Upstairs, he showed me a light-filled waiting room with a grand piano and handcrafted wood chairs and couches. Someday soon, he said, the room would be filled with patients waiting to meet with therapists practicing massage, acupuncture, and other healing arts. Licensed professionals would be available to consult about medication, diet, and exercise. The waiting room was even equipped with children’s toys, so that mothers could bring their kids to appointments. As we spoke, he trimmed some long-stemmed flowers that were in a vase on top of the piano. He then sat down and played a passage of Brahms.
By speeding up the growing cycle and getting rid of the males, you could produce three or four times the amount of pot indoors. In the winter of 1973, Michael, who was living in Mendocino County, put together a slide show for upstate growers based on what he had learned about manipulating the growing cycle. “Nobody ever grew males again,” he boasted.
Michael said that he served two stints in San Quentin. After he was discharged the second time, in 1999, he grew tomatoes for Whole Foods and worked for a seed bank. After the passage of Senate Bill 420, a friend told him about the dispensary scene and loaned him a 1987 BMW. Michael placed an ad in the newspaper saying that he would deliver cannabis right to a customer’s door. He opened the first Farmacy in 2005.
I asked Michael if being involved in the dispensary business was a wise choice for a two-time drug offender. “I’ve got two strikes around my neck, and, yes, I’ve been anxious,” he said. He noted that he had ten children from various wives and girlfriends, all of whom were supported by the income from his stores. He declined to reveal how much money he made.
Michael jumped off the couch and bounded downstairs to take care of some business, leaving me with JoAnna LaForce, who helps run the business side of the Farmacy. A cheerful woman in her fifties, she believes that she is the only pharmacist in the United States who actively participates in a medical-cannabis dispensary. Though doctors are protected under California state law, she explained, pharmacists are not, which means that she is theoretically subject to arrest, although the D.E.A. generally avoids entanglements with medical professionals.
LaForce told me that she had once been married to Michael; they did not have children. “I met him in San Diego in February, 1993, through a mutual friend,” she said. “At the time, he was on the lam. We were together for a year before the feds took him away.” When he got out of prison, they were together for two more years, and then he went to Mexico, to live on the beach and surf. When Michael decided to open the Farmacy, she was happy to help.
LaForce spent fifteen years working in a hospice with dying patients. “I saw the value of alternative medicine, particularly cannabis, in helping with appetite, pain management, and anxiety,” she said. “I found that I could use cannabis to decrease the pain medication, which in turn made patients able to spend their last days talking to their friends, spouses, to share good times.” The upcoming pot harvest, she said, was set to be the largest in the state’s history, adding, “There is a gold rush going on with cannabis in the state of California.”
The dispensary owners of Los Angeles hold a meeting once a month in an anonymous office building in the shadow of Cedars-Sinai hospital. At a recent gathering, a sign on the wall said “Stop Arresting Medical Marijuana Patients.” The shades were drawn. There were twenty-five people in attendance, and most of them were either in their mid-twenties or in their mid-forties. A few—such as a muscular man in biker gear and a woman in glittery flip-flops and not much else—looked like refugees from the porn industry.
The meeting began with a “raid update,” delivered by Chris Fusco, a young field coördinator for Americans for Safe Access. In the past month alone, ten dispensaries had been raided in Los Angeles by the D.E.A. “Raids suck,” Fusco said.
“I think things will get worse before they get better,” said Don Duncan, the owner of the California Patients Group, a large dispensary that was raided by the D.E.A., and then shut down, in the summer of 2007. He owns another dispensary, the Los Angeles Caregivers and Patients Group, which was raided a few months later but has subsequently reopened, despite the rumored seizure of close to a million dollars in marijuana. (Duncan puts the figure at thirteen thousand dollars’ worth of cannabis-based products.)
Several of the top dispensary owners had recently attended meetings with the city planning department, the city attorney, and the L.A.P.D. The meetings were intended to help draft a set of legal guidelines to govern the conduct of the dispensaries. Despite the dispensary owners’ willingness to coöperate with the city, Duncan said, everyone who attended the meetings had either had his dispensary raided by the D.E.A. or received a letter from his landlord asking him to give up his lease, owing to threats from federal authorities that the property would be seized.
