Into the unknown: A marijuana grower walks in his field in Mendocino County, where as much as two-thirds of the local economy depends on pot. Photo: Lauren Lancaster
When my wife and I bought a house last year in the little town of Ukiah, California, the first person to offer us advice about growing marijuana was our realtor. The house was a stolid 1909 prairie box that had been partitioned into four units, with a front porch, dark green trim, and a couple of fruit trees in the yard. It was charming, but we probably would have settled for a yurt. What mattered most to us was having a foothold in Mendocino County, a place we had long ago decided was the most beautiful in America.
Our realtor, however, drew our attention to the house’s electrical meters. There were four in total, one for each unit. If we ever wanted to grow a few indoor pot gardens, he said, we had an ideal setup. I laughed and thanked him for the tip.
Then the advice kept coming. A neighbor offered to help me get started with a few plants whenever I was ready. The owner of a local hydroponics supply store shook my hand and encouraged me to stop by his warehouse. “We’ll set you up,” he said. Ukiah, I realized, was weirder than I thought.
I’d always known that pot was a huge part of the county’s livelihood, accounting for two-thirds of the local economy, by some estimates. But in eight years of visiting the place with my wife—including one gloriously unsuccessful four-month experiment in backcountry living—I’d never so much as set eyes on a seven-fingered leaf. Then, last year, I began exploring the region’s cannabis economy in earnest, setting out for dirt roads in the hills and basements in Ukiah, occasionally wearing a blindfold.
Gradually a new picture of Mendocino County began to emerge. Neighborhoods in town were dotted with light-flooded outbuildings packed with plants, quietly paying the mortgages of those who tended them. And the county’s amber and green hills were full of homesteaders who for decades had been leading the kind of existence we’d once failed at—men and women who’d come for the land but managed to stay because of marijuana. Many had built their own off-grid homes and outfitted them with elaborate solar arrays, potbellied stoves, and well-tended gardens. In an age of homemade baby food, fire-escape agriculture, and home-brew chic, they’d achieved an almost mythical ideal: economic independence derived from a small piece of earth.
The rub, of course, was that these paragons of yeoman virtue were often antisocial, paranoid wrecks. Marijuana’s high price under prohibition made it possible to earn a decent living from a small patch, but someone was always losing a crop, fleeing into the woods, or going to jail. “It’s like the sharks come in and just eat a few people,” one grower told me. Mendocino County, in short, is as tortured by prohibition as it is dependent on it. But what agonizes the county even more these days is the thought that it could all be coming to an end.
On November 2, Californians go to the polls to vote on whether to start treating cannabis as just another adult recreational drug. The Regulate, Control, and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010—also known as Proposition 19—would legalize the possession and cultivation of pot in small amounts for adults, while handing the authority to regulate commercial marijuana production and distribution down to counties and cities. Polls as of this writing show that the measure might well pass. If it does, the Rand Corporation predicts that the price of marijuana will fall by as much as 80 percent. But even if the referendum doesn’t pass, a new initiative will almost certainly reach the ballot in 2012, and growers, dispensary owners, and pro-pot local governments will continue to test the boundaries of the state’s fourteen-year-old medical marijuana law. Whatever happens on November 2, the edifice of prohibition is crumbling in California, and one of the largest informal economies in America is inexorably emerging into the mainstream.
In the process, a great scramble has commenced. A sundry cast of industrialists and old-line homesteaders, cartel growers, and hipster dispensary owners are fighting to determine the future of California’s largest cash crop. In a replay of history as both tragedy and farce, the mainstreaming of marijuana promises to revive a host of old American dramas: from the contending but always recessive vision of the nation as a prosperous agrarian republic, to the country’s founding relationship with lucrative mind-altering substances, to the frenzied migrations of the gold rush, to the industrialization of agriculture, and the closing of the western frontier. Rarely have these events reached conclusions that were altogether happy or fair. The forces of consolidation and backroom politics have usually benefited the big at the expense of the small. But is there any chance that this time, in a comedy of stoners, the story of American industry might find a different end?
n the early-morning hours of October 8, 2009, a category-one typhoon made landfall on the southern coast of Japan, killing two men, shutting down twelve Toyota factories, and suspending rail service across Tokyo. Then it pushed back out to sea and vanished over the cold expanse of the North Pacific. A few days later the front reappeared off the coast of Northern California. In Mendocino County, news of the approaching storm rousted a throng of dusty vehicles from the hills, causing traffic jams and long lines at supply stores in Ukiah, the county seat. The backcountry’s marijuana growers, hurrying to prepare for a forced harvest, were out in full strength.
