Local Growers Give An Inside Look AT A Booming Multimillion-dollar Industry
The benevolent outlaw
"Nobody produces any better weed than we do here," says Raul G. Raul, a pot grower whose farm is somewhere between Santa Paula and Ojai. Raul likes to think of himself as a benevolent outlaw, supplying "medical" marijuana to clinics and "slanging [dealing] a little on the side to make people happy."
His plants are gorgeous, even ( or maybe even more so ) to a man in recovery who hasn't touched bud in 11 years. Some are easily 15 feet tall, with the sexiest flowers this side of Holland.
"Weed is as natural and wholesome as spinach," says Raul, adding, "and a lot more profitable."
Medical pot's reputation has been tarnished lately - LA County's DA is shutting down dispensaries, and investigators with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's narcotics unit have blamed at least one of the recent wildfires on a marijuana farm. But neither the negative publicity, nor, in fact, anything short of a bust, is going to put Raul out of business. Just one of his plants, he says, yields about two pounds of herb, which would be worth about $5,000; Raul boasts that his plants are worth "a cool green million."
The economics of weed are simple and seductive. It costs about $1,000 to grow a kilo ( 2.2 pounds ) of pot, which sells for up to $7,500 to a wholesaler. At a conservative $15 a gram, the $1,000 investment can ultimately be worth $15,000. If "medical marijuana" clinics are getting any part of the deal, you can imagine how sweet that is.
"You should go up to Humboldt County," said another grower. "It's pretty wild. There's 18-year-old kids who grow enough pot to own large houses with acres of land. Young kids in high school are growing quality pot."
Pot = profit, and in broke California, authorities can't keep up with increasing numbers of growers. They're also handcuffed by conflicting state, federal and county laws governing marijuana.
With low start-up and overhead costs, marijuana is the most profitable drug of all, according to local law enforcement officials. With that kind of profit margin, marijuana is increasingly filling the gap left by other failing industries, like lumber and fishing.
How marijuana became legal in California
In 1996, California passed the Compassionate Use Act, Proposition 215, which decriminalized medical marijuana. Proposition 215 was conceived by San Francisco marijuana activist Dennis Peron in memory of his partner, Adam West, who had used marijuana for AIDS.
Since then, 12 states have enacted similar laws. A federal appellate court has ruled that the federal government cannot punish - or even investigate - physicians for discussing or recommending the medical use of marijuana with patients.
State law allows anyone to grow a limited amount of marijuana for medicinal purposes as long as they have a prescription for it. In Ventura County, that amount is "six mature plants or 12 immature plants," and the amount can vary by county or even city. Moreover, some individuals have been granted an exemption from this amount, and in places like LA and Sonoma Counties "caregivers" are allowed "up to 99 plants in a 100-square-foot growing area plus three pounds of marijuana."
So in most places in California marijuana is effectively legal today. There are an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 medical marijuana patients in the state now, and the figure is rapidly growing. More surprisingly, there are about 1,000-plus medical marijuana dispensaries now operating in California and openly distributing the drug.
These "compassionate-care clinics" are outpatient facilities that sell marijuana and its concentrated resin forms, hashish and kif, sometimes alongside a range of enticing, non-inhaled alternatives, including marijuana-imbued brownies, cookies, gelati, honeys, butters, cooking oils ( "Not So Virgin" olive oil ), bottled cold drinks ( "enhanced" lemonade is the most popular ), capsules, lozenges, spray-under-the-tongue tinctures and even topically applied salves.
In Venice Beach, a shop called The Farmacy, one of three stores in a chain, uses a "pastry chef" to direct its baked goods operation. Most dispensaries offer plants and seeds.
To the Feds, though, it's all drug dealing.
The Federal Government vs. marijuana
The US Drug Enforcement Administration ( DEA ), NIDA ( National Institute of Drug Abuse ), and the Food and Drug Administration ( FDA ) all maintain that marijuana has "no currently accepted medical use."
The Feds continue to classify marijuana, like heroin, as a "Schedule I controlled substance," blocking doctors from prescribing it at all. Viciously addictive drugs like Oxycontin, ironically, are more leniently classified as Schedule II drugs, allowing prescription use.
