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MarijuanAmerica: Inside America's Last Growth Industry

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Another judge, introducing himself as Swami, is a slight man with a long white beard, wearing a white robe, a knit cap, white tube socks and Birkenstocks. He has a kind smile that's also ever-present, in the manner of a guru who's always having to condescend to regular people's lower planes of consciousness. Swami agrees to walk me through the judging process, first having me examine the trichome crystals on a marijuana bud, using a jeweler's microscope. Then he instructs me to do sense-memory exercises as I smell a pile of ground-up weed on a paper plate: Maybe, he suggests, it reminds me of my mother's kitchen or of someone's stinky armpit? After rolling a joint, but before lighting it, Swami instructs me to do a "dry hit," purely for taste. "It's almost like a mindfulness meditation," he says, "like eating an apple and really tasting every bite."

Fuzzy acknowledges that judging multiple entrants in a single day might bias against slow-acting "creeper" strains — though, he adds, "I discovered that, after trying 18 different entrants in one day, you eventually pierce through the veil. You end up being able to determine effects with a minimal amount. 'OK, this one here is a positive muscle relaxer.' 'This one is bright and electric, more high-energy.'" I would simply add that, after consecutively sampling the three top winners, "piercing the veil" is not the phrase that came to mind.

The dry-hit joint has begun making the rounds. Another judge compliments its "beautiful bouquet."

"I'd say there's some vanilla," she says. "And a hint of Pine-Sol."

As easy as Blake and his friends make it seem, there's a difficulty inherent in dragging an underground culture into the (natural, non-grow-room) light. Back in Detroit, a grower with a more serious criminal background tells me, "What if some kid decides to rob me?" He has about 300 plants growing in an unmarked warehouse building in a blighted light-industrial zone. "Am I willing to kill someone for 200 grand?" he continues, becoming heated. "Some of the people I grew up with, they'd kill someone for 20 grand. Do you see the dilemma I face? I don't want to kill some kid over pot. But what would I do? You steal my shit, I can re-gangsta."

In Los Angeles, many of the newer dispensaries are shadier, fly-by-night operations that are worlds apart from the boutique clubs in Venice. The San Fernando Valley, in particular, has become a hotbed of hole-in-the-wall dispensaries. They're run by Russians, Israelis, Valley kids in their 20s with seed money from their parents. These places are typically in strip malls, looking like porn shops with their blacked-out windows. Inside, the clubs are often nothing more than small rooms with a clerk standing behind a counter, or bulletproof glass; "patients" often need to be buzzed in through multiple security cages known as "man-traps." One Valley club raided by police had a full airport metal detector.

Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman is also forced to deal with a natural fallout of such a thriving black market: violence. The image of Northern California remains one of hippies from Haight-Ashbury drifting north in the late Sixties and peacefully growing weed. But in fact, as one former trimmer tells me, "It's hippies with guns." Allman tells me that he has five unsolved homicides dating back from the past few years. The day before we spoke, his cadaver dogs uncovered the body of 49-year-old Steven Schmidt in a remote marijuana garden. He had been struck repeatedly in the head with a hammer; 62-year-old local resident Phillip Frase has been arrested for the murder. He has pleaded not guilty. "It was a marijuana deal gone bad, no question about it," Allman says.

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