I happened to be riding shotgun in one of those dusty vehicles, a creaking white delivery van driven by a blue-eyed, ponytailed marijuana grower named Matthew Cohen. A lanky thirty-two-year-old with wraparound shades and a goatee, Cohen had agreed to show me the ropes of harvest season.
The inland hills of Mendocino County reliably see no rainfall between the months of May and October, an interval during which the sun blazes, as one 1880 history of the area put it, “as if fully determined to prove to mankind that it can shine more fervidly to-day than it did yesterday.” That plenitude of sun, which is shared by Mendocino’s neighbors, Humboldt and Trinity counties, has helped cement the region’s status as the capital of American cannabis production—known collectively as the “Emerald Triangle.” Topography has also helped. The region is essentially a crumple zone emanating from an offshore junction of three tectonic plates. Seen from the air, it resembles a sheet of green aluminum foil that has been tightly balled up and then only loosely flattened out. The area spreads from the Pacific in the west to the mountains above the Central Valley in the east in a shatter-pattern of canyons, occasional bowl-like valleys, and arcing slopes. It’s virtually unpoliceable.
With full sun, healthy marijuana plants in Mendocino County can reach heights of fifteen feet. But fully grown specimens—gangly things—break up in wet weather. The outdoor cannabis growing season thus becomes a race to bring one’s crop to maturity before the first heavy October rains, whose forecast each year ordains a rare moment of synchronicity in an otherwise atomized trade. Every farmer with plants in the sun has to bring them down at the same time.
Like most of his peers, Cohen was on his way into town to pick up supplies for his trimmers, the laborers who break the resinous crop down into so many perfect little buds, working as fast as possible to get the product out to market. It’s painstaking, labor-intensive work, and getting stoned in the process is hard to avoid—so snacks are important. Our first stop was the Ukiah Natural Foods Cooperative, the area’s premier depot for goods like solar-brewed beer, organic corn chips, and Tofurkey. In one of the aisles, Cohen slowed his shopping cart to chat with another grower about the approaching storm. “Big one,” said the other guy with a hint of melodrama. “Like 1.8 inches, high winds. So—keep that in mind.” The store had the feeling of a base camp before an expedition.
In search of Pepsi, we headed across the street to Safeway. Just inside the automatic doors was a large product display at the head of an aisle. “Turkey bags,” Cohen said. “You ever heard of these?”
A turkey bag, I learned, is a Reynolds product designed for roasting poultry. It also happens to be the industry-standard container for transporting pounds of pot. The chemical properties that keep a plastic roasting bag from melting in a 350-degree oven also make it impervious to the skunk smell of marijuana. “I’ve seen guys buy cases of ’em,” said the checkout clerk, dragging two boxes of turkey bags for Cohen across the infrared scanner. He looked up with a grin. “I mean, I guess they could use them to cook turkeys.”
By now I was beginning to recognize the signs of harvest everywhere. At Home Depot, just down the road, bins near the checkout lanes heaved with Fiskars Pruning Snips—small florist’s shears that are the tool of choice for marijuana trimmers. On Highway 101 on the way out of town, Cohen and I zoomed past several hitchhikers—would-be trimmers—stationed along each of Ukiah’s dry brown interchanges. One of them, thumb out, wore a pair of pruning snips on a piece of twine around his neck.
After traversing an ever-narrowing series of county roads, Cohen pulled up to his farm on a gravel driveway. A keypad-activated electric gate opened onto a sprawling organic garden flush with tomatoes, corn, broccoli, beets, and other vegetables. A more distinctly fragrant crop grew in a greenhouse toward the back of the property.
In his bid to weather the transition to a post-prohibition business, Cohen had just launched a medical marijuana cooperative with an unusual model: there would be no marijuana dispensary. Instead, the cooperative, called Northstone Organics, would deliver sustainably grown cannabis “farm direct” from Mendocino County to the Bay Area. Included in the deliveries would be fresh organic vegetables from Cohen’s farm: mizuna alongside the marijuana. As time went on, Cohen hoped, other small organic growers would join the cooperative and do an end run around the big-city medical marijuana dispensaries, which folks in Mendocino were beginning to regard as high-handed and domineering. Ultimately, in a post-prohibition era, he wanted to see the county bloom with scores of “cannabisseries”—roadside farms with tasting rooms pitched to the day-tripping connoisseur. “As you’re driving the 128 through Boonville, tasting champagne,” he enthused in his farmhouse office, “you’ll be able to roll into a facility that’s processing 500 pounds of cannabis a year—a nice little microbrew, they specialize in a specific varietal of Bubba Kush.” In his vision, the entire county would be branded under the line, “Small farms, strong communities, sustainable living.”
