Cash Crop: Could marijuana save California?
In the 60s hippies fled to the backwoods of northern California to grow
pot. There they have been joined by growers of 'medical marijuana' –
available with a doctor's recommendation – as well as by Mexican drug
cartels. With cannabis now its largest cash crop, the state will soon
vote on whether to legalise it fully – and even Governor Arnold
Schwarzenegger is thinking the enormous tax revenues might just solve
his budget deficit…
o Ed Vulliamy
o The Observer, Sunday 9 May 2010
Jim Hill in his greenhouse where he and his wife Trelanie grow medical
marijuana. Photograph: Sarah Baldik for the Observer
'When I see that, it's like looking at a shed full of cows. I see a
whole lot of work," says Jim Hill, opening the little gate into his
humid greenhouse in which a forest of marijuana grows, and from which a
pungent, heady scent exudes at gale force. Not work as in hard labour,
emphasises Hill – though there is a bit of that – but expertise growing
some of the most potent weed on the planet.
Nearby there are vineyards and horses graze the sun-stroked farmland,
but this verdant hillside near the town of Potter Valley in northern
California lies in an area called the Emerald Triangle: three counties
bordered by mountains to the east and the Pacific to the west that
connect the lyrical terrain north of San Francisco with the wilderness
of the Oregon state line. This breathtakingly beautiful corner of earth
is the marijuana capital of the western hemisphere thanks to three
conspiring factors: its perfect climate; the pervading culture; and
topography – this is a maze of mountain dirt roads, locked access
gates, isolated villages, secluded slopes and wooded glades, far from
Jim Hill, however, is a respectable figure – neither old stoner nor
criminal – and he is not afraid to show off his working practices.
"You're just going to have to smell of weed for the rest of the week,"
he jokes as we clamber through his greenhouse. "Squeeze this," he
enthuses, "take a sniff, feel the nice, rich oily texture…"
Ninety-eight per cent of growers would not think this sight possible in
late April, he says, indicating the succulent, ripe buds oozing heavy
on the branch. "You're looking at icebergs in July." Hill has worked
out what to plant when: he talks about daylight hours at this latitude,
"plant efficiency" and above all cross-pollination. And no wonder: his
other business and passion is as a breeder of greyhounds. He shows me a
video of one of his dogs streaking from penultimate place in a big race
in Phoenix to win.
"Now, we develop and cross-breed different strands of marijuana," he
beams. He talks about indica and sativa plants, about kush and his own
speciality, scarecrow. "Just look at those purple leaves," he says.
"You should see the messages of gratitude I get from my patients for
Not every law enforcement officer here in Mendocino County would agree
– for the law here is labyrinthine – but Hill is operating legally. In
1996, following the comfortable success of a referendum on what was
called Proposition 215, California passed its Compassionate Use Act,
which allows patients with a doctor's "recommendation" (it is not a
prescription) to cultivate and possess marijuana for personal use.
The act was subsequently expanded to help create a network of
collectivised dispensaries. At first a handful appeared, now there are
thousands, some small and dingy, others de luxe. In the city of
Oakland, there is an entire neighbourhood called "Oaksterdam", which
boasts a college for the study of cannabis growing as well as a range
of dispensaries (one, called Blue Sky, offers arguably the world's
biggest selection of different strains).
Jim Hill started growing marijuana because of its medicinal properties
– his wife, Trelanie, suffered from a serotonin imbalance and he
believed it could help her. Now his crop is destined for dispensaries
in San Diego and Los Angeles. "It was the attitude of the government,
hassling me, that turned me into an advocate."
Even here, cannabis cannot be grown for profit or sold, so what keeps
Hill's greenhouse legal is that the marijuana itself is owned "not by
me but the collective" – the First Choice Collective, it is called. Its
1,200 members will have been "recommended" marijuana by a doctor. To be
legal, subsequent transactions take place within a closed loop. "All I
sell," says Hill, "are my services." According to the law, the
collective and its members "remunerate" Hill – he is not paid
commercially. But he makes a tidy living.