“What is the information that the D.E.A. wants from the people they detain in these raids?” a man asked.
“They want to know who is in charge and where the medicine comes from,” Duncan answered. “They want growers.” Patient records were untouched. “They left all the concentrates,” he added, describing the aftermath of the raid on the Los Angeles Caregivers and Patients Group. “That’s how we reopened the vapor bar.”
“Did they take computers?” another person asked.
“They planted some tracking software that records user names and passwords which was transmitting to an I.P. address in Virginia,” Duncan said. “Our computer guy found it right away.”
After the meeting, I paid a visit to Allison Margolin, who calls herself “L.A.’s dopest attorney.” Her trade is a sort of family business—her father, the lawyer Bruce Margolin, is the author of the Margolin Guide, which enumerates the legal penalties for the sale and possession of pot in each of the fifty states. She works in a black-glass office tower on Wilshire Boulevard owned by Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler. On the walls in her office, a Harvard Law School degree is juxtaposed with a pictorial layout from the magazine Skunk, featuring her in a low-cut leopard-print dress. Margolin’s sexpot image is an advantage with clients, who, more often than not, are socially isolated men. Margolin has a reputation for getting cases dismissed, and for retrieving marijuana plants that have been seized by the police.
“The truth is, it’s very rare to get plants back,” Margolin said. Her long auburn hair was in a tidy French bun, but a few strands had been allowed to slip loose. Like many of her clients, she adopted a tone of adolescent vulnerability and outraged innocence when talking about the mean grownups who don’t like pot. “People are talking about how it’s being over-recommended and abused,” she said. “I mean, big fucking deal. It’s not toxic!” I asked her if she had a doctor’s letter, and she nodded vigorously, explaining that she suffers from an anxiety disorder.
She said that courts are sometimes sympathetic to her arguments about the relative safety of pot, but most judges and prosecutors seem to have only a glancing acquaintance with the case law since the passage of Proposition 215. “I’ve gone to court, like, several times where the judge has read only the first half of the case, which talks about how dispensaries are not legal according to Proposition 215,” she said. “I think it’s just intellectual and physical laziness.”
A patient whose plants Margolin had recovered, Matt Farrell—known in the community as Medical Matt—stopped by for some counsel. Medical Matt was hardly an advertisement for the curative wonders of medical marijuana, or for the idea that all medical-marijuana patients are enjoying themselves by gaming the system. His cheeks and chin were covered in a three-day growth of dark stubble, and his red-rimmed eyes got wet as he spoke.
“I’ve always suffered from mental problems,” Farrell said, reciting a long list of prescription drugs that he had taken, including Paxil, Wellbutrin, Risperdal, and Prozac. He had obtained his first doctor’s letter for pot in late 2001 or early 2002—his memory wasn’t clear. He began growing pot to support his habit, which costs him between sixty and a hundred dollars a day.
In December, 2005, he said, police officers ransacked his house—seizing about a hundred and twenty plants and nine grow lights—even though he showed his doctor’s letter, and contended that the plants were for his own use and the use of the members of the collective to which he belonged. He was accused of unlawfully cultivating marijuana; the charge was dismissed in 2006. The police came back to his house in 2007, he said, once again trashing the premises and charging him with the unlawful cultivation of marijuana and the possession of marijuana for sale. They froze his bank account, which, he said, destroyed his credit rating. The second case against him is still pending.
Although the police behavior he described may seem excessive, it is usually forgiven by judges who try to balance the competing demands of state and federal law. By routinely looking the other way when law-enforcement officers make “mistakes,” the courts have allowed police departments that don’t like current state law to work around it, and put pressure on people like Farrell.
In the wake of the seizures and the property damage, Farrell said, he was borrowing money from his parents, and his house was going into foreclosure. “It’s either a joke or I’m delirious,” he said, starting to cry. “I mean, I’m not the smartest person in the world, but I sure as hell can read something pretty simple and understand it. If the state, county, city council, and everybody else is saying you can, how the hell does the L.A.P.D. come in to say you can’t?” Spokesmen and officers of the D.E.A. and the L.A.P.D. told me, off the record, that the federal laws regulating the possession and distribution of marijuana took precedence over the laws of the State of California, and that, until federal law changed, the D.E.A. and the L.A.P.D. would continue to work together in their fight against the drug trade.