“You know,” he said with a mildly embarrassed laugh, “every good value that exists in this county is what we’re gonna try to embody in a tourist trap.”
he largest dispensaries in California—the entities that Matt Cohen is hoping to sideline—are based in the San Francisco East Bay, primarily in Oakland. That a perennially struggling port city should have emerged as the capital of the nascent marijuana industry was mostly a political accident. In February of 2004, the Oakland City Council, alarmed by a proliferation of fly-by-night medical marijuana storefronts in the city center, reduced the number of dispensary permits it would grant to four. Later that year, the neighboring Berkeley City Council followed suit, limiting its number of dispensaries to three.
For the dispensaries that remained, the two ordinances established near-monopoly power over a huge medical marijuana market. The Oakland marina is now home to the world’s largest marijuana storefront operation, a dispensary called Harborside Health Center, which serves 58,000 patient members and brought in $21 million in revenue last year. Steve DeAngelo, the dispensary’s ingenious pigtailed CEO, has spared no expense to give the center a wholesome, unthreatening look, with large windows, soothing interior design, and biometric locks on every door. The dispensary counter has the feel of a checkout desk at an unusually nice school library. Digital readouts on the cash registers stream the words, “Out of the shadows, into the light.”
Essentially forbidden from turning a profit, large dispensaries are often left with piles of surplus “discretionary income,” with which they have been able to purchase much goodwill. Harborside offers all of its members free yoga classes, chiropractics, acupuncture, marijuana-growing clinics, and even rehab. Other dispensaries put money toward neighborhood beautification and other civic causes. Berkeley Patients Group, the largest dispensary in its home city, has become such a local darling that city leaders officially declared October 31, 2009, “Berkeley Patients Group Day.”
When I stopped by Berkeley Patients Group for a visit last year, the dispensary was in the midst of a rebranding campaign, positioning itself to expand into other states. “Eventually it’ll evolve into just BPG,” explained Brad Senesac, the dispensary’s marketing director. “We won’t be Berkeley Patients Group. Then we won’t have to be a patients group, eventually. We can just be a dispensary where people come and get marijuana.” Last year, after Maine legalized medical marijuana and handed out six permits to dispensaries, a BPG spinoff called Northeast Patients Group won four of them.
Perhaps no individual exemplifies the consolidated political power that has accrued to Oakland’s dispensaries more than a wheelchair-bound former roadie named Richard Lee. Headquartered in downtown Oakland, Lee runs a several-block empire that includes Oaksterdam University, a trade school he founded in 2007 for workers in the medical marijuana industry; the Blue Sky Cafe, a coffee shop–style dispensary; and the campaign headquarters of Proposition 19. While other dispensaries in the area have put their discretionary funds into acupuncture clinics and out-of-state expansion, Lee has used the wealth of Oaksterdam—to the tune of over a million dollars—to get Proposition 19 on the ballot and to run its campaign.
When I interviewed Lee this August, he had just come back from a Proposition 19 fund-raiser in Los Angeles. An avowed free-market libertarian, he has always lamented Oakland’s decision to limit its number of dispensaries. But toward the backwoods farmers of the Emerald Triangle, who complain about his undue influence on the trade, Lee is unsympathetic. “The growers can operate behind the scenes quietly. They don’t give anybody their address and Social Security number, whereas the dispensaries have been right out there leading with their chin,” he said. “Maybe that’s why the dispensaries have a little more political power.” Lots of growers see Proposition 19 as a law designed to give even more sway to Oakland’s big pot entrepreneurs, who would be best positioned to negotiate the most favorable local regulations. But Lee, from his office in Oaksterdam, views the initiative as a simple matter of civil rights. “I got into this to just legalize it,” he said. “I didn’t get into it to protect the small grower or the big grower.”
ultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens,” wrote Thomas Jefferson. “They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country, and wedded to its interests by the most lasting bonds.” The first marijuana growers in Mendocino and Humboldt counties were urban castaways who went “back to the land” in the 1960s and ’70s, many of them chasing a latter-day version of the Jeffersonian ideal. They came to “unplug” from the ignobility of consumer society, to find an existence that was at once less fragmented and more self-sufficient. The Redwood Empire was an obvious destination. The region’s fishing and timber industries had collapsed, and the countryside was wide open with marginal land that had already been logged. Property was cheap and abundant.
“We bought 300 acres for $60,000,” says John Schaeffer, a white-bearded homesteader who arrived in Mendocino County in 1971. “This was at a time when you had people from New York, Los Angeles, the Bay Area all moving in here.” At first the latter-day Jeffersonians barely got by; they built houses with salvaged timber, sometimes from old redwood chicken coops, then scraped together subsistence incomes however they could. Many lived off the power grid, raising their families by kerosene lamp. “Everyone was struggling,” says Schaeffer. “No one had any money.” Meanwhile, in their fields, along with all the food they were growing, they sowed marijuana.