If only the same could be said of the Californian economy. It may be
the eighth largest in the world, but the state government has issued
IOUs and unemployment is at its highest for 70 years. In his final
budget in January, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed what he
called "draconian" spending cuts aimed at fixing a $19.9bn (£13bn)
budget deficit. He has said previously he would welcome a public debate
on proposals to legalise and tax marijuana to help plug that hole.
Tax revenues from medical marijuana (amounting to roughly $200m) barely
scratch the surface of what might be raised, given that marijuana is
now by far the largest cash crop in what used to be known as the Orange
State. It is this that has made an unlikely bedfellow of the actor who
played the Terminator and those who might feel themselves closer in
spirit to Dennis Hopper's character in Easy Rider.
In November – now that a referendum "initiative" has attracted
sufficient signatures – there will be a state ballot on whether
California should fully legalise marijuana. This will bring an industry
worth an estimated $10bn in Mendocino County alone into the mainstream
economy. "The state of California is in a very, very precipitous
economic plight," Democratic state assemblyman Tom Ammiano, who
introduced the legislation, said recently. "It's in the toilet… With
any revenue ideas, people say you have to think outside the box, you
have to be creative."
It is in this context that someone who embodies the spirit of
Californian entrepreneurship can hope to prosper. Jim Hill is rightly
proud of his expertise – "No one else is growing this stuff to the
level we are here. I'm tellin' ya, we're good at this" – and growers in
Mendocino County talk about the eventual "appellation" of marijuana (a
system akin to that used in France and elsewhere to identify the best
wines). Benign he might be, but Hill can see the potential. "What
California does, the world tries to follow 20 years later," he says.
"That's just the way it is. The seeds of alternative culture and
digital technology were here and now it's marijuana."
But Hill represents only one side of this story. In the counties of
Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity, different forces are involved, some
that represent another strain of California's founding optimism, and
others much darker.
There is no mystery as to how northern California has become the Napa
Valley of marijuana while other products "made in the USA" wither on
the vines of deindustrialisation and recession. During the 60s, San
Francisco was famously the capital of an experimental drug culture,
when cannabis and LSD were ingredients in an earnest imaginative
adventure. At the time of the Summer of Love in 1967, marijuana arrived
largely from Asia, with some produced locally by motorcycle gangs,
including the Hells Angels, in what is now the Emerald Triangle.
In the years that followed, as the dream turned sour around
Haight-Ashbury, an exodus began of hippies and disillusioned Vietnam
vets. They moved north to settle what became known as "the Lost Coast".
From the mid-70s onwards, these communities became established – I
remember touring them – with their vintage Volkswagen buses, coloured
banners and totem poles on the land. And of course, in this
climatically benign and secluded wilderness, they planted what they
needed and liked to smoke.
But for a second time, they were pursued. Seekers of the new dawn were
soon joined by farmers with an eye for business, by motorbike gangs
affiliated to criminal distribution channels in the big cities and,
latterly, by Mexican narco-cartels. Now they face new arrivals:
agribusiness, big pharmaceutical companies and possibly tobacco giants.
(The RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company, which makes Camel cigarettes,
dismisses as "rumours and speculation" reports that it is about to buy
up tranches of land.)
People of the counterculture – there are still many here, growing a
little marijuana legally and perhaps practising herbal medicine
professionally – as well as savvy growers like Jim Hill, now find
themselves cultivating their crops alongside farmers who would never
touch the stuff themselves. Criminal syndicates that grow their crops
in buried freight containers, for example, and others who hire armed
guards to oversee their "trimming" operations.
Tensions take root: between legal and illegal growers; between those
who grow their cannabis naturally and outdoors and those who
mass-cultivate under lights; between those who grow organically, with
an emphasis on quality, and those who use fertilisers or cause diesel
spillage from their hydroponic hothouses, with an emphasis on quantity.
Plus, of course, between big interests at opposite ends of the
spectrum: vicious cartels and syndicates making best use of an illegal
market while it lasts, and the big tobacco and pharma companies
salivating at the thought of legalisation.
Local and state authorities are sorely tempted to see some of the
marijuana money through regulation and taxation. But for the same
reason, opponents of cannabis are extremely wary, and California's
marijuana laws are endlessly being jostled over and amended at county
level, and can even be contradicted outright at federal level, so that
the spirit and letter of law combine into a kaleidoscope of plant
limits and rules on transportation and remuneration.
