Justin Calvino enters a marijuana growing room in one of his properties in Mendocino County, California on April 19, 2017.
Marijuana growers, forced to run their businesses with cash, must navigate legal and political gray areas as regulations and laws continue to change. (Photo by Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

learn | 01.01.2022

Inside a black market community struggling to survive legalization

A few years ago, pounds of black market weed went for $1200. Now, they sell for as low as $500.

Rural Trinity County is home to thousands of cottage marijuana farmers that now face an uncertain future as California’s legitimate market goes live. Small-scale farmers are fighting for survival amidst burdensome regulations, competition from big industry players, and shrinking profits in an oversaturated black market.

With a population of around 13,500, Trinity County is estimated to have upwards of 4,000 private land marijuana farms. Trinity, alongside Mendocino and Humboldt counties, makes up the third point in California’s “Emerald Triangle,” the iconic region in Northern California that pioneered California’s marijuana industry and currently produces the majority of the state’s cannabis.

Trinity County is currently the poorest in the state. And like many communities throughout Northern California, its residents turned to marijuana production to make ends meet after the timber industry collapsed in the 1990s and the town was plunged into poverty.

Bob Brown, mobile and wood arts maker at home in his studio. Brown typically grows 3 to 4 plants in his backyard annually for personal use. Hayfork, California. May 3rd, 2016. (Photo by Piper McDaniel)

Within Trinity County, Hayfork is the most concentrated area of production. Marijuana has become a primary economic driver of the town but its viability is now being threatened. Overproduction has eroded prices in the black market—pounds of outdoor marijuana that fetched $1200 only a few years ago are selling for as low as $500 and many smaller farmers lack the money to become legal or the skills to survive in a legitimate market.

Now at a crossroads, cottage farmers face a hard decision: stay in the black market where prices are dwindling, take the risk of going legitimate in a costly and competitive market, or walk away from the industry altogether.

Farmer in his garden in Hayfork, CA. August 2013. (Photo by Piper McDaniel)
Marijuana curing outside at a property in the Trinity Pines subdivision of Hayfork. Trinity Pines has a reputation for rampant marijuana production and environmental damage. Hayfork, California. October 13, 2013. (Photo by Piper McDaniel)
Trinity County residents at a Board of Supervisors meeting addressing the development of the county’s marijuana ordinance. Weaverville, California. July 21, 2015. (Photo by Piper McDaniel)
Farmer pruning his marijuana plants. Hayfork, California. July 21, 2015. (Photo by Piper McDaniel)
Marijuana buds curing in an outbuilding shortly after harvest. Hayfork, California. October 19, 2018. (Photo by Piper McDaniel)
Hash on a Trinity County Sheriff Officer’s gun during the seizing and disposal of a marijuana garden. Hayfork, California. September 24, 2015. (Photo by Piper McDaniel)
Marijuana plants at an outdoor grow in Hayfork, California. October 29, 2015.(Photo by Piper McDaniel)
A marijuana garden in Hayfork, California. October 2013. (Photo by Piper McDaniel)
Marijuana curing in an outbuilding of a Hayfork home. The residents farm marijuana to supplement their income. Hayfork, California. October 19, 2015. (Photo by Piper McDaniel)

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