At the time—the height of marijuana consumption in America—almost all of the country’s commercial supply came from Mexico and Colombia. “Homegrown” was regarded as something akin to bathtub gin. Then, beginning in the mid-1970s, the Mexican government began spraying marijuana fields in the Sierra Madre Mountains with Paraquat, an herbicide poisonous to humans. When some of the tainted pot found its way into the American supply, panic ensued.
The drug trade needed a new source, and in Mendocino County, the marijuana that people were already growing in their gardens suddenly began wholesaling for $1,000 a pound. Almost overnight, the back-to-the-landers—who had just dropped out of consumer society—found themselves blessed with an abundance of purchasing power. Many wound up putting their money toward counterculture ideals that have since gone mainstream: organic food, localism, sustainability. Before long, businesses cropped up, eager to create markets around their aims and preferences.
The best example of how pot helped incubate the green economy is probably John Schaeffer himself. In 1978, he opened a store in the town of Willits called Real Goods, aimed at provisioning the off-grid homesteader. Initially, many of his wares were just supplies for growers: drip lines, chicken manure, fencing materials. Then one day a man representing the Southern California energy firm ARCO Solar showed up at the Willits store in a Porsche. He had with him two blemished photovoltaic panels; ARCO was manufacturing them for the space industry. “They didn’t meet military specifications, so they had to dump them,” Schaeffer recalls. “They were going for $900 apiece.” Schaeffer bought the two panels and set them up in the store, marketing them as a way to power music systems in the hills. They were the first solar panels ever sold on the American retail market. By the mid-’80s, Schaeffer wasn’t selling chicken manure anymore. Today his Real Goods is an $80-million-a-year national solar business.
Unfortunately for those in the hills, the marijuana boom didn’t just bring disposable income; it also brought government helicopters. After a period of relative freedom in the late ’70s, risk caught up to reward, and growers found themselves the target of an immense, quasi-military task force called the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP).
“When CAMP started up, they came into these areas really hard,” recalls Eugene “ED” Denson, a lawyer based in Humboldt County (and a former manager of the band Country Joe and the Fish). “They would make bases and be here for weeks. They would quite literally just start at the river and start walking up the mountain, seizing everything they’d find, going into all the homes, smashing all the canned goods in case there was anything hidden at the bottom of the jar—things like that—destroying musical instruments.
“They would fly great bales of marijuana out in nets on helicopters. And when the raids were on, people would come streaming out of the hills and stay at the store,” he says. “They would fly the helicopters with the marijuana past the store, so everyone could see the crop going out.
“By today’s standards,” he adds, “they didn’t find much.”
he cannabis windfall and the modern-day gold rush that accompanied it changed the culture of Mendocino. “It used to be people came up here and learned carpentry, plumbing, welding, mechanics—basic life skills that you need to live in the country,” says Schaeffer. In the case of more recent arrivals—and, all too often, the second generation of homesteading families—things are different. “All they know how to do is grow and trim.”
Lifestyles of hardscrabble subsistence gave way to private schooling for kids and vacations in Bali. Today, in some towns, marijuana is the only major business, and what other businesses there are can offer no comparable wage. Everyone seems to have a story of some enterprising high school student who managed to earn $50,000 or $100,000 growing pot over summer vacation.
For many homesteaders, the dependence on marijuana has fostered a sense that they live under a different social order altogether. “In my rural community we have no outside services,” one resident of the Humboldt hill country told me recently. “We had to beg to get phone here. I have no broadband service. It’s an hour and a half for the cops to get here. The hospital is a disaster area. The road doesn’t come out our way. We get no county services. Most of our kids don’t go to county schools.” Out of 300 families in her community, she said, only five of them don’t grow pot. And like the colony at Jamestown, where leaves of tobacco became the only practical currency, parts of the Triangle have even seen cannabis emerge as a local medium of exchange. The same resident described a recent effort at backwoods revenue collection: “They passed out marijuana plants to people and said, ‘Grow this one for the fire truck. This plant over here is for the school; this plant over here is for the road.’
“We’re paying taxes in our own way,” she said, “it’s just not in the conventional sense.”