Jim Hill is forever getting caught between the layers of the law.
Mendocino County passed a "Measure G" allowing growers to cultivate up
to 25 plants per parcel of land, but that was cut back by a "Measure
B". Hill grows substantially more than 25, insisting that "county law
can't pre-empt state law – which sets no limit". Meanwhile, agents from
the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) arrived at Hill's
farm one morning last October to enforce national law. "They were very
nice guys. They said 'we've come to cut down all your plants,'" recalls
Hill. The federal charges were dismissed – making fewer headlines in
the local press than when they were levelled.
Hill is no hippy – he wears a smart yellow golf shirt – but he is a
supporter of legalisation who takes a surprising line on the role of
the cartels and criminal gangs up in mountains. To his mind, cannabis
is a battleground on which you cannot always choose your allies. "It's
like paedophile priests in the Catholic church," he says. "I don't
accept it when the church says, 'oh, they're not good Christians',
because the church knows it's going to have to count their votes
against the atheists one day. And that's how it is for us with the
Mexican cartels. The cartels are breaking the system, and it's a system
that's got to be broken."
Marvin Levin of the Mendocino Farmers Collective, which grows
high-quality organic marijuana, takes a different position, wanting
"nothing to do with people whose interests and ties are in selling this
stuff for profit, and not growing it right, whether they're the men
with guns in the woods, or pharmaceutical companies or big tobacco.
We're nothing to do with people growing for Goldman Sachs with 100 grow
lights, or the mafia."
The politics and economy of the Emerald Triangle come inevitably to be
dominated by its most famous, ubiquitous and potentially lucrative
product. When you wake up in the county seat of Ukiah ("haiku" spelt
backwards, as locals point out), the scent of marijuana hangs heavy on
the dewy mist that rolls off the mountains. Among the morning
newspapers is the latest edition of West Coast Leaf, "the cannabis
newspaper of record", with pictures of men in suits poring over plants
and pages of adverts for marijuana-specialist lawyers, "medical
cannabis valuations", "the pre-rolled MediCone cannabis delivery
system", and Organicann, "the best medibles [marijuana edibles] on the
planet. Whether it's savoury pot pies, robust infused tea or delectable
Mendocino is the county for which Dan Hamburg is campaigning to be
supervisor – a role akin to county council chairman – with a fair
chance of success. His wife, Carrie, joins our discussion. It was her
experience of cancer, which pot "made just about bearable", that
persuaded Hamburg to position himself behind the cause of medical
Hamburg lives on a hillside, past solar panels that power his wooden
house, with a thumbed encyclopedia on a lectern in the hallway. He was,
from 1992 to 1994, congressman for northern California on Capitol Hill.
In the past, his political enemies have endeavoured to use his
Californian good looks and intelligent, easy manner against him – as
well as his history of campaigning for the decriminalisation of
marijuana – but it rarely worked.
"People ask me, 'Are you the growers' candidate?'" he says. "I reply,
'It depends which growers.' I'd like to think I was a candidate for
small, legal, medical growers, but not a big indoor growers' candidate.
I think marijuana should be grown organically and in the sun, not under
grow-lights." An environmental consultant by profession, he says, "I'm
against the noise and diesel spills that indoor growing involves. I'm
extremely wary of big tobacco taking over the growing of marijuana
because the quality would go down. We've heard of tobacco companies
preparing to buy land near here, and I sure am not their candidate."
Among Hamburg's opponents, he says, are interests not involved in
marijuana growing. "Their problem? That the marijuana crop is so
successful, it's driving up wages. People can't pay their labourers the
minimum pay, when the pot trimmers are earning upwards of $20 an hour."
Hamburg intends to drive a wedge "between legalisation and
decriminalisation. I favour the latter. No, I don't think
schoolchildren should smoke it. What we are aiming for is people to be
able to grow marijuana, take it to a place where it can be tested for
quality, and for the consumer and the grower to benefit."
