The Emerald Triangle: America’s Cannabis Garden

By Alex Halperin Jun 3, 2020

The Pacific Northwest is famous for its majestic landscapes, a paradise for anyone that loves nature. In Northern California, there is a region known as the Emerald Triangle that doesn’t disappoint when it comes to its natural beauty. From rocky cliffs that separate Highway 1 from the Pacific Ocean to the rolling hills in the Anderson Valley, the three counties that form the Emerald Triangle boast a raw and untouched way of life that’s completely different from the metropolitan and suburban areas, just a short drive to the south. 

At first glance, the towns and rural areas that make up the Emerald Triangle don’t seem much out of the ordinary. Quaint towns like Boonville and Philo don’t appear to offer much beyond a quick bite on the road or a gas stop on one’s trip to the coast, however, these rural communities are rich in agricultural tradition and are truly fascinating once explored beyond what’s visible at the surface. In fact, Boonville has its own language, Boontling, which is now spoken by fewer than 100 people. 

But beyond the history and charm of these tiny towns of Northern California hides a vast garden of marijuana, tucked away beyond the madrones, sequoias, and redwood trees. 

What is the Emerald Triangle?

The Emerald Triangle is a region in Northern California that starts about 85 miles north of San Francisco, expanding north close to the border of Oregon. 

It is known as the Emerald Triangle because it became America’s unofficial marijuana garden. Due to a variety of environmental factors, the growing conditions in the Emerald Triangle are ideal for growing marijuana, with plants growing as high as fifteen feet high and yielding high quantities of buds. 

While many people relocated to the Emerald Triangle after Proposition 215, made California the first state to legalize medicinal marijuana, the region had already been a growers hub for decades. The Back-to-the-Land Movement in the 1960s inspired many people to reject urban living and return to a life of agriculture. In Northern California, with ideal growing conditions and close proximity to the hippie movement that came out of the Bay Area, marijuana became the crop of choice in the Emerald Triangle. 

Where is the Emerald Triangle? 

The Emerald Triangle is composed of three counties: Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity. These three counties make up 10,253 square miles of rural farmland, valleys, mountains, and coast. The population of the area is 234,592 with the largest town being Eureka, located in Humboldt.

Humboldt County

Humboldt County has a population of 135,558 people and stretches north up to Del Norte Country, the northernmost county of California that borders Oregon. 

What is Humboldt County Known For? 

Beyond the popularity of the cannabis that’s produced in Humboldt County, the region is also famous for its stunning nature and state parks. 

Redwood National Park and Humboldt Redwoods State Park are both in the county as well as the famous Avenue of the Giants, a stretch of narrow highway surrounded by towering Redwoods.

But when it comes to the cannabis that comes out of Humboldt, both growers and consumers take it very seriously. In fact, the “Humboldt-grown” stamp on packaging has even become popular at dispensaries. Growers and dispensary owners alike know that cannabis grown in Humboldt County is attractive to consumers who desire top-quality products.

Mendocino County

Mendocino County has a population of 86,749 people and is home to countless apple orchards, small-production wineries, craft breweries, and cannabis plantations. 

Mendo, as it’s known to locals, stretches from the Pacific Ocean east into the Mendocino National Forest and from Cloverdale in the south up to the North Fork Eel River that makes the division with Humboldt. 

Trinity County

Trinity County is the smallest of the three counties that make up the Emerald Triangle, both in size and population. There are just over 12,000 residents sprinkled throughout the county. It’s due east of Humboldt and hugged to the north by Six Rivers National Forest and Klamath National Forest and to the east by Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

Past, Present, and Future of the Emerald Triangle

Born in the sixties during the Summer of Love, the Emerald Triangle has gone through many changes over the decades since. During the early years, communities were small and growers were few and far between. But since Proposition 215 in 1996 there has been significant growth. 

This had many different impacts throughout the towns and counties, both positive and negative. As the green rush drew hordes of wannabe growers and trimmers into the area during the growing seasons, local businesses watched their revenue go up. While parts of Mendocino and Humboldt Counties already had small but thriving tourism scenes, the sudden spike in migrant workers, mostly trimmers who came for months of fast cash and endless smoking, helped small businesses. The businesses also benefited from weekend wine tours and apple picking by urbanites escaping the cities. 

