LAYTONVILLE, Calif. — The man in brightly colored tie-dye frowns when he grabs a pruner from his work shed and heads to his garden.
James Taylor Jones approaches a bushy marijuana plant, 6 feet tall and almost as wide. The pruner's blade grabs hold of the stalk, and Jones squeezes the handles together.
He walks to another plant and does the same.
"This one is Headband," Jones says, naming the variety.
"Don't tell me that as you're cutting it," his wife, Fran Harris, pleads.
Thus ends the Peace and Love Medical Marijuana Collective.
Here in Mendocino County — where generations of mom-and-pop outlaws have made a living growing pot and dodging the cops — who could have predicted that legality would be more uncertain than illegality?
For the first time in their lives, Jones and Harris expected to be completely legit pot entrepreneurs this year. But spooked by federal raids of other northern California growers, scared about the risks even though they said they followed state and local laws, they decided to shut the collective down midway through the growing season.
"We don't want to go to jail," Jones says. "It's that simple."
"It's such a huge gray area right now," Harris says. "What appears to be legal now might not be legal next year."
Stories like Jones and Harris' offer a reminder that marijuana legalization — if ever it comes — likely won't be a smooth process. Predictions of what a world of legalized marijuana would look like are based on assumptions that can't be verified and expectations that may prove slippery.
Pundits and some politicians extol the tax money legal marijuana could bring in. But if legalization sends prices plunging, so, too, would the revenue.
Others argue legalizing marijuana would cripple the black market. But if new regulations and taxes encourage growers and users to remain underground, the black market — and the drug cartels that feast on it — would continue to thrive.
Individual states may legalize marijuana first — California voters will decide this year on limited legalization. But if the federal government doesn't go along, does any of it really matter?
In short, all the things that make medical marijuana such a complicated and contentious issue would likely only intensify with full legalization.
"The gray area in marijuana, I've never seen it decrease," said Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman. "Courts don't agree with legislators, who don't agree with voters, who don't agree with the governor."
Allman's office provides a good example. In an effort to separate the good marijuana growers from the bad, Allman and other county officials created a crop certification program. People growing under California's medical-marijuana laws could have up to 99 plants on their property if they followed certain rules, like putting a tall fence around the plants and having a sheriff's deputy come out for an inspection.
The Sheriff's Office also began selling zip ties with the words "Mendocino County MMP" — for "Medical Marijuana Program" — on them. Growers paid $25 apiece for the ties and received some peace of mind that their plants were legal. Last year, Allman's office sold $30,000 worth of zip ties.
But this summer, federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents raided a medical-marijuana grower in the county and eradicated her plants — the first time zip-tied plants in the county had been pulled, according to locals.
"I felt that I would be safe because of Sheriff Allman's program," said Joy Greenfield, the 69-year-old fashionably dressed grandmother with pink-painted fingernails whose "grow" the DEA agents raided. She was speaking before a roomful of growers gathered in Ukiah in late July to hear her story and talk about the situation.
Declining to disclose details of the ongoing federal investigation, Allman suggested there was more to the raid than just busting a run-of-the-mill medical-marijuana grower. But either way, he said, his program can't buy cover from the DEA.
"The Sheriff's Office is not a pot-protection racket," he said. "You're not talking to Jimmy Hoffa here."
Predictions about potential marijuana tax money provide another good example of the uncertainty.
Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron, a noted libertarian, estimated in a February report that legalizing marijuana would bring a $20.1 billion boost to government budgets nationwide. About two-thirds of that, Miron reasoned, would come in savings from not enforcing marijuana laws. The remaining $6.4 billion, he estimated, would be from new tax revenue. (Colorado's boost, he wrote, would be an estimated $145.2 million in savings and $34.8 million in tax revenue.)
In calculating tax revenue, Miron assumed marijuana usage rates would remain the same while prices would drop by half. A study by the nonprofit RAND Corp., though, suggests both of those assumptions might not hold.
In the report, RAND researchers say legalization in California could drop the price of marijuana by as much as 80 percent. But having prices dip so low, they wrote, might create a marijuana consumption surge of more than 50 percent. Uncertain tax rate structures, usage patterns and even pot potency also muddle the revenue picture, the RAND researchers concluded.
Vanderbilt University law professor Robert Mikos has predicted that a significant portion of the marijuana market might stay underground even after legalization, both to avoid taxes and to avoid the risk of federal prosecution.
"A marijuana tax may not be the budget panacea many proponents claim," Mikos wrote in a study to be published this year. "To be sure, there are reasonable arguments favoring legalization of marijuana; rescuing the states from dire fiscal straits, however, is not one of them."
That all of this instability would rattle northern California marijuana growers is understandable. Marijuana is to the region what automobiles are to Detroit or beer is to Milwaukee — a source of both economic support and social pride. As the area's traditional timber and fishing industries have declined, the importance of marijuana has only increased.
Legalization, by dropping the price of marijuana and opening the industry to the more cautious, threatens to undo northern California's advantage and thus its pot economy. Prices have already fallen for the region's marijuana from about $4,000 a pound to about $2,000 a pound as a result of the medical-marijuana boom, growers said.
"I don't think people need to worry about mass dislocation immediately," said Pebbles Trippet, a revered marijuana activist in the region. "We just need to get prepared to alter our way of life."
By John Ingold
The Denver Post
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