This is a position that finds sympathy with another important member of
the local community. Bert Mosier arrived to become president of the
Greater Ukiah Chamber of Commerce from Kansas, where he had been an
economic development officer at county level. We meet in America's
first organic brewpub. "This is a county where the economy was built on
lumber, which went into decline, to be replaced by fishing, which has
also declined," he explains. "In that situation, marijuana is the big
dead fish in the middle of the room – everyone talks about it, but
people are afraid to get out of the comfort zone. It's impossible to
calculate how much it's worth, or the exact impact of an underground
economy. But I've heard estimates of $10.6bn." He emphasises the
importance of the marijuana economy to the local economy as a whole.
"Businesses have told me that the marijuana crop is the difference
between staying open and going bankrupt – no, not just the smoke shops
and tie-dye: these are restaurants and stores.
"All I'm saying is that I want this county to succeed and I'll join the
conversation, and remain in the middle," he continues. "Though of
course, those opposed to pot say that to join the conversation in the
middle is not neutral at all, but an endorsement."
Marijuana country, and marijuana culture, are not lands of milk and
honey. For some they may be paradise, but there is a price to pay for
paradise. One day, that price may be the arrival of executives from
Philip Morris, RJ Reynolds and British American Tobacco; from Pfizer,
Johnson & Johnson and Roche. But for now, the price is paid in
crime – big crime, and the petty crime it causes. Each morning around
7am, a group of itinerants with matted hair, in ragged clothes,
clutching their belongings, gathers outside Walmart in Ukiah. One
particular group has come from St Louis, Missouri, to wait for trucks
that arrive and take them up to work as trimmers on the bigger
marijuana farms. In the evening, they hang around encamped by the
river, littering the banks and smoking their payment in kind.
They don't like to talk much about where they are going and have been:
a boy called Skip does say that they sometimes work on farms "in the
forest" under armed guard. These are "a ways up, in the mountains," he
says, along winding dirt roads in thick woodland and deep valleys over
which Drug Enforcement Administration helicopters fly, and into which
patrols sometimes venture to make arrests. These are marijuana farms
that do not entertain reporters, the kinds of growers who keep their
distance from Dan Hamburg and Bert Mosier, and vice versa.
According to California's Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, organised
crime has moved into the marijuana business in the north of the state
in different guises. The most recent arrivals are gangs affiliated to
the Mexican Sinaloa and Arellano-Felix cartels, who send illegal
migrant workers into remote and unguarded slopes and canyons on public
parkland to cultivate marijuana. On almost "every raid" into such
places, "we find weapons", says the bureau's spokeswoman, Michelle
Gregory. Since California's economic crisis has forced cuts in the park
service, covert planting has become easier off hiking trials through
the state's 31 million acres of public wilderness. Much of the cartels'
activity, says a law enforcement source, involves hijacking other
people's marijuana, or armed invasion of the homes of growers who are
then reluctant to call in the police.
Other criminal syndicates are hangovers from the original dope-growers
in the region, the Hells Angels, who – having serviced the Bay Area in
the 60s – never went away. But they did change, and adapt; they
streamlined, says a DEA source, developing their cultivation methods
"to grow dope that's strong but growable in bulk" and establishing
criminal distribution networks throughout urban gangland.
Tom Allman is sheriff of Mendocino County, and has served 28 years in
law enforcement. We meet at his office at 7am, between appointments,
and he tells a funny story about a British military guest he hosted at
an event held by the National Rifle Association ("If it wasn't for the
British, we'd never have needed a Second Amendment!"). Allman also
draws a line between who is growing what in Mendocino County. "The
problem," he says, "is not old hippies. Marijuana has always been part
of life around here, and they're harmless. But we've also got the
Mexicans, the Russians and Bulgarians – with guns. They're organised,
plus people from Italy, England, Germany get in on this. They come,
stay a year, and move to a different county. Where there are drugs,
there is crime. That's the problem."
He recalls how "one time we busted a guy – you know those freight
containers that trucks pull around? Well, this guy had eight of 'em
buried underground and arranged like this around an underground water
supply." Allman draws a pattern like the petals of flower. "He had
8,000 plants. This kind of thing is happening all over – big hydroponic
operations in a county of only 90,000 people… In 2009, we destroyed
541,000 plants, which means there are about 5 million illegal plants we
do not get, using 4 to 5 million gallons of water a day," he adds. "Try
telling that to the environmentalists."
