COURSEY: A violent market for a mellow drug

Why would anyone kill three people over a marijuana deal?

I've heard the question in several conversations this week as Sonoma County absorbs the news that three men were shot dead at a house in rural Forestville during what authorities describe as a marijuana deal gone bad.

The question comes from ordinary folks who see marijuana as a relatively benign drug, one that is fully legal to use in some states and in California is permitted for medical use — "medical" being broad enough to allow practically anyone to get a doctor's recommendation and buy pot at retail establishments on some of Sonoma County's busiest commercial boulevards.

So why would anyone get killed over it?

I have no special knowledge of what happened on Tuesday near the end of Ross Station Road, and sheriff's detectives aren't offering many details. But it doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to figure out that this crime wasn't about pot.

It was about money.

Despite its tilt toward the mainstream, marijuana remains primarily a black-market business. It involves large amounts of cash that trades hands in clandestine meetings among people who don't necessarily know or trust each other. They often carry guns and other weapons.

This is not speculation; we read about it in the paper all the time. Twenty-two people have died in pot-related killings in the last decade on the North Coast. In the space of one week in late January, Sonoma County law enforcement agencies reported a traffic stop on Highway 101 in which four Southern California residents were traveling home from Humboldt County with 15 pounds of pot and three guns in the car, a home-invasion robbery in Santa Rosa where a man was bound with tape and pistol-whipped before his assailants stole his marijuana, and a kidnapping in Petaluma where three armed suspects were arrested in a vehicle full of methamphetamine and marijuana.

It may be a mellow drug, but it's often a violent business.

The story of the Southern California travelers is increasingly common on the North Coast. Sonoma County and other North Coast locales are "net exporters" of pot, law enforcement officials say, with much of the local product transported to the south and the east by outsiders who drive here with a car full of money and leave with a car full of pot. Last fall, officers from several local police departments performing "drug interdiction" patrols on Highway 101 seized more than $400,000 in cash and 328 pounds of pot during traffic stops on the highway.

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