Thirteen states now allow residents to use marijuana medicinally, typically as an anti-nausea and anti-vomiting agent, for example, for those in chemotherapy; to assuage chronic pain, for movement disorders and muscle spasticity, e.g., multiple sclerosis, and as an appetite stimulant for AIDS and cancer patients.
Another 15 states are weighing legislation or ballot initiatives that could turn them into medical marijuana states by next year.
Under Presidents Bush, Clinton and Bush Jr., the US Justice Department treated state medical marijuana laws as nullities. Such laws were contradicted and therefore preempted by federal drug laws, the Justice Department reasoned, and the US Supreme Court upheld that position in 2005.
So the Feds raided and prosecuted defendants who said they were complying with state medical marijuana laws. In court, defendants were not allowed to tell juries about the existence of those laws.
In late February, President Obama signaled a new approach. His attorney general, Eric Holder, confirmed at a press conference that he would no longer subject individuals who were complying with state medical marijuana laws to federal drug raids and prosecutions.
By the way, the last three presidents have all admitted trying pot, but apparently no one ever got high off of it until Obama, who, when asked if he inhaled, quipped, "I thought that was the point."
How it works
To obtain a prescription for marijuana in California, you must go to a clinic and make an appointment for an exam. The exam, which includes a "free" ID card and "free verification," will cost around $150.
The doctor will ask you about this condition of yours that requires marijuana. The law allows physicians to recommend marijuana for disorders like cancer, anorexia ( loss of appetite and inability to eat ), AIDS, chronic pain, glaucoma, arthritis and a migraine. ( Asthma apparently justifies a need for medical pot as well, according to one clinic. ) The exam will usually take less than half an hour.
Then you will be handed a "prescription" for marijuana - good for one year, with no refill limits. The next step is to find a dispensary where you can actually get the prescription filled. For that, check out PotLocator.com for doctor referrals, prices and locations.
The domestic grower
"Robby D." is a round-faced, shaved-head Iranian kid who lives in Beverly Hills and grows pot for a living.
Robby spent a day in jail in 2006 because he grew too many female marijuana plants. How many is too many? In LA County, the limit is only "six mature plants or 12 immature plants and eight ounces of bud."
Robby was arrested when a SWAT team of Sheriff's Department deputies, equipped with weapons and an armful of warrants, burst into his house and swept him and his plants, and many of his possessions, including his computer, away. He spent a day in jail before his wealthy family bailed him out.
Thus began an arduous legal battle, headed by a famous attorney/marijuana advocate who eventually got Robby off with rehab and probation.
You'd think that Robby would have learned his lesson from that experience, but he still grows marijuana today, in another Beverly Hills home that is a little farther away from his original bust. Why does Robby persist? "The lifestyle is addictive. Lots of girls around the house, lots of great weed and other drugs, and easy money."
Robby sells some of his weed to a marijuana dispensary in Studio City. This dispensary is the hub of a "collective," a group of people associated with the dispensary who have legal marijuana cards obtained from California marijuana "clinics."
But he makes most of his money selling weed illegally on the street.
California's pot guidelines
Although there are exceptions for both locale and situation, California has what are called its SB 420 Statewide Default Patient Guidelines: "To be as safe as possible from arrest and prosecution, patients and caregivers should stay below the medical marijuana immunity law passed by the California Legislature, HS 11362.77, which sets a minimum statewide guideline of six mature plants or 12 immature plants and up to eight ounces of processed cannabis flowers. Cities and counties are empowered to set guidelines that are greater than those amounts, but not less." However, a "physician's note exempts larger amounts."
To make the matter even more confusing, the California Attorney General has issued his own set of guidelines. These are not binding law, but give an idea of how prosecutors will consider the circumstances of a medical marijuana patient or garden. These guidelines are exactly the same as those above, with the proviso that "if a qualified patient or primary caregiver has a doctor's recommendation that this quantity does not meet the qualified patient's medical needs, the qualified patient or primary caregiver may possess an amount of marijuana consistent with the patient's needs."
The grower's garden of grass
Marijuana is dioecious, meaning that it has separate male and female plants. In nature, the male plants fertilize the female plants with pollen that infiltrates the flowers. Growers cull out the male plants and cultivate only females. The unpollinated, sterile plants then produce prodigious flowers in an attempt to entice nonexistent males, and create Buddha plants that are rich in resin and THC content. This sterile technique produces marijuana without seeds.