And while the extra movement throughout the region has provided work opportunities for locals and tourists alike, the cannabis industry hasn’t only been a positive force. 

Crime in the Emerald Triangle

The Emerald Triangle is no stranger to controversy and crime. The fertile soils and environmental factors that make the climate so perfect for growing cannabis doesn’t just attract peaceful hippies looking to grow a few plants. 

Cartels, domestic and international, have been using the forest canopy as cover from buzzing DEA helicopters for years, planting thousands of marijuana plants illegally in national forests. Beyond the cartels that occupy federal land, battles between grow operations and fights for the best workers have been known to break out, leaving in the wake fights, stolen crops, vandalized properties, and worse. Jere Melo, the former mayor of Fort Bragg in Mendocino Country, was murdered in 2011 while investigating illegal grow operations. Melo was extremely popular and loved in the region. 

Where there has been the opportunity to make fast money, there will always be power struggles and crime. Humboldt County, for example, has the second-highest homicide rate in all of California. 

Environmental Concerns

The mass production of cannabis can present a wide variety of environmental concerns, especially when it comes to non-organic grow operations that use chemicals in their operations. 

Until recently, as legalization took hold, growing in the Emerald Triangle was unregulated and many grow operations could be found off the grid in the mountains, hidden under the canopy and out of sight. Because of this, what happens on many grow operations impacts the surrounding area as chemical runoff poisons the waterways. This impacts surrounding crops, both cannabis and food operations, while killing off animals and local ecosystems. 

Beyond using products to prevent disease and pests, cannabis growers use chemicals to feed and nourish their crops. Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Sulfer, Magnesium, and Calcium are all minerals that cannabis need to thrive. And while these elements are naturally found in the soil, they aren’t there in the quantities that a marijuana plant needs to grow to its fullest potential. Because growers get paid based on yield, they need their plants to be as big and chock full of buds as possible or they don’t make money. Excessive use of natural minerals is bad for the soil and water table. 

Another environmental concern is that some grow operations divert water from streams and rivers, pulling water that is also used to water other crops and plantations in the area. This is cause for alarm to many vegetable and fruit farmers who aren’t able to provide enough water to their crops.

The Future of the Emerald Triangle

The Emerald Triangle has changed a lot over the past forty years as has the cannabis industry. Regulations change quickly. At first it was outlawed and then there were limitations for medicinal grow operations. Now, it is legal recreationally at a state level. All of these changes present new regulations for growers to follow. 

The number of plants one is allowed to grow has changed, licensing and oversight have improved, and growers are able to produce without hiding in the woods, as they did for so many years. However, there is still a “Wild West” sensation throughout the mountains and valleys of the Emerald Triangle as marijuana remains illegal in many states, both for medicinal and recreational purposes. 

Many growers see that as an opportunity to supply the illegal market across state lines in places where dispensaries don’t exist on every corner. The illegal trafficking of cannabis that comes out of the Emerald Triangle is a reality. 

As long as cannabis remains illegal under federal law, the Emerald Triangle will still have unregulated grow operations supplying America’s appetite for the best weed. But legalization presents its own problems to small grow operations run by small families that have been in the regions for generations. 

Many fruit and vegetable farmers in Northern California switched to growing cannabis because selling apples from a small orchard simply doesn’t pay the bills. And as the cannabis industry becomes more regulated, small cannabis operations will feel the same sting. As more and more money comes in and companies build large, high-yield grow operations, the small marijuana farmers will be priced out of market. 


The future of the Emerald Triangle isn’t very clear. Though reputedly home to “the best bud in the world,” the uncertainty with state and federal laws will, at least in the near future, leave that “Wild West” sensation. 

The helicopters might not buzz their properties as much as they used to and the consequences might not be as severe as they were just a generation ago, but the “illegal” grow operations continue to exist. Some growers still want to avoid regulation, taxation, or any other issues that arise from playing by the rules.

The Emerald Triangle is a mysterious place but one with a welcoming feel. Running a grow operation is not an easy job but it’s one that invites hard workers with a laid-back disposition. 

For anyone that has spent time in the region or even worked on a grow operation, the Emerald Triangle is a place that’s lost in time, an area with access to the modern world but a vibe that’s old and charming. Being there gives the feeling of looking at an old photograph that’s been digitalized and touched up, a sensation of how things were a long time ago and how they could still be.