MarijuanAmerica: Inside America's Last Growth Industry

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This is kind of amazing, if you think about it: a triumph of quality over mass-produced crap — and we're not the ones making the crap! Marijuana farming is exactly the sort of semiskilled, labor-intensive work that, in any other (legal) industry, would have long ago been outsourced to Mexico. But its very illegality has made growing weed NAFTA-proof. At a time when unemployment hovers around the double digits, when heavy industry and the family farm have been gone so long that to evoke either verges on Rockwell-esque nostalgia, when (we've all said it) America no longer even makes anything anymore — well, we do still produce extremely high-quality weed. And we're very, very good at it.

On a frigid evening in January, in a bland suburban office park in Southfield, Michigan, just outside Detroit, about 25 students begin filing into an adult-education class. Three of the students — brothers Eric and Jerry Boyajian and their friend Jon Goodwin — drove three hours from Benton Harbor, a rural town on the opposite side of the state. "First time I've ever wanted to sit in the front of a classroom," jokes Goodwin as he settles into a chair at one of the room's long tables. A skinny 37-year-old wearing a gray T-shirt over a long-sleeve thermal undershirt, Goodwin is a plumber by trade. The Boyajians own a watch-repair shop. All three have seen their business drop, along with the fortunes of the rest of Benton Harbor: Two local stores, a sign shop and an old Italian restaurant, have closed in the past month alone. Jerry Boyajian, who is 39, a big guy wearing a blue knit cap with a Ford logo, pulls me aside and, lowering his voice, says, "We've never done anything like this before. But the economy's so bad, I'm making about half of what I used to make. So we started thinking, 'How can we get involved in this thing?'"

"This thing" is growing and distributing pot, which can be done legally in Michigan now, after 63 percent of voters passed a medical-marijuana law in 2008, allowing a patient with a valid doctor's recommendation to grow their own marijuana — up to 12 plants. Alternately, a patient can obtain their "medicine" from a licensed caregiver, also registered with the state, who can grow for themselves and up to five patients. The state of Michigan has been inundated with applications for medical-marijuana cards: Since April 2009, there have been about 14,000 requests, or about 75 per day. With Michigan's unemployment rate still the highest in the country at nearly 15 percent — in Detroit proper, some have put the number at a staggering 50 percent — many residents see pot farming as one of the few growth industries in an otherwise ravaged state economy.

Which is where the Med Grow Cannabis College comes in. According to Med Grow's website, it's "the first Michigan-based medical-marijuana trade school." Med Grow is modeled after the wildly successful Oaksterdam University in Oakland, California; the curriculum of the six-week, $475 program includes Cooking and Concentrates and Cannabis History, with lecturers ranging from doctors and attorneys to a horticulture professor named Nature. The only required reading is Cervantes — Jorge, not Miguel de, author of Marijuana Horticulture: The Indoor/Outdoor Medical Grower's Bible. Since opening last September, Med Grow has been averaging 100 students each month.

Med Grow was founded by Nick Tennant, a slight, baby-faced 24-year-old in a dress shirt and argyle sweater who sits at a mostly bare desk; practically swallowed by his own executive chair, he looks like a kid playing Captain Kirk in his dad's office. Tennant grew up solidly middle-class. His father works for General Motors, and his mother handles foreign patents for an intellectual-property firm. He started his first business — an auto-detailing service — when he was just out of high school. "I had a lot of automotive dealerships that were clients and they couldn't afford the service anymore — margins were getting thinner, stuff like that," Tennant says. "I was fighting for every dollar. So I knew I wanted to get into an emerging industry, something that would be more viable."

Though he says he was never a big pot smoker, Tennant looked at the Oaksterdam model and saw an opportunity. "It's better for society to stimulate micro-economies of scale," he says. "You give 10,000 people the opportunity to make $50,000 a year, rather than giving 10 people the opportunity to make $10 million a year."

Similar entrepreneurial endeavors have been sprouting up in medical-marijuana states all across the country, from "urban gardening" stores to ad-packed grow magazines like The Midwest Cultivator. In December, Ganja Gourmet, the self-described "first gourmet marijuana restaurant" in the U.S., where you can order things like an $89 cannabis pizza, opened in Denver; the ski town of Breckenridge, Colorado, has gone a step further, hoping to attract tourists by voting last November to legalize possession of up to an ounce of weed.

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