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From the Archives: San Diego's Thriving Marijuana Industry

In the 1980s, North County’s marijuana was considered “the largest cash agricultural crop in California”


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Marijuana is not a new story. It’s been around since plants started sprouting from the planet. And not only is the industry an old one in San Diego, but it was a thriving and famous one, according to a feature in the March 1980 issue of San Diego Magazine.

“Outlaw cultivators annually grow untold tons of high-quality marijuana worth millions of dollars,” explains writer Paul Taublieb. “It is roughly estimated that last year alone in North County, $100 million of extremely potent, seedless sensemilla [sic] marijuana was grown, harvested and sold.”

Fallbrook was especially famous for its exquisite bud. “Fallbrook weed is respected everywhere,” says a longtime grower given the pseudonym “Bob.” “There’s Maui-Wowie, Kona Gold, Oaxacan, but when you tell people you’ve got Fallbrook Homegrown, they’ll sit up and listen. This stuff puts Colombo [Columbian marijuana, at one time considered the most potent type available] to shame.”

These days Northern California, specifically Humboldt County (aka “The Emerald Triangle”), is the state’s premier growing region. But back then, North County San Diego was keeping apace. Jerry Jensen, western director of the DEA at the time, called North County’s marijuana the largest cash agricultural crop in California—more than grapes, tomatoes, even avocados.

It turns out that avocados were important to the industry. Fallbrook’s avocado groves provided the perfect hiding spot—secret canopies under which farmers could grow weed.

A grower named “Big Sam” explains that money from the operations helped stoke the fire of economic growth in the area: “Dope money was everywhere. It started up dozens of restaurants and boutiques along the coast, and it supported import shops and the hardware stores and the furniture stores. Most surf shops were just a front. […] The Chamber of Commerce loved it. They couldn’t believe the money but they didn’t care.”

The story cites an injured Vietnam vet who built his house by trading pot for materials. “It’s a weed,” he says. “You just throw it in the ground and let it grow.”

Fallbrook wasn’t alone. Dodge Valley, Rainbow, Warner Springs, Pauma Valley, and Palomar Mountain were also hotbeds. San Diego County is, and was, home to the most small farms per capita in the country. And the clime helped the industry. “Remember, this is the flower capital of the world,” says “Julie.”

Most of the industry veterans in 1980 said the end was nigh, due to the DEA cracking down and the city’s population boom, which saw houses built in many of the popular grow areas. “For marijuana, the good drugs days are over in North County,” laments one. Another explains, “It’s hard work, and nerve-wracking because you’re always waiting for the cops or somebody to try and rip you off.”

A few remained hopeful that California would warm to the idea of weed. The 1980 California Marijuana Initiative was started in San Diego as a push to legalize the growing of marijuana for personal use. “Interestingly,” says one source, “part of the proposed initiative calls for the creation of a commission to study the possible tax benefits of a regulated market.”

That legal, regulated market is now a reality. Just took 37 years.

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