Sitting beneath a willow tree on a breezy day in Sonoma County, you can see why the idea of leaving the city behind and growing your own weed exerts such a pull on the holistic health nuts, masseurs, d.j.s, art-school dropouts, and New Age types who populate the medical-marijuana scene in Los Angeles. Farming a crop of twenty-five or thirty plants of killer weed is an updated (and highly profitable) version of the age-old California dream of an orange tree in every back yard. For those who can’t afford to pay for a prime plot of land in Humboldt, there is the possibility of renting a small split-level house in Sonoma or Mendocino and converting the master bedroom into a grow room, where you can turn around an indoor crop every sixty days.
Captain Blue and I took a five-day excursion to the growing fields up North. Our guide was an old friend of his, a woman who called herself the Kid. She had been minding a grow house in Sonoma since being laid up with a half-dozen broken ribs after a bad motorcycle accident. The Kid had large eyes, a big nose, and long hair, and a squat, powerful body covered in black-ink tattoos, which ran across her chest and arms and up the back of her neck. “There’s a lot of women in the bud scene that are just looking to be with some guy that has some property and some plants, so that they can sit on their ass and do nothing,” she said, as we sat outside on her porch and watched horses graze. “There is a large percentage of really fabulous beauties. And then there’s the hard, serious worker girls that dig holes all day.”
Blue wiped the sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his loose plaid shirt. He wasn’t used to being outside. He asked for a glass of water and drank it in a single gulp. Then he wrapped his arms around his friend and gave her a hug, taking care not to put pressure on her ribs. They made for a weird, medieval-looking couple; both had long hair, round bodies, and shoulders strong enough to chop wood. Both had spent years smoking pot and consuming staggering quantities of mushrooms, cactus powders, LSD, and other mind-altering substances.
The Kid made her bed by the picture window in the living room, next to a plaster Buddha and a shelf of books about plants, including “Marijuana Horticulture,” by Jorge Cervantes. The dining room was occupied by a pool table. If you are selling your own product, she explained, you can clear as much as seventy-five thousand dollars, after expenses, on a duffelbag filled with thirty pounds of pot. The easiest way to make this kind of small indoor scene work is to live in someone else’s house and nurture the plants in exchange for a third or half the profits, and that is how the Kid would be spending her time for the next two months.
The Kid’s plants, all Sour Diesels, were being raised on a mixture of nutrients which changed every three to five days, in accordance with a detailed regimen that had been laid out, in black Magic Marker, in a battered spiral-bound notebook. The notebook had been bequeathed to the Kid by a longtime friend. The cost of the nutrients was approximately six hundred dollars a week.
We entered the darkened bedroom, and were confronted by the fetid smell of plant life. Without the ventilation system that the Kid had installed, the temperature would have been about a hundred and ten degrees in the dark, largely from the stored-up heat of the lights—seven of them, a thousand watts each. There was a tank of carbon dioxide in the corner. “The more CO2, the thicker the bud,” the Kid explained.
It was a relatively small operation: the lights and their installation had cost about fifteen thousand dollars, and power and nutrients had cost an additional twelve thousand or so. The array of nutrients along the walls included specialized growing products such as Bud Blood (“promotes larger, heavier & denser flowers and fruit”) and Rizotonic (a powerful root stimulant). “Voodoo Juice is going to go in here, and Scorpion, and it goes on and on,” the Kid said. Every three or four days, she ran purified water through her hydroponic growing medium for a full day, in order to give the plants a break. After the full, eight-week growth cycle, the Kid planned to harvest her crop and clear out.
Up North, the marijuana harvest is known as “trimming season.” In Humboldt and Mendocino, she said, October is a month-long sleepover, with all the free ganja, beer, and organic food you want. A really good trimmer can trim two pounds of pot a day, at a rate of two hundred and fifty dollars per pound, while sitting around a table with three or four friends. Kids from San Francisco or even Australia hear about the harvest from friends of friends and show up for the pot and the cash. The D.E.A. routinely busts a few big scenes each year, and the local police have been known to stop cars and check the passengers for telltale scratches on their arms or sticky resin under their fingernails.
