; a multi-agency government operation with a singular purpose sought to destroy the vast illegal grow sites scattered across the region’s remote mountaintops. Its mission statement is as follows:

“[To reduce] the supply of marijuana to the illegal drug trade by eradicating the large marijuana crop sites; increasing public and environmental safety by removing marijuana growers from public and private lands; investigating indoor growing operations; deterring potential growers; and promoting public information and education on marijuana.” (3)

CAMP sought to root out each and every illegal cannabis plant in the Emerald triangle, which caused huge problems for local residents, many of whom relied on the plant as their sole source of income.

Cheaper Weed at What Cost?

On the face of things, it may seem as though CAMP just wants to spoil everyone’s fun. However, in many respects, their ideologies are honorable. Illegal grow operations contribute to the booming cannabis black market where weed is cheap and plentiful. However, many of these farms pose problems, the impact of which is felt most in the natural environment of the region. Serious effects on the local ecosystem include:

  • Contamination of the food web with illegal pesticides
  • Disruption of local water supply from man-made reservoirs 
  • Destruction of delicate natural plant and animal habitats
  • Soil erosion and illegal tree felling
  • Illegal camps and dumping of waste

Unfortunately, cannabis cultivation can cause ecological problems. Studies show illegal grows are a major threat to wildlife in California and southern Oregon. This can be attributed to their rampant use of pesticides, destruction of habitat, and diversion of water. (4)

Choppers Overhead

Since its inception in 1983, CAMP’s aims were clear. Throughout the 80s and 90s they swept through and struck cannabis operations throughout Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity Counties. To reach the often extremely remote wilderness, agents would appear on the horizon in helicopters, equipped with tactical outdoor gear. Many growers accused CAMP of “terrorizing” the neighborhood by obliterating their plants and production methods. 

Naturally, these surprise raids had a significant impact on local residents. In many cases, these incursions were destroying years of hard work, growth, and careful cultivation. And as a result, many seasoned growers packed up and left the industry. The ones that stayed often put aside their petty rivalries, became more tight-knit, and spoke about their business with fewer outsiders. And, showing the tightness of their communities, the details of their operations were kept far more secret in the Emerald Triangle. 

Although the relentless CAMP raids caused something of an exodus from the area over the years, a change of policy came in 1996 that would reshape the cannabis industry in Northern California.

Fun Fact: “Ganjasaurus Rex”, a Garberville-produced comedy sci-fi feature film, parodied CAMP and their enforcement of the illegal cannabis industry in Humboldt County. (4)

The “Green Rush” and Beyond

Huge change came in 1996, with the passing of Proposition 215. This heralded the legalization of cannabis for medical use in California. This resulted in a huge influx of new growers and trimmers into the area. The booming industry success continued, and from 2002-2005, there was an explosion in production, nicknamed the  “mega-grow” era.

Trouble in Smoker’s Paradise?

After the boom years, there were some tough times ahead for growers. After Proposition 64 passed in 2015, it became legal for Californians to grow their own weed for recreational purposes. The damage to the natural ecosystem was greatly improved with the end of prohibition, but some family-run farms struggled to stay afloat. They had not only state and county fees to pay for, but were also overshadowed by large-scale growers who could afford to pay their trimmers more and produce larger quantities of a cheaper product.

The Future of Cannabis Cultivation

So what happened to CAMP? Socially, the United States had changed tremendously since the task force’s inception in 1983. And, after 2015 the organization found themselves fighting a losing battle, as public opinion swayed toward the acceptance of cannabis cultivation into law.  In 2015 alone, an estimated 22.2 million Americans 12 years of age or older reported using cannabis.(5) Whether legally or illegally, millions of people were signaling to task forces like CAMP that weed cultivation was not going to be pushed out of the Emerald Triangle. 

CAMP is still very much active in Northern California. California Attorney General Rob Bonta states that CAMP still works with local agencies to eradicate large scale illicit grow sites. Their continuing aim is to remove dangerous chemicals from the ecosystem, protect wildlife, and safeguard the natural resources of the region.  In fact, in 2020 CAMP eradicated 1.1 million cannabis plants across 455 illegal grow sites. (6)(7) 

The Emerald Triangle is still at the forefront of weed culture. Its reputation for producing the finest quality plants is recognized worldwide. It’s a unique wilderness, where farmers must strive to maintain a balance between growing their crop and subsiding harmoniously with the natural ecosystem. The independent growers are, for the most part, still there too, although now there’s a mind-boggling number of large and small-scale grow operations across the region.

At the height of the CAMP wars, cannabis cultivation was strictly prohibited by law, whereas now, any resident with the means to do so can set up a legitimate cannabis business. Although the infiltration of “Big Weed” is now prevalent, the close-knit, remote communities of the Emerald Triangle will continue to adapt to change, allowing people across the state access to the world’s most useful herb. 

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  1. Campaign Against Marijuana Planting. (2022, April 7). Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Campaign_Against_Marijuana_Planting#cite_note-2 
  2. Corva, D. (2014). Requiem for a CAMP: The life and death of a domestic U.S. drug war institution. International Journal of Drug Policy, 25(1), 71–80. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugpo.2013.02.003 
  3. Campaign Against Marijuana Planting – Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement – California Dept. of Justice – Office of the Attorney General. (2011, March 20). Web.archive.org. https://web.archive.org/web/20110320095232/http://ag.ca.gov/bne/camp.htm 
  4. Wengert, G. M., Higley, J. M., Gabriel, M. W., Rustigian-Romsos, H., Spencer, W. D., Clifford, D. L., & Thompson, C. (2021). Distribution of trespass cannabis cultivation and its risk to sensitive forest predators in California and Southern Oregon. PLoS ONE, 16(9), 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0256273 
  5. National Academies of Sciences, E., Division, H. and M., Practice, B. on P. H. and P. H., & Agenda, C. on the H. E. of M. A. E. R. and R. (2017). Cannabis: Prevalence of Use, Regulation, and Current Policy Landscape. In www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. National Academies Press (US). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK425763/?report=reader 
  6. Campaign Against Marijuana Planting – Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement – California Dept. of Justice – Office of the Attorney General. (2011, March 20). Web.archive.org. https://web.archive.org/web/20110320095232/http://ag.ca.gov/bne/camp.htm 
  7. California DOJ’s CAMP Program Eradicates 1.1 Million Illegal Marijuana Plants. (n.d.). California Statewide Law Enforcement Association. Retrieved June 6, 2022, from https://cslea.com/2020/10/california-dojs-camp-program-eradicates-1-1-million-illegal-marijuana-plants/ 
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