Despite the risk of law enforcement busting down the door, the high price of marijuana also brought unprecedented new waves of migration to the Redwood Empire. In 1996, when California voters passed Proposition 215, legalizing medical marijuana, the “green rush” began drawing people from all over the world. “When I defend some of these things in Mendocino County,” says Denson, the attorney, “it’s like a United Nations project or something. It’s hard to even find two people from the same country involved in the case.” One day in Ukiah, I met a young man camped outside of Walmart who was looking for trimming work. He spoke broken English and said he was trying to earn enough for a plane ticket home. He was an Israeli Arab from the Golan Heights.
Residents of the Emerald Triangle often draw a hard distinction between two kinds of pot farmers: those who came to the area out of a desire to “live with the land,” and those who came later just “for the grow.” Of the latter sort, the most notorious offenders are the alleged cartel growers from Mexico—or, more recently, from Russia and Bulgaria—who work deep inside the state’s public lands and grow plants by the thousands. They remain a shadow presence, capable of scaring people away from the national forests but largely invisible to most citizens except on TV news reports.
For many of those who make their way to the Emerald Triangle to find their fortune, however, the line between opportunism and romance is strikingly blurred: the most recent arrivals sometimes talk like the most beautiful dreamers, breathlessly extolling the promise of forty acres and a patch.
Last year, during harvest, I met a twenty-four-year-old woman who had just moved to Ukiah with her young husband from Wisconsin. “I feel like I’ve come to the promised land, I really do,” she told me, even though she and her husband were residing indefinitely in Ukiah’s Discovery Inn. “We’re probably gonna settle down and eventually be farmers, and we’re gonna have babies here. It’ll allow us to have children—him to be the one who works, me to be able to take care of my kids and have a garden. To have, you know, a normal life. Otherwise we’d both be in a cubicle for sixty hours a week.”
When I next encountered the young woman, it was in the local newspaper this past July. She had been arrested, along with a partner, and charged with possession of marijuana for sale, possession of concentrated cannabis, and conspiracy to commit a crime. The two suspects had been processing hash in a motel room. For all her dreams of becoming a farmer, she had only managed to switch hotels—from the Discovery Inn to the Motel 6.
ven those who came to live with the land found their original dreams warped over time by the wealth marijuana brought to the county. “When I first came here,” says a 1970s homesteader whom I’ll call Mark, “we were all struggling. We cut shakes. We cut firewood and sold it. We did a lot of stuff to make a few hundred bucks here and there. [Marijuana] was there and had been around for a few years, but nobody really understood it too much. Everybody that I knew had 150, 200 plants in the garden and they were growing six inches to a foot apart. The pot was the equivalent of Mexican $10-an-ounce crap.
“My neighbor over the hill and her husband, they were struggling to make a living, and he had got a contract to grow some worm beds. Growing worms was a big thing. You could make a little money on it: you had the worm castings you could sell, and the worms you could sell. You built these eight-by-eight beds and filled them full of fertilizer. And Jill said, ‘Don, do you think it would be okay if I put a couple of marijuana seeds in the corners of the beds? That wouldn’t hurt the worms.’ And Don said, ‘Well, yeah, I guess so.’ That year, I remember he wanted to buy a tractor. Just a little tractor that could plow the fields and move stuff around. It was 700 bucks, and he was trying to get the 700 bucks.
“The next scene was, this pot came out and it was amazing. We called it ‘Brand X’ because nobody had anything like this, at least not in our neighborhood. So Jill was over there and I was talking to her and she said, ‘I’m gonna sell this stuff for $15 an ounce.’ I said, ‘Oh Jill, that’s a ripoff.’ I was half joking, half serious.
“Before that season was over, she was getting $600 a pound. That was a lot of money.
“All of a sudden the next season opened at $900 a pound. Then it was at $1,200 a pound. That was ’77. We couldn’t believe it. Now everybody’s growing it. If you could make that kind of money just putting a few plants in the ground, this is going to be a miracle: we can make a living, and pay the taxes, and buy the kids presents for Christmas. It was good, you know?
“The next scene was in ’78. I had a round table here in the kitchen. I’m sitting here, and this guy comes over. He says, ‘I’m buying your pot, and I’m paying $1,800 a pound.’ And he’s forking out hundred-dollar bills on the table. And the next thing, he stands right over there with his back to the corner and pulls out this little [here Mark sniffs sharply]—
“And I said, ‘What was that?’
“‘Oh, coke. You want some?’
“And the next thing, coke infests the ridge here. An ounce for a gram was the trade. That was the deal. And that was the beginning of the end of our innocence.
