MarijuanAmerica: Inside America's Last Growth Industry

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Adding to the tension is the increased presence of Mexican drug cartels who don't want to give up their extremely lucrative weed business and are finding it easier to smuggle growers across the border than large quantities of marijuana. The cartels have lately become infamous for setting up grows on public land, in remote areas in the many national parks in Northern California. "We're seeing illegals dropped off in the spring with seeds," says Allman. "During summer, food is dropped off to them — they don't come into town to do their shopping — and at the end of the year, after the harvest, they're paid forty or fifty thousand dollars." Most of the local growers I spoke to sounded nervous (often with more than a touch of jingoism) when asked about the cartels, who tend to be heavily armed and have been known to booby-trap their grows. "The woods up here are dangerous — there are mountain lions, Mexicans," one grower warned me, adding, "and the Mexicans will kill you."

Even if everything goes off perfectly for a grower in the Emerald Triangle — if their crop produces good weight, if their trimmers don't abuse their buds, if they're not arrested during a fluke raid or jacked along the way by bad guys with guns — at that point, they still have to deal with the final but most crucial problem: making the sale. In California, the decidedly mixed signals regarding cultivation and distribution hit growers — who should be profiting from the pot boom, if anyone does — the hardest; getting the weed across state lines, or even down to San Francisco or Los Angeles, can be an exceedingly dangerous business. The current pot glut has only compounded the problem. "You used to be able to sell smaller amounts for more money," Vic Tobias tells me. But now, small growers are often forced into doing business with larger distributors — middlemen who have the means to transport the weed to larger cities where they have sales connections, and who have the purchasing power to push prices down. "It's like America — just like Walmart," Tobias says, shaking his head with disgust. "It's all about big corporations buying huge bulk for cheap. And the little guy gets screwed."

Still, Tobias, who has about 10 pounds of weed that is ready to be sold, knows a distributor who can move a bunch of weed out of Northern California. But he won't move less than 50 pounds. So Tobias has agreed to help the distributor put together enough weight for a shipment. Tobias is confident that they'll be able to pick up the weed for a steal, thanks to the current oversupply. "It's really a buyer's market now," he tells me one afternoon, as we drive along a windy mountain road, the heat in his truck buffeting us at full blast. "That," he continues, "and Christmas is coming up, so people want cash to buy presents. What are you gonna do: Leave a three-pound bag of weed under the tree for your kids?" Just then, he spots an unfamiliar car driving behind him. "Who's this guy?" he asks, slowing down to let the car pass. The car stays behind him. Finally, Tobias spots an open patch of shoulder and pulls over. The car drives past. He watches it suspiciously. "Probably nothing," he says. "But you never know."

Making the rounds with Tobias, I hear lots of stories. I meet a grower who, describing her bust, proudly notes that the cops were foolish enough to bring standard-size clippers. (When they saw the size of her plants, they needed to go back and get a chainsaw.) I meet growers who talk to their plants, and I meet a grower who says he jacks off into his patch — the plants are all female, after all, and isn't a fat bud basically the plant going (this grower says), OK, I'm a bitch, I'm gonna spread my legs here, hope I get fucked? I hear a story about someone's buddy, a dealer in L.A., who fronted $5,000 worth of weed to one of the bestselling rappers of all time, and how that rapper was busted by the police while on tour, and how, when the dealer called the rapper and asked for his money, the rapper replied, "You need to talk to the po-lice."

Back at Tobias' place, he and the distributor go through their take. Garbage bags of weed are piled in one corner of a sunny day room, close to 30 pounds; thick stacks of twenties are taped up inside plastic turkey bags. (According to local lore, Reynolds Wrap noticed an unusual spike in the sale of plastic turkey bags in Humboldt County and was planning to stage some sort of local celebration until they realized the bags were being used to pack and transport marijuana.) "I knocked the last guy down a couple of points," the distributor says, meaning he reduced the per-pound fee by $200. On a large flatscreen television, CNN is on mute — entirely coincidentally, it's a special about the marijuana industry. Anderson Cooper is standing inside some kind of drug tunnel in Mexico. The distributor glances idly at the screen, watches it for a moment somewhat disinterestedly, then goes back to counting his money. There's lots of hand sanitizer around because of the amount of money being handled. One of the several prepaid phones sitting around rings. (Everyone's prepaid looks the same, so they occasionally get mixed up, and people say things like, "Where's my blue phone?") Tobias answers and says, "Yeah, I need you to bring over that thing we were talking about."

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