Murder Mountain Explores the Dark Underbelly of Cannabis Prohibition

The American cannabis industry has received the true-crime treatment with the release of Netflix's captivating new docu-series, Murder Mountain.

Over the course of six episodes, the series traces the disappearance of a Southern Californian man, Garret Rodriguez, who vanished while working on a cannabis farm in Humboldt County. The area is famed for its' status as one-third of Northern California's infamous "Emerald Triangle", which continues to be largest cannabis producing region in the US.

Located more than 450 kilometres north of San Francisco, the county is hidden within an endless Redwood forest. The region's thick canopy of trees, historically low property values, and almost limitless unmonitored land have made it an ideal setting to covertly grow cannabis. However, over the years these same qualities have gradually transformed the county into a hotbed of criminal activity.

At the centre of it all is Alderpoint, an isolated rural area nestled in Southern Humboldt, which residents have nicknamed "Murder Mountain". The local's say It's a place where people come if they want to get off the grid. And unfortunately, sometimes they never come back.


Catching a Killer

According to an article published in North Coast Journal last year, approximately 717 people per 100,000 go missing in Humboldt County every year, the highest number in the state of California.

This is what led Murder Mountain's creator, Josh Zeman, to begin assembling a team for the nine-month shoot that would become the documentary.

The series focuses primarily on the investigation of Garret Rodriguez's 2013 disappearance while working on a black-market cannabis farm located in Alderpoint. At the same time, it traces the development of local cannabis industry, moving from its' genesis in the 1960's to the ongoing struggles of cultivators in modern-day Humboldt, as they attempt to adapt to the challenges of operating in a legal market.

The "Murder Mountain" nickname originated with a serial-killer couple, James and Suzan Carson, who lived in the area during the early 1980s. The pair—who would become known as the "San Francisco Witch Killers"—began their murder spree in San Francisco, before heading to Alderpoint to lie low.

The couple were said to be obsessed with the idea of "nuclear apocalypse", and eventually went on to murder a local cannabis farm worker, Clark Stephens. After making their escape, a manifesto was discovered outlining their plot to assassinate then-US President Ronald Regan. Since then, there have been numerous disappearances from the region, but this does little to deter the naïve stoners who come to the area every year looking for work in Humboldt's cannabis farms.

Documentary filmmaker Josh Zeman claims that the black-market sale of cannabis has drawn increasingly hardcore criminals to the area over time, leading Humboldt to experience an increase in production of other illegal drugs such as meth and heroin.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Zeman said that "the illegal production and sale of marijuana can beget the illegal production and sale of other things".

"If, for example, a drug trafficking organization decides it's going to set up an illegal grow in Humboldt, they can then use those same drug trafficking pathways for other illegal things, be it other drugs or sex trafficking," he said.


The High Price of Prohibition

The central flaw of Murder Mountain is that it never arrives at a satisfying answer to answer the question at the heart of the documentary: why do so many people continue to go missing in Humboldt County every year?

Although the series' decision to focus on the Garret Rodriguez investigation does seem like a necessary decision to ensure that the documentary's scope remained manageable, it offers little insight into how other victims—such as 26 year-old Australian national, Asha Kreimer—are swallowed up by the illegal drug trade.

While it suggests many potential answers to this question, including an apathetic police force, a rebellious outlaw culture, and at one point even a serial killer, Murder Mountain ultimately fails to provide any substantive analysis of why people go missing in Humboldt County at such an alarming rate.

Where Murder Mountain truly excels is in its' exploration of Humboldt's' marijuana farming economy, with the county serving as the perfect microcosm of the damage caused by cannabis prohibition. The second episode of the series is almost completely devoted to laying out the county's history as marijuana growing community, which first began with the arrival of idealistic hippies during the late 1960s. This was followed by an influx of PTSD-scarred veterans during the 1970s, who were looking to escape their memories of the Vietnam War.

Unfortunately, by the 1980's things had begun to change. With Richard Nixon's war on drugs in full swing, Federal and state law enforcement agencies began to coordinate on the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP), which saw helicopters loaded with heavily-armed officers and National Guard troops descend on Humboldt County. Family-owned farms were ransacked without warrant, while workers were held at gunpoint by overzealous police.

Even California's 1996 legalisation of medical marijuana did little to deter the government's ongoing military style raids, which would eventually erode the relationship between local law enforcement and Humboldt's community of outlaw cannabis growers altogether.

CAMP's increasingly aggressive tactics also began to cause changes to the industry itself. Many family-oriented cannabis farmers opted to leave the business rather than face ongoing harassment from the police, leaving behind a vacuum that would subsequently be filled by the arrival of a new hardcore criminal element.

It's here that the series comes closest to making a cohesive thesis statement about the cause of Humboldt's tragically-high disappearance rate.

It demonstrates how the government's heavy-handed approach to cannabis prohibition did little to stymie the local drug trade, and instead only served to drive it further underground. When the system is so broken that neither side is willing to work together, it's easy to see how so many missing people continue to fall through the cracks.

Growing Pains

Another fascinating aspect of Murder Mountain is the window it offers into the changing nature of America's marijuana industry.

Much of the series focuses on effect of California's decision to legalise recreational cannabis in 2016, which has split the community between growers who want to go legit, and those who are unwilling to give up their identity as outlaws.

The industry is in a state of flux, as farmers struggle to keep up with the numerous taxes, permits and fees that come with participation in the legal market. However, locals claim that they are being driven out of business by restrictive regulations intended to push out smaller players in favour of Big Pharma. Many have been left wondering if it would have been better to remain in the black market instead.

In an attempt to fight back, over 200 local cannabis growers would eventually join together to form the brand True Humboldt, a sustainable alternative to large-scale corporate operations. Even as the world around them changes, it seems that the rebellious spirt of Humboldt County will continue to live on.

Murder Mountain's exploration of the newly-minted legal cannabis market also highlights one of the driving forces behind the legalisation movement. While Humboldt may have experienced growing pains as it continues to shift away from the black market, the success of its' transition can be seen as a credible case study for similar communities worldwide.

As the recreational cannabis market continues to inch closer to mainstream acceptance and legal protection, the criminal facet that formerly dominated marijuana production will begin to dwindle. Eventually, the black market will shrink to the fringes of the industry, and in some cases may die out altogether.

The documentary concludes with a mask-wearing grower named Austin—who previously worked as a political lobbyist—heading into the hills of Murder Mountain to bury approximately $40,000 in cash. As he digs, Austin explains that he has no interest in ever abandoning the black-market, or the outlaw lifestyle that he has come to love.

"As long as there's money to be made out here, and an idea of being free; as long as that still exists out here, there will always be outlaws in Humboldt County," Austin said.

"Maybe not many of us, but we'll still be here."

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Hugo Gray
Hugo Gray

Hugo Gray is a Melbourne-based journalist with a body of work that covers a diverse range of topics, including immigration law, sex technology, and now the rapidly expanding cannabis industry.

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