“By ’79 it was getting to be a drug scene rather than a family scene with a little marijuana in there. I was at a New Year’s Eve party at one of the houses down here. And all of a sudden instead of us getting stoned, mirrors are laid out and there’s lines all over the place and everybody’s just tootin’ up. Next thing we know we’re standing there and the sun’s coming up. The next day I was over at Don and Jill’s, and Don said, ‘You know, a year ago I was struggling to get enough money for a tractor. And we tooted up my tractor two or three times last night. Just tooted it up our noses.’”
hen he wasn’t expounding on his theory of a virtuous agrarian republic, Thomas Jefferson was often expressing dismay at the actual behavior of American small farmers. When a profitable cash crop like tobacco was involved, stewardship of the land all too often went out the window. “The indifferent state of [agriculture] among us does not proceed from a want of knowledge merely,” he wrote. “It is from our having such quantities of land to waste as we please.”
The crackdowns of the 1980s forced some homesteaders out of the marijuana business, but others just got more creative: while the risks involved in growing had shot up, so too had the drug’s price, which reached $5,000 a pound in the mid-’80s. At first growers simply moved their plants into the shade, where CAMP’s helicopters couldn’t see them. Some engineered outrageous contraptions that allowed them to grow on platforms in the tree canopy. But the paucity of sunlight took its toll on the quality of the crop, and so the underground industry made its next evolutionary shift: it sent growers indoors. Packing thirty-six plants into a four-by-eight-foot shed under thousand-watt lights became an exacting science.
It also caused the use of electricity to skyrocket. Between 1996 and 2010, per capita energy consumption in Mendocino County increased at a rate of over three times the average for the state; in Humboldt County it went up six times more than the average. And that’s not counting the region’s innumerable generator-powered grows, churning out tons of “diesel dope.” These can take the form of a simple garden shed, packed with two or three thousand-watt lights run off a small diesel generator. Or, to cite an example from police records, they can take the form of eight buried shipping containers radiating out like spokes on a wheel from two massive central power units—the sorts of generators designed to supply emergency backup power to a hospital.
California’s 1996 medical marijuana law took much of the fear out of pot farming for growers willing to abide by certain limits. But in a twist bewildering to those who have kept faith with organic growing, cannabis produced indoors under heavy lights—using techniques that evolved largely for the sake of hiding from helicopters—has become the medical industry standard. For dispensaries, it’s a matter of “bag appeal”: just as hothouse tomatoes have a pillowy, unweathered look, indoor pot tends to have a sheen that outdoor lacks. “The product desirability shifts dramatically,” one former Humboldt grower told me with a fatalistic shrug. “People like it ’cause it’s shiny.”
As much as today’s younger growers may admire the environmentalism of the first homesteaders, their primary concerns more often center on economic survival. When I was in Humboldt County, in the remote town of Alderpoint, I met a former small-time indoor grower named Obadiah Switzer, who belongs to an expanding sociological category in the Triangle: second-generation growers. The adult son of “truck gypsy hippies,” he looked like a clean-cut fireman and talked like John Wayne. Whatever bohemian adventurism had inspired his parents seemed lost on him. “My whole life I’ve been here, and weed’s always been gettin’ grown,” he said, letting out a short laugh. “There’s no romance here for me.” He might as well have been a longshoreman’s son in Baltimore.
While many in his parents’ generation were up in arms about the heresies of indoor pot, Switzer was focused on mobilizing the county to protect itself against the disruptions of legalization. He had recently become the Humboldt County representative of a group that was informally calling itself a union of marijuana growers. And the union was against Proposition 19.
To Switzer, the initiative to tax and regulate marijuana was just paving the way for far-off industrialists to corner the market. “It’s about stealing the economy from the people it’s been built by,” he said. “What’s gonna happen is there’s gonna be a shitload of minimum-wage jobs out there. And all these people that have subsistence incomes or a little bit better in the cannabis economy, their work is gonna go away. And they’re gonna be able to get a minimum-wage job.”
The more he spoke, the more it seemed Switzer’s new work as a union organizer was a last-ditch attempt at redeeming a home about which his feelings were deeply divided. As he saw it, his parents’ generation had tended their homesteads beautifully, but the county had gone to seed. “After fifteen years, I go back into the local high school weight room, and the upholstery’s the same and the walls haven’t been painted and the roof leaks,” he said. “Considering how much money’s gone through here, this place should be the Emerald shining city. And it is far from it.”
Switzer wanted marijuana growers to finally organize to save their economy. What he seemed unsure about, though, was whether they deserved saving.
he sort of far-off industrialist that Switzer fears—the marijuana mogul who threatens to bring down the culture of the Emerald Triangle—is a semi-retired Bay Area businessman who wears golf shirts. Until a few years ago, Jeff Wilcox was one of the biggest property developers in Oakland. Today, he is the president of a company called AgraMed, and he is well on the way to converting one of his industrial real estate holdings into a marijuana factory. When I met him, Wilcox was sitting at a cafe outside the campaign headquarters of Proposition 19, having just attended the initiative’s weekly steering committee meeting. From there, we hopped into his car, a silver BMW with black leather seats, to pay a visit to his would-be factory.
