Marijuana & Michelle: A Nightmare in a Dream
Marijuana is a plant with a great deal of legal and historical controversy. It provides many individuals suffering from chronic pain with instant and strong relief while it is simultaneously attacked as a gate-way drug and delegitimized as a solution to ailing symptoms. The issues surrounding marijuana are complex and multifaceted, the impacts of its presence in our society, both positive and negative, are found in many direct and indirect capacities. Michelle has experienced firsthand some of those negative impacts.
Michelle Horkings-Brigham is a current MES student who will begin her thesis on the topic of marijuana this fall. When I first met Michelle last year, she told me the story of the long fight that has occupied her life for the past three and a half years.
In the early 1990s Michelle came to America and purchased land in Yelm, Washington. Shortly after, she began construction on her dream home: a log cabin. It was a project that took many years to complete and was accompanied by flower and vegetable gardens. Michelle’s dream home and garden manifested with her hard work and dedication to her vision. In 1997, Michelle met and fell in love with the man who is now her husband and they had a beautiful medieval ceremony on the property complete with a circle of granite stones. They continued to raise chickens and turkeys and expand upon Michelle’s dream for her gardens and orchard in Yelm. However, in 2006, an unexpected neighbor purchased the land next door and began producing illegal quantities of marijuana. They were eventually raided in 2008 by law enforcement.
Michelle explained that as a result of Initiative 502, when marijuana was legalized in Washington State, her neighbors began developing a commercial industrial-sized marijuana farm without legal land use permits and that their activities have been highly unregulated. In 2014, three acres of hillside on the neighboring property was deforested with the understory graded and tiered into two levels. Four large commercial greenhouses were erected on the unpermitted site. Michelle has fought to remove this unlawful large-scale marijuana growing installation for three years.
In the last year alone, I have been struck by the tremendous challenges that Michelle and her husband have faced in dealing with the growers and the overwhelming legal battle they’ve had to undergo. The fight to remove the illegal farm close to her house and gardens has in many ways occupied much of her time. At times, it has triggered a sense of helplessness in how her position as a neighbor to this industrialized marijuana farm has been dismissed. Michelle told me “We were referred to as Nimby’s (‘Not In My Back Yard’) but no one ever notified us about this dangerous intrusion. Nimby appears to be used as a way to diminish genuine complaints about injustices occurring to private citizens.” For these reasons, Michelle joined the MES program in order to write her thesis on this topic. She intends to address environmental and policy concerns surrounding the legalization of marijuana as demonstrated by her personal experience. Her research will discuss the potential of marijuana farming’s environmental degradation and excessive water consumption. Her thesis research in the master’s program, she hopes, will reveal a semblance of evidence demonstrating that marijuana regulations do not always provide sufficient protection to residents or the environment.
In July, I went to Michelle’s home in Yelm to see for myself the impact of the industrialized marijuana farm on her life. When I arrived on her street, Michelle came out to greet me at the end of the shared easement and had me park my car so I could ride with her to her cabin. She explained that her graveled access road is riddled with deep holes from the large trucks that have illegally brought plants and other materials to the marijuana farm. We drive through a large wetland and forested area until there is a break in the trees. In the middle of a clear-cut are four massive white greenhouses. Two are taller, or rather raised up on a platform of dirt so that they are tiered; two more are positioned on the level below. We enter her driveway around to the side and I see construction equipment, dump trucks and a pile of discarded building materials. “There’s more over there,” says Michelle, pointing north beyond the greenhouses. “When in full production you can smell the skunk-like odor of marijuana, but recently there hasn’t been a lot of activity in this area. When the workers create trash they don’t take it away. They used to just pile it up over there and burn it until we complained to ORCAA [Olympic Region Clean Air Agency]. Now they’re using that dump truck to hold their garbage. Garbage is still in piles all over the property.” She explains.
No one is working at the greenhouses right now and just remembering Michelle’s stories, I had really expected many people to be out there, possibly jeering at us as they have to Michelle after she reported some of their activities. She says that together with a good attorney they have been able to make a breakthrough in the legal battle therefore, all production and processing activity had been stopped at the moment.
It was so strange seeing this place in the middle of the woods. If Michelle hadn’t invited me here, I would never have known a marijuana farm existed in this rural residential area. It’s an industrialized farm and it looks completely out of place in the woods with the construction materials and the giant metal fences and cameras surrounding the dual complex. “There isn’t just one operation on the property but two,” Michelle explained. “We have records that state more than one marijuana farm is not allowed on a single parcel in Thurston County, yet outside investors came in from Seattle and paid for all this unpermitted construction. They rented space for their growing operation on what was supposed to be the storm water runoff area of the facility on the upper level.”
As we drive around the farm and onto Michelle’s property, I notice immediately that the plant composition changes when we cross her property line. The forest feels more full, lush and green, and the trees and small shrubby plants encroach her drive way and brush against her car as we pass through. Her drive opens up to a field and the sight of her log cabin is stunning. To the east side of her house is an immaculate flower garden with a path cut down the center. I tell her that it’s as if her home was a fairy garden it looks so enchanting.
Michelle takes me on a tour of her gardens first. We walk across her yard and I’m greeted by a whimsical archway. Beyond the gate lies an assortment of vegetable beds.
“Many of these veggie plants that you see have seeded themselves and I just let them do what they want.” Michelle tells me. “Unfortunately, the peace is often disturbed by our neighbors running a noisy generator to water more illegal marijuana growing right behind my garden.”
Her gardens are full of life and character.
