MarijuanAmerica: Inside America's Last Growth Industry

From California to downtown Detroit, there's a green revolution sweeping across the nation — and it's changing the weed business forever

April 1, 2010
MarijuanAmerica: Inside America's Last Growth Industry
Photograph by Gorman & Gorman

If you spend enough time up in the Emerald Triangle — an area in Northern California comprising the adjoining counties of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity — you might notice a few things. There's the crab fisherman selling you fresh crabs from his boat with a lit joint hanging from his mouth. There's the jingle on the local radio station with the chorus "Going to jail sucks!" (It's an ad for a bail-bond agency, which runs right after an ad for a hypdroponic-growing store.) If you're in the Triangle in October, at the start of the harvest season, you might notice people standing by the side of the road with cardboard signs that read "Looking For Work", or signs simply depicting a hand-drawn pair of scissors. You might notice that locals call hundred-dollar bills "Humboldt twenties" and complain about how expensive everything is, or their use of the verb formation "getting flown," meaning one's property has been buzzed by a DEA helicopter (e.g., "We got flown a bunch of times this summer, so we knew a bust was coming"). At some point, your cellphone will probably stop working, and you might notice how the two-lane road darkens as it slices into a canyon of redwoods, and how your car shrinks, too, puttering at the foot of the giant, primeval forest, and how that Bigfoot-themed souvenir shop several miles back is starting to seem like a beacon of civilization. And if you keep going, eventually, somewhere deep in the mountains, you will arrive at Vic Tobias' place.

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Tobias is a marijuana grower, and he is having a very long day. His waterlines froze, or broke, he's not sure which, but that has meant no running water at his house for the past couple of days. This coincided, as luck would have it, with out-of-town visitors — buyers looking to be introduced to other local growers with weight to unload. Tobias has been scrambling to set up the meets, a delicate process in a part of the country where new faces are not generally greeted with small-town hospitality, where it's considered sloppy form (as one grower tells me) to give your real name to the pizza-delivery guy. Most urgently, though, Tobias has 45 marijuana plants in full bloom that need to be harvested by tomorrow morning if he wants to move his product on schedule. It's close to midnight, and he's been up since dawn.

In years past, work in this part of the country meant either logging or fishing, though with the depletion of natural resources, neither industry has been much of a going concern for years. Countercultural types began drifting up here from the Bay Area in the late Sixties, drawn not only by the spectacular landscape but by its remoteness. Which, of course, lent itself to the creation of a new local source of income: growing pot. In Tobias' succinct but essentially accurate historical telling, "Hippies went to India, smuggled out seeds up their asses and came here." It was really more often Afghanistan, but the point is the same. From an origin story as humble as that of Hollywood (Cecil B. DeMille filming his first feature in a horse barn) or Silicon Valley (Steve Jobs inventing the personal computer in his garage), a massive, quintessentially Californian industry was born.

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Thanks to the ambiguous wording of Proposition 215, the 1996 ballot initiative that allows for the possession and cultivation (but not the distribution or sale) of medical marijuana in California, the weed business has expanded exponentially over the past decade. Most of the medical pot in California is sold through dispensaries: Some, in cities like Oakland, are massive places that see hundreds, even thousands, of patients every day, whereas in Los Angeles, storefront pot clubs — up to 1,000 of them by some estimates — have crept into mini-malls and commercial strips all across the city. This has so embarrassed the L.A. City Council that, in January, it passed an ordinance that could slash the number of shops to 70. All told, the state's annual marijuana crop is estimated by some to be worth about $14 billion, "dwarfing," in the words of a recent Associated Press story, "any other sector of the state's agricultural economy."

When California voters passed Prop 215, it seemed like typical behavior from the people who brought us Scientology and the career of Gary Busey. But now, as the economy has cratered and millions of Americans have found themselves forced to rethink their livelihoods, there's a growing feeling that the country can no longer afford its longstanding prohibition on marijuana — a sense, for the first time since the Seventies, that pot could soon be decriminalized in many states, or even made fully legal. Fourteen states have already approved medical marijuana, and 14 others have some form of marijuana legislation pending. And that doesn't include Massachusetts, which last year effectively decriminalized pot for recreational use, making possession of up to an ounce punishable by a $100 ticket. On the national level, a Harvard economist has estimated that legalizing pot could save the government $13 billion annually in prohibition costs (including cops and prisons) and raise $7 billion in annual revenues if marijuana is taxed — a potent argument at a time when local municipalities are being forced to slash services and cut public-sector jobs. "In past years, people have interpreted legalization to mean liberalization — to mean condoning marijuana and letting it get out of control," notes Ethan Nadelmann, the founder of the Drug Policy Alliance Network, a nonprofit group devoted to ending the War on Drugs. "Now, more and more, people are interpreting it as taxation and regulation."

This is why I have come to the Emerald Triangle: to witness, firsthand, this singular, transformative moment in what's been, for so long, an underground culture, one that became both refuge and perfect fit for an oddball combination of righteous outlaws and straight-up hustlers, conscientious dropouts and scary guys with guns, all of whom are now having to adapt their unique skill sets to an ever-shifting legal and economic landscape. The bulk of the marijuana cultivation in California is done by growers like Vic Tobias and his neighbors; a recent study commissioned by Mendocino County had pot accounting for two-thirds of the local economy. Over the past year, in fact, the so-called "green rush" has created such a spike in the number of California pot growers that there has been a negative impact — a glut of product. A recent article in the local Anderson Valley Advertiser observes that "supply is way up, prices way down, even if you can find a buyer, and a kind of desperation is rippling through the north hill country of Mendocino County as land and pot partners turn on each other and ruthless bands of home invaders cruise the mud dirt roads from Branscomb to Spy Rock to Alderpoint and points between."

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