None of this intimidated the Kid. “It’s a fucking blast,” she said. “This is crop No. 6 for me this year.” After a month of being cooped up, she was eager to get on the road. I agreed to drive, because her license had been suspended since the motorcycle accident. Along the way, she recounted a transformative experience that she had had at the age of nineteen with the psychedelic drug DMT. While tripping, she had a vision of herself lying down on a forest floor. She heard a growling sound and saw a twenty-foot-tall woman guarded by a gigantic dog. “She was enormous, and definitely not attractive, and I recognized the look in her eye,” the Kid remembered. “I said, ‘Oh, my God, that’s me.’ And she said, ‘Yep, I am you. But I’m very old. My energy is very big.’ I was kind of in shock, but I didn’t feel threatened.” The old woman explained that the Kid didn’t need to worry about death anymore. There was no such thing as death, in fact. Energy returned to its source and then took another form.
The Kid fell silent for a moment. “I only saw her that one time,” she said. Afterward, she recalled, she felt a bit woozy, and a friend sat her in front of the television and let her watch cartoons.
The Kid, Blue, and I arrived in Arcata, a small, well-kept Northern town, around dusk. After dinner, we drove to a farm owned by a couple whom I’ll call Nick and Danielle. Nick, who had long brown hair and Mediterranean features, and Danielle, a yoga-toned blonde, had both worked as massage therapists in Malibu. One day, a massage client of Nick’s asked him about dispensaries, and he took her to one. “She saw people spending two thousand dollars at the counter,” Nick said, with a laugh. “She said, ‘What kind of business is this?’ ” Her next reaction was to suggest that Nick and Danielle could run a dispensary, and that she could front them the fifty thousand dollars they would need to get started. They soon opened one, and, after the business took off, they bought the property up North.
Nick and Danielle’s farm was at the end of a long, well-protected valley surrounded by high mountains. The turnoff was a dirt path barred by a classic old wooden ranch gate featuring the longest string of Tibetan prayer flags I saw during my stay in California.
Arriving at the house, we dumped our bags on a wooden deck. Nick, who was dressed in jeans and a sweaty T-shirt, showed us around the property. He was already a skilled grower: last year, he told me, he won second place in the Los Angeles Cannabis Cup, an annual competition, for a particularly potent strain of marijuana that he had grown from seeds he ordered through the mail from Amsterdam. But he did not consider pot his life’s calling. He spoke of one day starting up a healing center on Mt. Shasta, where people could clean out their systems and go hiking.
The property lacked sufficient water for pot growing, Nick said, but their neighbor up the mountain helped them out. “He’s a great bro,” he said. “Every few days, he drops two thousand gallons down a pipe.” In exchange, Nick paid the neighbor a minimal fee. “He’s an older guy, he’s been up here for forty years. He knows how hard it can be when you first move somewhere.” Nick had about three hundred plants in the ground on a hill behind his house. On another plot of land, a few hills over, he had two hundred and fifty plants, as insurance against a targeted raid on his property.
A perfect half-moon was shining brightly in the twilight. The North Star was already visible. Nick, Danielle, and some friends had gathered in the living room, whose focal point was a large homemade altar, for meditation, surrounded by burning tea candles. At the kitchen table, a friend of Nick’s, Charlie, packed a large water pipe with the smoke of the day. Next to Charlie was Nick’s friend Dylan Fenster, from Venice, who was spending a few months up North to help with the harvest. He said that he smoked marijuana primarily to deal with the pain from a degenerative spinal condition; he carried his doctor’s letter in his back pocket. “Twice in the last six months, I’ve been cited for smoking in public,” he told me. “Both times I got the weed back, and both times the judge admonished the cops, ‘You know, this is legal.’ ”
On the fridge, someone had posted a handwritten sign with the motto “Today is the day we manifest heaven on earth and godly bliss.” Water pipes were passed around, and everyone got high. After four hits on Nick’s bong, the slogans on the refrigerator started to vibrate with uncommon significance. I looked over at Blue and saw that he was dozing off again, this time with a homemade bong resting on his chest.
“I always wanted to heal the world or find the cure for cancer,” Nick told me, with a faith-healer stare. “I have massaged over ten thousand people, and I hope to massage ten thousand more, and to heal the world with good medicine that I can grow here and provide on a compassionate basis to the people who need it.”
