Clean and Sober in the Emerald Triangle

By Bobbi Anderson 10/07/14

You can be sober and grow weed, I'm told. But can a recovering addict like me live next door?


You can be in the program and in the industry, too. That's what I'm told, anyway. Plenty of my fellow sober addicts and alcoholics still grow weed, or trim bud for a decent income during the fall harvest season. Some of them have been doing it for years and staying clean. I have no reason to doubt their sincerity when they tell me it works for them, and no cause to judge. Everybody has to eat. It's just not an option for me. I'm a recovering marijuana addict living in the illegal weed capital of the United States.

Like lots of other aspects of recovery, being a marijuana addict in marijuana country has proven to be a strange blessing

It's impossible to capture the sheer weirdness of California's Emerald Triangle, with its underground economy that's so obvious yet so hush-hush that you have to go through insane contortions of language and etiquette to navigate everyday interactions. Every second billboard is an advertisement for fertilizer. Radio spots for “garden supply stores” regularly snicker about sales on turkey bags (used to store trimmed bud) and high-tech machines for trimming “flowers.” Banks make blanket announcements on money laundering. Car dealerships accept payments for new vehicles in cash. The towns empty out in the summer, and in the fall the growers and trimmers return with full pockets and full beards. The streets of some towns are lined with seasonal workers; it's not unusual to see cardboard signs that say “Will trim for bud.” You quickly learn not to ask what someone does for a living.

As for me, I grew up in the rural heart of the weed industry. My parents were strongly anti-drug, but almost all of our neighbors made their living with small outdoor grows, transitioning into greenhouses as the industry developed. Most of the kids I went to school with started smoking pot before high school. I was a weird kid, obsessive compulsive and awkward in a way that still makes me cringe. I would trudge alongside my square parents past the cars of the cool kids after school concerts and the sweet, pungent smell of the weed would leak out along with reggae music. Pot became synonymous with everything I couldn't have: social fluency, rhythm, cute boys, and freedom from obsession. Is it any wonder it became my drug of choice?

In retrospect, I'm grateful that the majority of my wreckage happened far away from Humboldt. If I had stayed after high school, the same progression of use, abuse and addiction would have happened, but probably with the added complications of a job in the industry and a collection of triggering people, places and things. As it was, I made my journey from casual user to bonafide addict to rehab a few hundred miles (and a couple of foreign countries) away, and washed back up in my hometown— stone cold sober.

Admitting you're addicted to a plant that makes most people giggly and hungry is goddamned embarrassing. I used to try to qualify to my recovery community with stories about throwing myself on the floor and crying when my dealer wouldn't call me back, or spending a whole weekend miserably crab walking my way through Amsterdam because of a persistent delusion that I had shit my pants. Sure, they got it—I was an addict. And, yeah, that sounded pretty awful. But—weed? Really? I now no longer feel the need to qualify. I know I'm part of an exclusive group—about 9% of all weed smokers meet the standards for addiction—and I know addiction is addiction is addiction. When I was high, I felt defeated and made countless promises to myself that I wouldn't do it anymore. When I wasn't high, I was on the verge of tears and on the search for my dealer's phone number, which I had erased from my phone, but knew I had written it down somewhere. That's addiction. But it takes time and an empathetic audience to explain properly. Luckily, I'm also an alcoholic, so when it comes to the chest-thumping “my problem was worse than yours” story comparisons that happen sometimes in the recovery community, I spin a couple of drunkalogues and leave it at that.

The Emerald Triangle would be a tough place to visit on vacation as a recovering addict, but to live here requires some serious commitment to recovery. Everywhere I go, I'm confronted with reminders of my drug of choice. The sweet smell of burning sativa floats from alleyways and public parks. Travelers on the side of the road flash nugs at me with quick flicks of their fingers or whisper promises of pills and potions I've never heard of. Driving down the rural roads your car is constantly filled with the smell of green, growing bud. Concerts start hours late and the band shouts appreciative comments about the hospitality they always receive during harvest season. On good days, I'll see a burnt-out traveler, an old bearded man in a judo robe, struggle to light a bong in front of the children's museum and I'll say a little prayer of gratitude. On bad days, I'll run errands with a “normie” friend, end up in one of the ubiquitous head shops looking at beautiful blown glass pipes and rolling papers and leave feeling shaky, triggered, and alone.

Alone, mostly because I've never felt like I can be honest about my drug of choice here. For one thing, almost everyone I know is connected to the industry in some way. They grow, or trim, or are related to people who grow or trim. I really don't want to alienate my friends, family or neighbors, and I don't want them to think that I'm irredeemably biased because of my past addiction. For another thing, like I said, it's goddamned embarrassing. Admitting I'm an addict who was brought low by a simple plant makes me feel like that dorky high-schooler all over again.

Like lots of other aspects of recovery, being a marijuana addict in marijuana country has proven to be a strange blessing. Living here has made me work harder at my recovery, and harder at being unbiased towards pot than I probably would have been if I had chosen to live anywhere else. Recovering alcoholics still have to be around alcohol. Ex-smokers will watch other people light up. Sex addicts can't demand a world free of bare skin. I love where I live and will continue to live here even if it means being exposed to my drug of choice on a daily basis. I love the people who live here, even when they have a radically different idea of when it's appropriate to fill the air with clouds of ganja smoke (breakfast, wedding ceremonies, baby showers, etc.) I ask lots of kind and curious questions, give people the benefit of the doubt and privately acknowledge when my own fear of relapse is preventing me from being open and kind. 

And if it ever comes to the point when I get some kind and curious questions in return, I'll tell the story about one fall when I came home from college in the height of the harvest season. I wasn't quite sure what was wrong with me. I was cranky and sweaty and awkward. My hands smelled weird, my mouth kept watering and I was having crazy lucid dreams. I didn't think for a minute that it could be THC withdrawal (I'd been smoking about an eighth a week) because pot wasn't addictive—or if it was, so I heard, it was only psychologically addictive, whatever that meant. All I knew is that I didn't want to get high because when I got high I couldn't do anything, but I needed to get high or I would go crazy. My dad mentioned that our neighbors' grow had been busted the day before and the helicopter carrying a load of cannabis had touched down briefly on a nearby hillside.

“Oh really?” I said.

That night found me skulking out to the hill with a flickering flashlight and a baggie, desperately trying to pick enough of the unprocessed leaves out of cow patties to roll a spliff. 

At this point someone might ask why I didn't just come over and ask them for a couple of nugs instead of sifting through cow shit. They would have been happy to smoke me out. And I'll explain that the nature of addiction—my addiction—is furtive and secretive. I didn't want anyone to know how desperately I wanted to get high, and therefore I did crazy and desperate things to get high. I don't think this would help them understand any better what addiction is. In a way, the irony is reassuring. I'm a recovering addict that can't safely partake in any mind-altering substance ever again. They're my neighbor, the pot farmer, a normie who can have a beer or a toke on occasion and still get on with all the things they need to do. We live in the most beautiful place in the world. And that's enough in common to bridge the gap.

Bobbi Anderson is a pseudonym for a regular contributor to The Fix. Bobbi's recent pieces have been about why you probably shouldn't become a drug counselor and sobriety in spanish.

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