In the wilds of California’s Pot country, men fast-rope from a rented helicopter into a forest both dense and remote. Clad in body armor and camouflage and carrying AR-15 rifles, they creep through the trees toward their target: one of the illegal marijuana gardens dotting Mendocino County.
What looks like a military assault force is, in fact, a for-profit operation of Lear Asset Management, a private security firm. Paul Trouette, its CEO, is not a cop or a soldier. He is a longtime county fish-and-game commissioner and the head of an association devoted to preserving local herds of black-tailed deer. Trouette founded Lear in 2012 in response to the county’s epidemic of “trespass” marijuana crops. Private landowners and timber companies pay the firm to chop down hidden gardens, and government grants fund environmental-reclamation efforts.
Lear’s business model is rooted in the region’s complicated relationship with weed. Mendocino constitutes one-third of Northern California’s Emerald Triangle, the capital of American cannabis cultivation. By some estimates, two-thirds of the local economy is linked to pot. But many longtime growers are the product of the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s. They have no truck with fly-by-night newcomers who strew trash through the woods, poison wildlife and pollute streams. Armed watchmen have terrorized hikers, guarding thirsty plants that suck up vast quantities of water amid a crippling drought.
Tension between locals and outsiders has also led to legal tangles, threatening marijuana’s national momentum. California allows residents to grow as many as six marijuana plants, and Mendocino permits 25. But federal law still classifies pot as a drug on par with heroin. In 2012 the feds stopped Mendocino from licensing cultivation under the supervision of its sheriff. A year earlier, the district attorney launched a program that trades restitution fees for a reduced sentence. The change produced an economic windfall but also led to charges that it lets wealthier criminals purchase leniency.
The persistent confusion irks nearly everyone in the Triangle, including Trouette. “I think the federal government would do everybody a big favor,” he says, “by regulating this industry.”
This appears in the September 29, 2014 issue of TIME.