MarijuanAmerica: Inside America's Last Growth Industry

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We carry the weed into another room, where several wires stretch from wall to wall, as high as clotheslines. Using clippers, we cut the plants into smaller branches, then hang them upside down from the wires, where they'll dry for a few days, at which point Tobias will hire a team of trimmers — who are paid $225 a pound — to cultivate the valuable buds. Trimming is tedious, difficult work, but potentially lucrative: A good trimmer can do a couple of pounds in a day, though many take some of their payment in weed. To make their job easier, tonight we clip off as many of the large pot leaves as possible. This is called "big leafing." After 20 minutes or so, the red-tile floor is covered with a thick green-and-yellow carpet. When we're finished, Tobias grabs a broom and methodically cleans up the leaves, like a barber sweeping hair.

Once the weed is ready for the market, Tobias will sell it to a middleman, who will, in turn, transport it to a larger city and find another buyer — either a medical-marijuana dispensary or a street dealer. Like many an ambitious small-businessman, Tobias is pretty much never not working. His career choice is one that's stressful, labor-intensive and, obviously, very high-risk. There are the typical farmer's worries of pulling off your crop, the constant pressure of getting busted and the danger, from the other direction, of robbery, home invasions, biker gangs. Since Tobias has been out here, he's had terrible years where he's lost almost everything, been reduced to near-homelessness — certain strains died, other patches had to be torn up to avoid law enforcement.

And now, like workers in just about every other sector, from auto manufacturing to big-box retail, Tobias is being forced to re-examine his place in the market. In the case of marijuana, this upset is not being caused by new technology, globalization or recession, but by a change in public consciousness. Like other once-divisive social issues — gays in the military, to take the most recent example — the specter of reefer madness seems to have lost its effectiveness as a political wedging tool. Robert Mikos, a Vanderbilt University law professor who has written extensively about the rights of states to defy the federal ban on marijuana, says the ongoing medical-marijuana experiments in California and elsewhere have opened the door for further decriminalization. It's allowed people "to see that all of the horrible things that the Clinton and Bush administrations predicted did not come to pass," says Mikos. "The world did not come to an end." Nadelmann, of the Drug Policy Alliance, agrees, noting he's recently been seeing "the most dramatic polling results in all of my years working on this stuff."

The legalization fight has acquired a new urgency in recent months thanks to the economy. In the past, of course, there were plenty of moral arguments to be made for drug-policy reform — from the money wasted on prohibition to the lives ruined by absurd prison sentences to the simple hypocrisy of banning a substance no more harmful than alcohol, tobacco or many prescription drugs. But compared to issues like civil rights or unjust foreign wars, protesting for the right to get high always felt, frankly, frivolous; even to a liberal pot smoker, listening to some dude from NORML go on about how the "Don't Tread On Me" flag and the Gutenberg Bible and Abe Lincoln's stovepipe hat were all made of hemp can be just as annoying as a sobriety lecture from Bill O'Reilly. Mikos didn't think the general public was onboard with "wholesale recreational legalization" — until this past year. "What pushed it over the top," he says, "was the realization that 'Hey, we could make a lot of money off this.'"

The economic collapse, in starkest particulars, has highlighted the fact that shifting marijuana from black market to organic farmers' market could be a boon to ravaged state economies. True, President Obama, in touting his new green economy, has thus far avoided mentioning this other, not-quite-so-new green economy. But some politicians are beginning to. California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced last year that "it's time for a debate" about legalizing pot, just before it was estimated that decriminalization could net California $1.4 billion in annual revenue. (Schwarzenegger is unlike most other governors in that not only has he smoked weed with Tommy Chong, but when asked about it by an ambushing paparazzi with a video camera, he beamed and nearly shouted, "We always had a good time!") Another high-profile proponent of legalization also happens to be a Republican: former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, a popular figure in the libertarian/Ron Paul wing of the party who is considering a presidential run in 2012. "Ninety percent of our drug problem is prohibition-related, not use-related," Johnson insists. "As someone who has smoked pot and consumed alcohol — and neither of them do I use today, I haven't had a drink in 22 years — I think people are waking up to the fact that when it comes to marijuana and alcohol, you can draw some very real correlations. The issue right now, nationally, is at a tipping point."

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