Humboldt County, California, is one of America’s most distinctive farming towns, with roughly 30,000 people (more than a fifth of the population) active in marijuana cultivation. On Urban Dictionary, “Humboldt” is described as a “marijuana haven in Northern California… [with] some of the best buds in the world,” according to one popular definition. Humboldt is too wacky tobacky what North Carolina is to tobacco, and inhabitants want to keep their most famous product out of legal markets.

“Save Humboldt County—Keep Pot Illegal” was a sticker plastered on vehicles, shacks, and homesteads in this lonely, highly forested wilderness area in the run-up to the vote for California’s cannabis regulatory measure in 2010, which would have largely legalized the drug. Experts anticipate that if the pot is legalized in California (which is extremely likely to happen by 2016 at the latest), the price of Humboldt weed will collapse, bringing local companies down with it.

The plants have gotten so intertwined with the local economy that experts estimate that marijuana growing accounts for a quarter of all revenue in Humboldt. Because many marijuana growers don’t pay taxes (or even use banks; they bury their money underground in plastic tubes and glass bottles), local services are supported by marijuana money, which has been used to purchase fire engines, establish a local radio station, two community centers, and small schools.

The world behind the “Redwood Curtain,” as residents call it, is unlike any other in the United States. Shops and restaurants admit that the money brought in by marijuana is crucial to their existence, and nail salons have sprung up to cater to the area’s growing number of young ladies known as “pot princesses” (or, behind their backs, “prostitutes”) who romance the wealthy marijuana moguls. “Legalization of marijuana will be the single most devastating economic disaster in Northern California’s long boom-and-bust history,” one producer said.

Of course, basing a whole economy on illegal activity has its drawbacks. Although less common than in the 1980s, police raids can sweep up an entire family’s harvest, and there are ample possibilities for gun-toting robbers to prey on growing operations. When shooters showed up at the residence of a couple in their 60s, they were relieved of seven pounds of processed marijuana, as well as multiple guns and thousands of dollars in cash. Between 2004 and 2012, 23 of the 38 homicides in Humboldt County were drug-related.

I chatted with journalist Emily Brady, who spent a year living behind the Redwood Curtain for her book, Humboldt: Life on America’s Marijuana Frontier, to learn more about this covert narco-economy.

Vice: How did cannabis take over Humboldt County?

Emily Brady (Emily Brady): During the late 1960s and early 1970s, several of San Francisco’s young counterculture hippies joined the “back-to-the-land” movement, which advocated moving out of the city, producing your food, and building your own home. A large number of them relocated to Northern California. When they arrived in Humboldt, they discovered a lovely spot with cheap land, so they built small shacks. Hippies enjoyed using marijuana, and some of them planted the seeds of their Mexican cannabis alongside their veggies.

Around this period, the US government funded a marijuana crop-spraying program in Mexico, which supplied the majority of America’s pot at the time. As a result, the hippies began to grow marijuana, first for themselves and subsequently to sell to their city friends. The marijuana industry in Humboldt started just as the forestry sector in the area was declining. The majority of hippies were broke and on welfare from the start.

When did it become the large-scale enterprise that we are familiar with today?

The introduction of the sinsemilla (“seedless” in Spanish) growing technique, which involves removing all-male plants, was the turning point for Humboldt’s embryonic marijuana sector. The females become sexually dissatisfied and create a large amount of resin to collect the male pollen. THC is present in the wax, which makes you high. Sinsemilla is more powerful and fetches a higher price, so it was no surprise that everyone began cultivating it. Because the government’s war on drugs hadn’t started in the 1970s, there wasn’t any backlash, and people thought it was a simple way to make a living in the woods.

Many ranchers and loggers moved into the marijuana business because they saw it as a lucrative opportunity. Initially, there was a cultural clash between the generally clean-cut, church-going rancher types and the hippies, who had long hair and appeared to have loose morals. But soon, bumper stickers with the phrase “Another Logger Gone to Pot” began to appear on pickup trucks. Many loggers still wanted to be loggers, but there was no job, so growing marijuana was a solution for staying in the place they loved.