“So I asked my attorney,” he said from behind the wheel. “‘Can I grow legally out in the open?’ and she said, ‘Sure, but you need legislation.’” To get his venture off the ground, Wilcox began by approaching the most conservative member of the Oakland City Council—a longtime acquaintance—and introducing him to the idea of allowing industrial-scale marijuana production within city limits. Then he commissioned a report from a consulting firm playing out how much revenue for the city ($1.8 million), how much gross revenue ($59 million), and how much processed marijuana (21,000 pounds) his facility would generate every year, as well as how many jobs it would create (371) and what their average annual salary would be ($53,700). The report not only generated media buzz and helped sell the idea to local pols, it also revealed another opening for political traction. “The profit margin right now is extremely high,” Wilcox said, “so we said, well, you can obviously make these union jobs. So I went out shopping for unions.”
Once Wilcox secured the backing of a food and service workers union for his city legislative campaign, he approached Richard Lee, the leader of the Proposition 19 effort. “I walked in with a union representative and gave Richard a check for $10,000 and said, ‘I want in on anything I can do,’” he said. “‘I can help you pass this, because I’m connected.’” Wilcox’s ordinance made its way through the city council, passing in July. Now he was just waiting to see if he would be awarded the permit, and the rest of the medical marijuana industry was waiting to see if he would get busted by the Feds. (Among the most anxious spectators were the denizens of the Emerald Triangle. This summer, an article in Humboldt County’s North Coast Journal closed with the words, “Oakland is drinking our milkshake.”)
Wilcox’s would-be factory comprises a set of defunct brick warehouses laid out on seven acres alongside I-880 near the city’s marina. “See, this is a good example,” he said as we walked onto a 43,000-square-foot factory floor, daylight streaming in through a row of arched windows. “In Oakland, you’ve got all these buildings where you look and you say, ‘This would be a great building to grow pot in.’”
Guiding me across the site, Wilcox conjured visions of workers in bunny suits tending a vast grid of marijuana plants underneath high-powered lights. “This is 10,000 feet,” he said in one of the smaller rooms, his voice still echoing off the walls. “No one grows this kind of square footage.”
Later, as we drove back across the Oakland lowlands on the interstate, Wilcox reflected on his progress. “Look at me. The only thing I was was a fan of the plant, really, a year and a half ago,” he said. “And now I’m probably one of the top ten guys in California in this business. And you know why? Because I know how to move a little policy.”
hen I returned to the North Coast this summer, the mood was bleak. Last year’s harvest had fetched some of the lowest prices since the 1970s, and fewer buyers were coming up from the cities. In Humboldt and Mendocino, locals had gathered in the spring at grim public meetings to discuss “life after legalization.” The 2010 growing season was shaping up to be the most violent in recent memory, with five deadly shootouts between police and organized-crime growers on public land by August. And regardless of how the vote on Proposition 19 went, the coming year promised to be rough. Many pot growers had planted double or triple what they did last season, and the bumper crop seemed bound to depress prices even further.
For all that, the year had been relatively kind to Matthew Cohen and his farm-fresh pot delivery service. When I met him one morning in August, he was sitting poolside on his farm, with three telephones laid out on the patio table in front of him—each a different business line.
The idea of including fresh vegetables with the deliveries had, alas, turned out to be ahead of its time: patients accustomed to discretion in their transactions were flummoxed by the prospect of picking up baskets of weed and zucchini at public drop locations. So Cohen had discontinued that part of his service. But everything else was going smoothly. He was paying sales taxes and workman’s comp for fifteen employees, and he had a fleet of four drivers who fanned out across the Bay Area in Zipcars. His advertising in the city had also been successful in overcoming “bag appeal” prejudices: 700 patients in the metro region were now receiving regular deliveries of his organically grown, high-grade, outdoor product.
Cohen had also lobbied successfully for a county ordinance that he helped to write. It created a system of county permits allowing medical marijuana cooperatives to grow ninety-nine marijuana plants on a farm, provided that they acquire a business license, abide by the county’s safety, environmental, and labor standards, and—most bracing of all for Mendocino’s growers—consent to spot inspections by the sheriff’s department. Now Cohen’s cooperative included two county-permitted ninety-nine-plant gardens.