There is a whole lingo around pot growing that has cropped ( no pun intended ) up: "Mids" are plants that have been grown in the presence of males, and "crip" is weed that was grown only with other females. Crip has a higher THC and resin content and hence potency. Other common terms for seeded, or otherwise low-quality, cannabis are schwag, regs, booty, greta or mersh. There are strains galore, and more are being invented every day, with poetic names like Jack Herer, Bubba Kush and HOG.
A grower in the San Fernando Valley says, "There are four basic price categories for weed. Indoor Kush fetches the most, especially 'OG Kush,' which can get you $4,800 to $5,500 a pound. Other indoor strains range from $3,500 to $4,600.
Greenhouse strains can go from $2,800 to $3,200, and finally, outdoor strains can range from $1,000 to $2,500 a pound. All of these usually have few, if any, seeds. People whose herb has seeds don't generally even try to sell to the clubs."
"We used to call the first price category 'kush,' and the second 'chronic' or 'purps,' if it was purple weed. The third is called 'greenhouse' and the last is called 'outdoor,' " he continued.
"Nobody really uses seeds anymore. Nearly all medical growers use clones, which are rooted cuttings of a mother plant, and are genetically identical to the mother. This means they are 100 percent guaranteed to be female, with no chance of seeds in the buds. Clones are available at many collectives and are priced $5 to $15 per clone. There are even some clone-only collectives, which do not even sell the finished product."
There are Web sites, forum, and blogs, too numerous to mention here, devoted to growing herb. Small-time stoners and entrepreneurs alike exchange pictures of their prized projects, information on their "grows" ( crops or plants ), techniques on fertilization, harvesting, drying and curing, and just about everything related to weed. Growing pot is not only big business, it's a culture.
There is a perception that most medical marijuana is grown by the US government and universities, with arcane scientific names like X-239. There is an urban myth that a potent strain called G-13 was created by the CIA, which had nothing better to do in the 1970s than develop powerful strains of cannabis. This strain was purportedly a bona fide superweed, with a concentration of 28 percent.
There are rumors that the University of Washington, under government contract, was also involved in the development of this strain. One story states that a single cutting of this potent strain was leaked by students, and local growers managed to cross-breed the G-13 with blueberry strains, creating PG-13 in the late '90s, so nicknamed because of its purple color. The truth is that, although the University of Mississippi assembled a world-class cannabis collection during the late 1960s and early 1970s, there is no evidence that those researchers were ever involved in breeding high quality cannabis.
By contrast, back in the day of flower power and free love, good commercial-grade marijuana available to most smokers had a THC content of about 2 percent to 5 percent, and premium sinsemilla had a THC content that was somewhat higher. Today, the good commercial grade marijuana available to most users has a THC content of about 5 to 10 percent, and premium sinsemilla is about 10 percent to 20 percent THC.
There is only one legal marijuana farm and production facility in the United States, and it is indeed located on the campus of the University of Mississippi. This is the government's "cannabis drug repository."
Since 1968, the National Institute on Drug Abuse has contracted with the university lab to grow, harvest and process marijuana and to ship it to licensed facilities across the country for research purposes. The lab also collects samples of marijuana seized by police to determine its potency and to document national drug trends.
There is a small group of patients - like a guy named Irv Rosenfeld, who can be found on low-quality videos all over the Internet - who actually gets medical marijuana legally from the federal government. Rosenfeld is part of the Compassionate IND ( Investigational New Drug ) program, and he legally receives about 300 marijuana cigarettes in a metal tin per month.
Contrary to stoner lore, the government's weed, like its cheese, isn't very good. According to reports, it has very low potency and is full of seeds and stems.
Pot gone wild
There is really no purely "legal" medical marijuana in California. If you buy from a dispensary, somewhere along the line some of that weed was illegally grown or traded.
When states like California craft legal loopholes allowing medical use of marijuana, they must grapple with the tricky question of what precisely constitutes medical use. And let's face it; doctors regularly prescribe powerful drugs like Oxycontin and Xanax to patients who are hardly at death's door.
"Medical marijuana is God's little joke on the [marijuana] prohibitionists," says Richard Cowan, 69, a longtime legalization activist.
And marijuana, both medical and recreational, will continue to grow and be grown in California for a long, long time.
December 3, 2009