Danielle started talking with the Kid about her wedding. “It was three days,” she said. The wedding was held in a clearing in a forest, and a cigar box was passed around containing two hundred hand-rolled joints of Kush.
I headed out to a swinging bench on the porch and gazed intently at dozens of bright stars, and thousands of lesser stars. Nick came outside and offered another hit. “I love it here,” he said. “I love the earth and the sounds and the smells and the sounds at night.” The farm’s location at the tip of the valley was particularly sweet. “There are no cars driving by and no planes flying over and no sirens going off or any kind of negative frequencies,” he said. “It almost feels like it must have felt for the original pioneers who were first exploring California.”
Every morning, Nick said, he woke up at seven, had a smoothie, and got in tune with nature. “Then I’ll head out to the garden and I’ll do some watering,” Nick continued. “Depending on the day of the week, I’ll maybe feed the plants, check in with them. Double-check for damage from the deer and whatever else has been creeping in through the cracks. Make sure the praying mantises are on duty.” Growing marijuana outdoors, he felt, emphasized the holistic qualities of the plant rather than its psychotropic function. Someday, he said, he wanted to plant cherry trees, and peaches, plums, and apricots.
Nick said that he hoped to have kids, and he liked the idea of raising children on a farm. When I asked him whether he worried about the atmosphere of danger and illegality that came with operating a gray-area business, he shook his head. “I really feel like my karma’s good,” he said. “I’m not doing anything wrong.” He owned the dispensary for which his crop was intended. He had never been arrested or done time in jail. “We’ve got a good lawyer, and we pay state sales tax,” he said.
Nick’s income from the dispensary last year, he said, was only around fifty thousand dollars. “That’s what I make for all the scary shit I do,” he said, looking up at the constellations. “I’m not making millions of dollars. I’m a hardworking, compassionate person, and I spend my time helping people. It makes me feel happy to bring smiles to the faces of people that have frequented my collective.”
The next morning, I woke up on the floor of Nick and Danielle’s living room, a ceiling fan whirring stale air above my head. There were three other people asleep in the room. As my head cleared, I perused a nearby bookshelf, which contained various speculative and esoteric texts, including “The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Christian Myth,” “Secrets of Shamanism,” and “Crop Circles: Signs of Contact.”
I wandered outside. Behind the building were two long greenhouses made of translucent plastic sheeting supported by bent steel ribs, which sheltered smaller plants until they were ready to be put in the ground. I ran into Nick, who was already at work, and he led me on a tour of the slopes at the back of his property. “I planted these at the end of May,” he said. “They’re three months old.” Outdoors, the sativa growth cycle is eleven weeks; the indica cycle is seven to nine. Toward the end of the cycle, the flowering plant loses its lush green leaves and manifests a shrivelled brown bud. “This is Afghooey crossed with Maui Wowie,” Nick said, pointing to a six-foot plant with half its leaves missing. So far, he said with equanimity, he had lost about a quarter of his crop—more than a hundred thousand dollars’ worth—to nibbling deer.
The three hundred or so plants on this part of the mountain were arranged in a V shape. The arms of the V ascended the mountain and spread out beneath the shelter of the surrounding forest. Nick admitted that the plants were not particularly well hidden, and said that the planting formation was mainly a respectful tip of the hat to the D.E.A. planes that flew over the valley. “They appreciate it when you’re not growing it in rows, like a cornfield,” he explained. Small planes had been buzzing overhead lately. Last night, one of Nick’s visiting friends had reported that a helicopter had canvassed the property and shone a light down onto the front porch. The friend admitted to having been stoned when he saw the searchlight.
Virtually everyone in the valley made a living from growing pot, Nick said. The signs of their activity were hard to miss. To illustrate his point, he indicated to the top of a mountain across the way. “It’s quite expensive to put electrical poles up a mountain,” he said. As I followed his gaze, I caught sight of what looked like a sail. “You’re looking at greenhouses,” he explained.
With so much pot on the market in California, it paid to differentiate your crop. Later that day, Nick and Danielle’s investor from Malibu arrived with a lawyer, who was there to inspect the farm’s organic-farming methods. If the farm passed, the pot would be certified as an organic product. The lawyer was a tall, fit-looking middle-aged man from San Francisco who wore a gray suit and a white starched shirt with no tie. He declined to be interviewed about his business.