Where things were going a little sideways, however, was in his broader mission to preserve the mom-and-pop growing culture of Mendocino County. For one thing, the county ordinance had unexpectedly turned out to include fine print requiring compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. That meant that trimming facilities—once glorified rumpus rooms with DVD players, chips and salsa, and turkey bags of marijuana everywhere—now needed wheelchair ramps, handicapped toilets, and accessible parking. To avoid setting local growers up for tens of thousands of dollars in renovations, Cohen hoped instead to establish a common processing facility—something akin to the cooperative slaughterhouses and community saw mills that help many rural Americans share costs. But Cohen winced to think that local growers might see it as one more Oakland-like consolidation.
One of the three phones rang. “This is Matt,” Cohen said. “Yeah, I’m looking for some industrial warehouse space … We’re looking for a central processing facility for medical cannabis … I’d say at least 5,000 square feet.”
So far, though, growers weren’t exactly rushing to join Cohen’s cooperative. Only one had gone through the long process of securing a permit with him, and many of the others remained distrustful of the law. “I can’t sit there and explain to them that the helicopters aren’t going to land,” Cohen said.
Unless more growers came aboard soon, Cohen would be unable to meet demand in the coming year. Now he was considering a fallback: simply leasing property on which to grow, bypassing the old homesteads altogether. The cooperative could set up a ninety-nine-plant garden on an empty piece of land, fence it in, put security cameras on the corners, hire a twenty-four-hour guard service and a farm manager, and harvest everything directly into a refrigerator truck. Everything would still be organic and sustainable, Matt told himself, and the cooperative would still be bolstering the marijuana economy in Mendocino County. But the dream of “small farms, strong communities, sustainable living” was being shaken by forces beyond his control.
ltimately, what will happen to Mendocino or to Oakland is likely to be decided only minimally by “pure” market forces. Even more so than other industries, the marijuana business will be shaped by lawmakers—and to the connected shall go the spoils.
People in the emerging marijuana industry sometimes like to imagine a world in which cannabis is like beer: mass-produced options will sit on the shelf alongside boutique microbrews. But the analogy is not actually so sunny. In the American beer market, pale yellow lagers produced by a handful of powerful breweries ruled the industry for fifty years following prohibition—not because demand was unanimous, but in large part because laws banning home brewing kept tinkerers and innovators from entering the market until 1978. When it became legal to mix yeast and hops in your own kitchen, the craft brewing movement exploded. The damage, however, was already done. Today, for all their seeming influence, craft brews account for only 4 percent of American beer consumption. Two conglomerates—Anheuser-Busch InBev and South African Breweries—control more than 80 percent of the market.
In its relatively brief 100-year career as an American intoxicant, marijuana has been cast in an alarming number of roles: first as a scourge that drives users to murder and insanity; then as a narcotic that reduces them to passivity and indolence; later as a benevolent herb that can comfort the sick; and now—in the canny propaganda advancing Proposition 19—as a harmless but popular substance whose taxation could save California from fiscal ruin. Who knows what fantasies future Americans will project onto this unsuspecting plant?
If the American marijuana industry goes the way of beer or Big Tobacco, the answer to that question may one day be hashed out around boardroom tables, finessed by advertising departments, and subjected to focus groups. A marijuana lobby will set up on K Street, and catchy TV spots for “Marlboro Greens” (a figment of urban legend among marijuana growers for decades) will air between ads for Miller High Life and Doritos during the Super Bowl. And we won’t have much choice in the matter. Historically, once the forces of consolidation have been set in motion within an industry—whether it’s oil, agribusiness, tobacco, or booze—a self-reinforcing cycle of power has a way of stamping out alternatives and bucking attempts by lawmakers to bring it under control. Once there is a Philip Morris of marijuana, it is too late.
But until federal law catches up to California’s contrarianism, the future of pot is not such a foregone conclusion. “We’ve got forty-nine more states to go, or at least another dozen or two,” says Richard Lee. “It could still be a lifetime until we have to worry about Philip Morris and Budweiser.”
Mendocino County’s second-largest product—wine—may provide the best alternative vision for dope. Thanks in part to a legal loophole that always allowed for home producers, wine has been much slower to consolidate than other industries, and no single winery has the political clout of an Anheuser-Busch. This has been better not only for small producers, but also—more importantly—for the public. So maybe we should all hope that Matthew Cohen is right: that Mendocino will become the Napa Valley of marijuana, and that the premium growers can charge for a sustainably grown, artisanal product backed by a helluva marketing narrative—America’s last frontier! Land of the organic outlaw!—won’t turn out to be too much lower, in the end, than the premium they charge now for growing a crop under conditions of abject fear. It’s not such a bad dream, anyway.
By John Gravois
John Gravois is an editor of the Washington Monthly.