Allman is also concerned about the "tourism" that might follow
legalisation in November. "If that thing passes, it'll be like America
got tilted to one side and every degenerate in the country not bolted
down is going to drift here." He makes the point that marijuana in
Mendocino County can sell for as little as $1,500 a pound. "In Georgia,
it's $4,200 a pound. Think about it."
The previous morning, at my motel, a wild couple were loading up their
car which had Tennessee plates, the scent hanging heavy over the
parking lot. The man's ranting was for all to hear. "Yeah, there was
blood all over the floor, but I got some shit from out of my head!"
These presumably are the sort of tourists of whom Allman is wary.
For someone like Allman, the situation as it stands at the moment, with
the law constantly subject to revision, can be frustrating. "I have
officers who are leaving the police, saying they just can't be cops any
more, having to walk out of houses leaving all those plants," he says.
"Even I get a little tired of being sued and having people come in here
with court orders and I have to give them back their marijuana. I've
never yet had to give back to anyone in a wheelchair, but I've often
had to give plants back to some kid of college age."
He goes to his computer and pulls up the website potdoc.com
, noting its
ethos with disdain. "You go to a doctor who asks if you have $200 in
your pocket and from then on, you're self-medicating, for whatever
ailment you say you got."
Later on the same day, Sheriff Allman joins 200 others from the county,
most of them marijuana growers, who pack themselves into the venue of
Ukiah's Saturday Afternoon Club from lunchtime until way past dark.
These growers have set aside their shovels – even on the first sunny
Saturday in months, badly needed to prepare for the growing season – to
drive for hours from places with names like Spyrock and Whale Gulch.
Cannabis workers, medical marijuana patients and "cannabusiness" owners
mingle, too, with government officials, political candidates and
representatives of business.
This novel event is organised by the Mendocino Medical Marijuana
Advisory Board and the Cannabis Law Institute, and has been convened to
discuss what happens if California votes to legalise marijuana. And
here they are in one place: these Vietnam-era pioneers of pot returned
from the war, who headed for the hills to create the finest cannabis
strains in the world and who today face a new enemy in the crosshairs
of agribusiness, big pharma, big tobacco and the possibility of
marijuana monoculture following legalisation.
At one table, beefy guys with buzz-cuts and folded arms exude the
wariness of life under the radar: in hushed tones,
ex-loggers-turned-ganja-farmers talk about shakedowns and sawn-off
padlocks. One asks those at his table to respond to a question from a
workshop survey: "What assets do we bring to this industry?" "Seizable
ones," responds another man, his voice rife with sarcasm. There is
laughter, but no one smiles. "This county is third in the nation for
seized assets," says a third man.
"I have relatives who buy cannabis in LA," says another, "but the
strains are depleted. It looks and smells like the real thing, but it's
so bad the dispensaries are issuing refunds!"
"If I shared my seeds with you," someone challenges, "how do I know
you're not gonna sell out to Monsanto?"
Two people in the audience have especially interesting things to say.
The first is Dan Rush, special operations director for UFCW5, the north
California branch of America's third largest trade union, United Food
and Commercial Workers. "Schools are closing. Police officers are being
laid off. If government opposes legalisation, they've lost their
minds," says Rush. He claims that his union represents 1,200 cannabis
workers in the Bay area.
Sheriff Allman chats informally to people he knows. He then appears,
speaking to camera, in a film shown to the meeting, in which he
insists: "I'm not saying that marijuana is this innocent little herb
that doesn't affect people, but it doesn't have the serious impact on
society that other serious problems do. I'm spending 30 per cent of my
time on marijuana. There's other things I need to be doing." The
audience, which has found itself watching Allman watching himself on
screen, breaks into unabashed applause. "We'll hold him to his views,"
whispers one man, adding that he already respects the sheriff for once
extracting a woman from a burning car with his bare hands.
Eight long hours later, Dan Rush from the union helps fold away the
chairs and a man with a mop of silver-grey hair loads a last item into
his truck – a painting of the earth with the slogan: "Respect the land
for future generations. Organic outdoor." Then he climbs aboard and
drives back up Highway 101 – to a place he runs called Area 101.
