Northern California's Mendocino County has been known for marijuana growing for at least 30 years. Part of the state's legendary Emerald Triangle of high-grade pot production along with neighboring Humboldt and Trinity counties, Mendocino has long profited from the underground economy. Last week, a local newspaper, the Willits News, tried to gauge just how large the profits may be, and the result is startling.
According to the News, the local marijuana industry will add $1.5 billion to the county's economy this year. With Mendocino's legal economy estimated at about $2.3 billion, that means the pot economy is almost two-thirds as large as all other legal economic activities combined. When combining the aboveground and underground economies, the marijuana industry is responsible for roughly 40% of all Mendocino County economic activity, a figure approaching the proportions of the Afghan opium economy.
As the News is quick to acknowledge, because marijuana is an illicit commodity, no one really knows how big the industry in the county is, so the paper relied on extrapolations based on the number of plants seized and on information it acquired about current wholesale (pound level and up) marijuana prices in the area. The County of Mendocino Marijuana Eradication Team (COMMET) seized 144,000 plants this year, and District Attorney told the paper COMMET normally seized between five and eight percent of the crop, a little less than the 10% rule of thumb for estimating all drug seizures. The paper more than compensated for the lowball seizure rate by also factoring in a 20% crop loss to spoilage. Following the formula, the News estimated 1.8 million plants were sown in the county this year, with 1.32 million surviving droughts, floods, bugs, mold, and cops.
And while both the DEA and Mendocino County law enforcement like to say that one plant produces one pound, the newspaper consulted local grower "Dionysius Greenbud," who said the average yield is closer to a half pound -- a very rough estimate, given a local crop that consists of both high-yielding outdoor plants and smaller, lower-yielding indoor plants. The paper's in-the-ballpark estimate for total pot production in the county is thus some 662,000 pounds.
The paper assumed a wholesale price of $2200 a pound, based on reports from local growers, and a simple multiplication yields a total of $1.5 billion.
Is that figure out of line? It's hard to say. In last year's "Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market," Eric Schlosser quoted former DEA officials as estimating the value of all marijuana grown nationwide at $25 billion. While it is difficult to believe that one California county accounts for nearly 5% of all pot grown in the US, who is to say different?