Captain Blue spent the day outside, roaming the property and taking photographs with a digital S.L.R. camera. He took pictures of Nick’s friends working the pot fields and tending to the mature mother plants. And he took closeups of the enormous brown buds on a fifteen-foot-high pot plant. The physical exertion was hard for Blue. Beads of sweat collected on his forehead, and his shirt was soon soaking wet.
Blue handed me his camera, and I clicked through his photographs. I had told Blue many times that if he were slightly more motivated he could probably have a career as a photographer. My motherly attempts to lure Blue away from a life centered on pot had created a certain degree of tension in our friendship, even though he claimed not to mind. The truth was that Blue’s life had never been better. He was making money. People depended on him. He was a respected member of his community. He treated the people in his life—growers, suppliers, patients, customers—in a considerate fashion. He had even figured out a way to keep his marijuana business within the letter of California state law.
But it is hard to argue that what Blue does for a living is the kind of activity that California’s medical-marijuana laws were designed to protect. Though he is not a dangerous criminal, he is not exactly a hospice worker, either. He is a gray-area entrepreneur, working the seams of a hidden economy, populated by tens of thousands of people whose lives and minds and bank accounts it has altered forever, even as the rest of the country is only beginning to realize that it exists.
After leaving Nick’s farm, Blue, the Kid, and I stopped at a diner in Redway to get a slice of blackberry pie. While we ate, I watched a long-haired teen-ager guide her stoned father to their car. His hair was gray, and longer than hers, and when he stepped off the curb and started to amble toward a black BMW she grabbed his arm. “Dad, this is not your car,” she said sweetly. “Your car is over there.”
Humboldt’s economy is so heavily dependent on cannabis cultivation that you can drive for miles on well-kept highways and back roads without discovering a single legitimate source of income, aside from honey stands. Heading north, we eventually entered a maze of logging roads on a private reserve. A bunch of hippies grew pot in the forest, and the local cops stayed away.
Our destination was a house occupied by a woman who identified herself as Emily. A wiry marijuana sharecropper who also works as an environmental activist, she was busy watering her plants. There were twenty-five plants in all, surrounded by a fence on which hung a laminated patient’s letter, signed by Ken Miller, M.D., stating that the marijuana was intended for medical purposes. Because marijuana is a fungible commodity, like soybeans or rice, there is no way to tell the difference between marijuana that winds up going to patients and marijuana that winds up on the street. The doctor’s letter was, therefore, halfway between a legal document and a good-luck charm. Tibetan prayer flags fluttered along the length of the fence.
Emily was thin, with curly hair, and had a solitary, independent air; she’d been living alone for five months. She wore a gray T-shirt advertising a club called the Boom-Boom Room, in Cambodia. Her hands were covered with homemade tattoos of the kind that skater kids draw on each other.
The Kid and Emily were old friends, and they quickly launched into the technical details of Emily’s growing regimen. “It’s a three-day flip with Penetrator and a carbo load,” Emily said, and then I lost them.
After Emily finished her watering, we hiked over the mountain to a patch of twenty plants, where she went through the same routine. We sat on a couch that someone had carried up the mountain, and looked down on the verdant valley below as Emily described her growing arrangements. The house where we first met was owned by a man in his fifties, Emily said, who lived on the peak of the next mountain over. In addition to the two parcels of land that Emily tended, her host had half a dozen other plots in and around the reserve, which were worked by other sharecroppers. By taking care to stay under the local limit of ninety-nine plants on each of his properties, Emily’s host had averted most of the risk inherent in his profession while enjoying an income large enough to finance a laid-back life of self-exploration. He also donated considerable funds to environmentally friendly social-action projects in Central America and South America.
Emily had come to Humboldt ten years ago as a young activist, working to save old-growth redwoods. She first encountered marijuana plants after she picked some edible mushrooms on a friend’s land, cooked them up in marijuana-laced butter, and ate a good meal with some wine. That evening, her friend went outside briefly and returned with three huge plants over his shoulder. He taught Emily and some other activists how to trim the plants, separating the buds from the leaves over a framed screen with a sheet of glass underneath, to catch loose trichomes.