The road north from Ukiah cuts through a breathtaking landscape of
mountain meadows coloured luminous green by heavy rain this year. In
the town of Willits ("Gateway to the Redwoods"), Roxie's Rock Shop
advertises a tool called a Mendo Mulcher, which grinds marijuana buds
into a fluffy, smokeable form – reportedly designed by a Nasa engineer.
Stands of oak trees give way to conifers and wilder country, where the
local newspaper is the Anderson Valley Advertiser, which, with its
blocks of close print, looks as it might have done in 1900. The slogan
on the masthead promises it's been "Fanning the flames of discontent",
and articles about President Obama's foreign policy sit besides tales
of local cannabis growers' brushes with the law.
Just past the farm where Wavy Gravy – compere of the Woodstock Festival
in 1969 – holds an annual Earth Dance event, outbuildings with alien
spaceships, a moonrise and Buddhist deities painted in fluorescent
colours announce you've reached Area 101. The name is a play on the
number of the route we've driven and on Area 51, the counterculture
name for an airforce base in Nevada where aliens are supposedly
developing aviation technology. Area 101, conversely, is a place
"dedicated to personal growth and spiritual enlightenment", as the
business card says. This venue for music and happenings is run by Tim
Blake, the man with the silver-grey hair, who also co-owns a nearby
farm that grows what is agreed on the grapevine in Mendocino to be "the
best cannabis in the world". The intention is to turn the farm into a
licensed dispensary for marijuana, too.
Blake has a Virgin of Guadalupe tattooed on his upper arm and the same
figure cut with stained glass in the window, "which means the Mexicans
leave me alone," he claims. Blake's enthusiasm for what he does has
been boundless since he first came to northern California from the
coast at Santa Cruz in the 60s, and it is informative to hear his
account of history since then.
"The trailer we were pulling forward in the 60s got disconnected in the
70s. Big dealers moved in and derailed the psychedelic movement. Weed
was grown under lights, cocaine was $10 an ounce. People were losing
their minds, crack on the streets, speed everywhere, and the 80s and
90s were a mess.
"But then the energy started coming back. We've gone back to fetch the
trailer. God put us right here, just north of the fault line system,
just south of the volcano chain, where the pasture's good and the air
stays clean. Where the marijuana is our saviour and nourishment. We
believe it can change things, change the system, as well as being a
safe place to change your headspace.
"I'm talking about the good stuff," he adds. "It's got to be the good
A woman called Pam arrives. Her face is beautiful, but weary and lined
with tribulation. With her is her niece, Lisa, aged 18. Pam's son has
committed suicide and so has her nephew, Lisa's brother. "I used to
pass this place every day, driving between here and Reno, Nevada," says
Pam, "but I never came in, never needed to. Now I've found it." Tim
Blake chants a mantra, by way of demonstration, not meditation. Then
out comes a bong, which Pam puffs before weeping and starting to feel
Marvin Levin of the Mendocino Farmers Collective is from Los Angeles
and "too young to remember what it was like first time around." But he
manages the farm here now, and he has a point to make. "We're not just
using cannabis for smoking, we're using it in a dozen different medical
ways and as a dietary supplement. For this, we need to grow it right.
If you want to grow as much as you can as fast as you can, you'll grow
something entirely different, pumped full of fertilisers."
For those at Area 101, who represent a set of Californian values that
find expression in the language of hippiedom, the prospect of marijuana
being legalised in November's state ballot seems welcome. None the
less, to meet the denizens of Area 101 is to worry that their
aspirations and message will be lost if pharmaceutical and tobacco
companies arrive – that they will get squeezed out of the picture by
Governor Schwarzenegger's embrace of what once was the counterculture.
It is with a note of optimism you hope isn't misplaced that Marvin
Levin says: "We work in a non-profit closed loop, so we can ask people
for feedback, and cultivate accordingly. We're not like the bikers or
men with guns up in the woods. We're trying to do this for a better
world, yes – but also for the neighbourhood."
As we say our goodbyes, I see a lovely old sign from the days before
Area 101 on the wall, reading "Country Store and Deli".
"We've left it there," says Levin, "because that's what we're going to
be. Why take down something you're going to need again some day? That's
what we are: the Lost Coast Country Store and Deli!"
Additional reporting by Carole Brodsky