Around the corner we see more beds, but these are reserved for flowers and less for vegetables. It is obvious that a great deal of care and time went into creating the spaces I see.
In the middle of the farthest garden I notice a covered wooden frame with a barbeque. I compliment her covered awning and she smiles. “I built this for my husband this last Spring Quarter as a distraction from homework.” She says.
Graduate school certainly has a way of making one feel that doing chores and building a barbeque cover are more appealing than homework.
We leave her gardens and head to another side of her expansive property. On our way Michelle points to the side of her yard where three or four dogs are caged on the property line to guard the marijuana that is growing illegally. She says she placed a pile of plant matter there to create a sort of fence between her property, the dogs, and the growers. “The dogs bark constantly when disturbed and throughout the night. It’s difficult to have a conversation at times,” she told me, “The barking can be so incredibly loud. I’ve counted at least nine dogs on the property.”
Further along the same path we are met with the very stone circle where she and her husband held their Arthurian-themed wedding ceremony. The center of the circle is full of blooming wildflowers. It’s a magical space reminiscent of stone circles I’ve seen in Scotland. “I come out here in the evenings and just sit right over there. It’s so peaceful when dogs aren’t barking and there are no generators running.” She says. “A rarity since our neighbors moved in.”
Next I am taken to the apple orchard that Michelle calls her husband’s pride and joy. She planted the apple trees but her husband has increased the variety of fruit and he now maintains the orchard. This year there are hardly any apples on their trees even though the year before there had been plenty. “We’re not sure why except that my husband’s bees didn’t do so well over the winter,” she tells me.
She points to a large tree in the far corner at the edge of the orchard.
“When I was looking for a place to live, I said my dream home would already have an apple tree. When I purchased this property, I did it without consideration for this part of my dream. I was out in the yard one day and found this massive apple tree full of stunning blossoms in the corner of the property and I knew this was my home.” Michelle smiles.
Beyond the orchard is a small trail to the left. The light streams through the trees that arch and lace together across the moss covered path. “This area is left untouched for the fairies.” Michelle says, and I can see why they might appreciate a trail such as this.
We continue through the fairy path and reach the west side of her house. She built an adjacent guest house she says will be the perfect location to write her thesis for its quiet, secluded space and view of her yard and cabin.
We then make our way to Michelle’s front porch, facing her gardens once again, and sit down to discuss marijuana. We talk more thoroughly about how the marijuana farm has impacted her home. I ask her if it feels like it’s stolen a part of her life. She tells me that it has definitely felt that way sometimes and that there have been days when she has wanted to leave because of feelings of hopelessness in her battle. We speak a lot about how challenging even talking about marijuana can be. She says that she usually prefaces discussion about her property by saying that she is pro-marijuana, because it could be easy for listeners to misunderstand her motivations in fighting to remove the marijuana farm next to her home. I find that an interesting conclusion to jump to; that being against an industrialized marijuana farm in a rural residential area translates to being against marijuana period; which in my opinion, is simply not true. “My husband and I voted to legalize marijuana,” Michelle tells me. “We were just naïve to believe that state and county regulations would protect residents from the type of unlawful invasion we have experienced in our community.”
We talk about the beneficial properties of marijuana that make it such a miracle for people suffering from chronic pain. This is a perspective of this plant I am quite familiar with. I tell Michelle about my own parents who have had to deal with chronic pain and the negative side-effects that come from using prescription narcotics. Seeing the difference in the way marijuana is able to increase their mobility and dull the pain, even temporarily, with limited side-effects has been incredible.
Michelle agrees and wishes for more research into the medicinal properties of marijuana. This story isn’t clear cut and there’s a lot of gray area surrounding its many complex facets. Which is why Michelle’s thesis and potential book will be titled: “Cannabis - The Conundrum: Medical Marvel; Environmental Enigma; Neighborhood Nightmare.” She plans to encompass not just her struggle with the marijuana farm since 2014, but also some of the environmental and social changes surrounding commercial marijuana production and processing that have occurred in Washington State in recent years.
Michelle has been thinking a lot about how to tackle her experience with the neighboring marijuana farm in her thesis. Previously, she had considered performing a natural science experiment to investigate how damaging marijuana farms can be to the environment. Acres of wetland lie just below the property next door to her. However, the legal struggles she’s gone through and much of the research she’s done during the last year she’s realized have been policy related. Her thesis direction, she now believes, will mainly focus on the policy issues surrounding the permitting, zoning and legalization of commercial marijuana operations in Thurston County and beyond. Perhaps her thesis will serve as a section of a book to follow? “I think the public needs to be warned by knowing what we have gone through.” She sighs. “No one should have to deal with such a battle.”
A few weeks after my visit, Michelle told me that her neighbors had finally been raided. Photographs taken by Michelle from the air, convinced law enforcement to finally act. Michelle rented a small plane ride one morning and flew over the farm to get quality pictures in her favorite Evergreen clothes, using a borrowed camera from the Evergreen media center for her thesis and private research. Unregistered plants were confiscated from the property. “The battle to regain the safety of our home and neighborhood isn’t over.” She said. “But this is definitely one step closer to having this nightmare come to a close.”
Michelle’s situation seems anomalous to me. The marijuana farm’s very presence near her property is jarring and strange. I’m most surprised when she tells me that in her many meetings, public hearings, and expanding research efforts, she has spoken to others also negatively impacted and they have also found few options to turn to. As an immigrant, Michelle built the dream that is her home all on her own. Her fight to remove the marijuana farm next door is also about learning how to prevent the same thing from happening to others so that they too can preserve their dreams.