Emily decided to stay in the mountains. She loved the odd mixture of people who lived in a place with no apparent cash economy: the old lesbian couples who made jam and grew pot, the acupuncturists with connections to the San Francisco drag-queen scene, the old hippie ladies whose grower husbands had left them years ago and who toughed it out on the land they got in the divorce. Gazing at the setting sun, Emily said, “I think a lot of those people were drawn up here for intuitive reasons—soul reasons, or whatever.” The problem with growing pot back then, she said, was that it was illegal, and that changed you. “You had to carry a gun and be scared of people, and you lost track of the reason you came up here.”
Before the legalization of medical marijuana, she said, the wholesale price of good weed was forty-eight hundred dollars a pound. Now it was between twenty-two and twenty-six hundred. That was still profitable, though, and there were fewer stories in the newspapers about people being bound and gagged by cash-hungry gangsters.
The one thing that hadn’t changed was the Humboldt Slide. “You start at this really great percentage, and you’re buddy-buddy and everything’s great,” Emily said. As the harvest approaches, growers inevitably begin to run out of money and get greedy, and the sharecroppers lose whatever leverage they had earlier in the growing cycle, when their daily attention was necessary for the young plants to survive. Emily’s wage the previous year was initially set at a third of the value of the plants that she harvested. Later, her boss “slid” her percentage to a sixth, meaning that she owned only a dozen of the eighty plants that she grew that season. Emily’s philosophical approach to her losses is psychologically necessary for surviving in a gray-area business, where there are no signed contracts and recourse to the police or the courts is impossible, even in Humboldt. (“Officer, this man had me growing marijuana on his land for five months, and now he’s only giving me twelve plants!”)
Providing that the weather and the authorities coöperated, Emily expected to end up with approximately twenty pounds of pot. She would dispose of it in whatever manner brought her the most money; she thought it could fetch as much as fifty thousand dollars.
“There’s a bunny!” she cried out as a tiny brown rabbit scampered through her marijuana plants. “Oh, he’s cute!” Being around plants made her happy, she said. She’d be even more excited to grow something else, if it paid decently. Growing pot required a careful rhythm between periods of benign neglect and periods of close, loving attention. She noted that all her marijuana plants were females. “They’re ladies, right?” she joked. “So how do ladies like to be treated? They like to be given lots of attention and then left the fuck alone for a few days to revel in it. If you hang on to them all the time, they’re not going to do anything for you.”
That morning, Emily said, she had spent four hours on eight plants, plucking the thickest leaves in order to channel more energy to the buds. She had fertilized the soil with a mixture of bat and seabird guano. (Humboldt supermarkets sell the blend for nineteen dollars a gallon.) Her arms had become dark and sinewy from her labor.
Back at Emily’s borrowed house, we got high on her private stash and settled in for the night. The living room was decorated with save-the-rain-forest posters and a fake-leather gray couch. On the table was a boom box, a Mason jar of marijuana, and a Mac PowerBook. There was no television set; the radio was tuned to NPR. Emily was reading William Morris and working on a half-finished jigsaw puzzle of a Brazil nut, which she had bought at the thrift store for a dollar. Puzzles were popular during growing season, she said. That’s what being a grower in Humboldt County is like, she said. You do jigsaw puzzles at night, get high, and shit in the woods.
For Emily, that was enough. “It’s fuuun! It’s super-fun,” she said the next morning, lazily sunning herself on top of the mountain and smoking a spliff. “We’re gonna smoke it to the Man, you know?” Twenty years ago, people like Emily would have been too soft for the pot business in Humboldt County. The statewide legalization of medical marijuana has allowed for the illusion that farming pot can provide opportunities for travel and cool art projects and personal growth without any corresponding commitment to the perils of a life of crime. Medical marijuana has made it easy for people like Emily, the Kid, and Captain Blue to see growing pot as a casual life-style choice. By going into the pot business, Emily had made the kind of compromise with reality that idealistic people often make when they get older and lose faith in their ability to effect wholesale change, and when they need the money.
Growing ganja lets you feel that you’re still living on the edge, especially when you’ve become a little complacent politically. Emily nodded, and took another puff. “The forest is still getting cut down or whatever,” she said, watching the fragrant smoke swirl in the breeze. “But you’re still working out here. You’re still subverting the Man. And you’re getting people high.”