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MarijuanAmerica: Inside America's Last Growth Industry

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Not everyone is thrilled about the idea of an increased commodification of the weed industry, one of the last refuges from corporate infestation. It's been a pothead urban myth for decades that tobacco companies are waiting to take over the business the minute marijuana becomes legal — that spies from Philip Morris, for this very reason, have been trolling towns like Garberville, Ukiah and Eureka. Now that something like legalization might actually happen, that dangerous moment is approaching when pot smokers' paranoia will intersect with a viable reality.

Robert Mikos, the Vanderbilt professor, says an interesting historical parallel to consider is America post-Prohibition, when tens of thousands — perhaps hundreds of thousands — of illegal distilleries were concentrated into the liquor industry we have today: a handful of major companies that dominate the beer and spirits markets. Some predict that a similar consolidation could happen in California with legalization — that only a handful of big marijuana distributors would be left standing. "Walgreens isn't going to be selling pot, and Philip Morris isn't going to be growing it," Mikos says. "But a large California company might spring up to do that. And California as a state might do everything to foster that. It's much easier to regulate a product sold by four companies than one sold by thousands."

Over the past year, President Obama, while grappling with his own attempts at economic stimulus and job creation, has reportedly looked to Franklin Roosevelt's handling of the Great Depression for inspiration. Repeal of Prohibition is not normally listed as a New Deal jobs program. Still, it happened in 1933, when unemployment had soared to nearly 25 percent, the high point of the Depression. Certainly repeal had some positive economic effects. Alfred Vernon Dalrymple, the National Prohibition Director — the drug czar of his day — predicted in Time magazine that repeal would mean "putting hundreds of thousands of men back to work and...hundreds of thousands of dollars of new business." And FDR himself — who, in 1937, would be the first president to make marijuana illegal — argued in a 1932 campaign speech in Sea Girt, New Jersey, that "our tax burden would not be so heavy nor the forms that it takes so objectionable if some reasonable proportion of the unaccounted millions now paid to those whose business had been reared upon this stupendous blunder could be made available for the expense of government."

People like Tim Blake, who have been out in the trenches — or, more accurately, out in the old-growth-forest-camouflaged gardens — have no doubt that major change, unlike any in their lifetime, is inevitable, that they are at the vanguard of a coming revolution. Imagine buying a joint as easily as you can buy a six-pack of Corona. Imagine the rap-song product placements. Imagine the Super Bowl ads. "People won't be able to make a killing if pot becomes legal and the big players come in," Blake concedes. "But they'll be able to make a living. What's gonna happen is, if you really love growing cannabis, you'll be able to make a living doing something you love. You won't be making million-dollar deals. But look around — the whole country is going under." Blake, a self-described survivalist, is warming up to the topic now. "Farming, industry, everything we as a country do as a country is going away," he continues. "We're lucky out here. We're blessed." Fixing me with one of his long stares, a grin frozen on his face, he speaks as if he can see the future, and he likes it. Then again, he might just be high.

This story is from the April 1, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone.

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