MarijuanAmerica: Inside America's Last Growth Industry

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I meet Tobias in the town closest to where he lives, which is still about a 45-minute drive for him, mostly down winding switchbacks. (Tobias' name has been changed to protect his identity.) "The thing you have to understand about up here is, everyone has a hand in the game — everyone," Tobias tells me as we stroll along a small-town main street. "See that kid over there?" He nods at a guy in his 20s in a baseball cap. "I guarantee he's growing. See that old lady who looks like a grandma?" He shifts his gaze to a sweet-looking gray-haired woman wearing a red Christmas sweater and cooing over a baby. "She's either a trimmer, or she's got people working her land for her. Up here, everyone's playing the law of averages: Ninety percent grow, one percent get busted."

Tobias has been growing weed since the mid-Nineties. He's in his late 30s, and today he's wearing muddy boots and a one-piece Carhartt coverall. At first, when he was living elsewhere on the West Coast, the pot growing was mostly for himself, a hobby, like home-brewing beer. He had a day job in an office, and he sold any weed he had left over on the side. But he discovered he had a green thumb, and he eventually moved to the Emerald Triangle to turn his hobby into a career.

He makes a decent but not extravagant living, one that places him somewhere in the middle of the Triangle's growers — a bigger fish than the single mom who keeps a dozen or so plants in her backyard for some extra cash, but not in the same league as the major players, who often have ties to some form of organized crime and grow on a massive scale. (The biggest grow in recent memory was uncovered in 2007, when authorities in Humboldt County discovered an astonishing 135,000 plants in a remote section of forest owned by a private timber company. No arrests were made, but authorities said evidence on the scene pointed to Mexican drug cartels.)

A hardworking grower with more modest aims, though, can still run a four-season operation in the Triangle — one outdoor season in the summer and three hydroponic indoor seasons. Tobias' current indoor grow, about 200 plants, is in a long, windowless shed on his property that's divided into two rooms, one dark and one lit, alternating at 12-hour intervals. The 45 plants being harvested tonight should yield about five pounds of weed, which could fetch about $20,000.

When we enter the grow from outside, the light is initially blinding. The room is packed tight with marijuana plants of varying heights. The tallest are chest high. Each plant has its own little black bucket, fed by snaking tubes that lead back to four plastic barrels filled with nutrient solution. Banks of grow lights, covered with silver shades, hang from the low ceiling like the canopied lamps over a pool table; four fans on the wall slowly move back and forth to cool the space. The walls are white and reflective, making it very bright and, with all the visible tubes and wires, like the set of a science-fiction movie. A lower-end grow tends to evoke a spaceship from an Ed Wood production. Tobias', though, is pure Kubrick — a 1960s vision of a gleaming, sterile future.

The plants are leafy and pungent, filling the room with a hothouse musk. The largest buds, fist-size footballs, form closest to the lights, making the stalks top-heavy; a gridded net of string prevents them from falling over. Tobias, slipping on a pair of sunglasses, slides beneath the netting and begins to cut the plants ready to be harvested, using a pair of clippers at the base and gingerly maneuvering the tops between the string. He wants to avoid touching the buds, if possible, particularly the hairlike trichomes (or "crystals"), which contain most of the plant's THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the intoxicating substance in cannabis). "That's a sales tactic," he says. "'Never touched by human hands.'" Now, one by one, he passes the stalks out to me. I balance as many as possible in a plastic tub, my hands and clothes quickly covered with sticky resin.

After filling tubs with two dozen plants, we carry them out to Tobias' truck. The night sky is clear and filled with stars. "There's Orion's Belt — see it?" he says, pointing out the constellation. Then we drive to another house on his property. This one looks long-abandoned. Old comforters cover the windows in lieu of curtains. Inside, there's a dim light in the kitchen, and the jam band Oysterhead are playing on an iPod hooked up to a boombox. Tobias' partner is toiling over a tabletop jack press, which he is using to make bricks of hash. Occasionally, he'll pause to take a hit of a joint (Mendocino Beauty crossed with Willie Nelson).

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