Pot Growers With PACs
A black market learns to work the system.
When Patrick and Shannon—physically attractive people and idiosyncratic dressers—first moved to Butte County, they tried to keep a low profile, but it was impossible to hide what they were doing from their neighbors. The region has a warm, dry climate well-suited to pot cultivation, as well as plenty of cheap land. Unlike the Emerald Triangle, which is mostly remote forestland, the foothill counties are well populated. Patrick and Shannon live close to a major highway, and neighbors have direct views of their farm.
“Everyone knows where I live,” Butte County Sheriff Jerry Smith says, “and there are gardens within rifle distance of my home. I get up to feed my horses in August and September and I can smell it. They used to be somewhat clandestine about it—they’re not anymore.”
In the spring of 2010, as growers were preparing their gardens for the new season, the Butte County Board of Supervisors announced that they would sharply restrict the amount of pot that county residents could grow legally. “It had gone crazy here,” says Bill Connelly, who sits on the board. “There are places in my district where there will be 10 people on a street and eight of them grow pot.”
Soon after the announcement, a public meeting was held at a local Elk’s Lodge to discuss the matter. Weeks of fear and outrage suddenly had an outlet, and growers streamed out of the hills and packed the lodge to its 400-person capacity; another 100 or so lingered outside. After opening remarks by the five county supervisors, the floor was opened to public comment. Within 10 minutes, two residents were thrown out for yelling profanities. Several hours of colorful drama followed—growers broke down crying, accused the supervisors of tyranny and fascism, and said that the law amounted to a personal death sentence against them. At the end, the board voted 4 to 1 in favor of the ordinance.
What happened next offers perhaps the best single illustration of how peculiar things in Northern California have become. In response to the vote, growers in Butte banded together and formed a political action committee, hired a public relations firm, and enacted a vigorous signature drive to force the ordinance to go before a vote. Twelve months later, this past June, Butte residents rejected the ordinance by a considerable margin.
A smile lit up Patrick’s face as he recalled the vote. Standing in his farm surrounded by his plants—each a marvel of horticultural engineering, 8 or 9 feet tall and of enormous girth—he says, “That was a good day.”
Many people, including many Californians, are under the impression that most of the marijuana sold in the state is done so legally under medical marijuana provisions. In fact, the great bulk of it is grown legally but sold illegally, on the black market. Much of it travels over state lines, where it can be sold for significantly more money. (New York is the most coveted market; a pound of pot that goes for $1,300 in California can be sold for $3,000 to $4,000 there.) It is now estimated that more than a third of the pot smoked in America begins life in the sun-dappled hills of Northern California.
Patrick said he supports regulations limiting the way in which pot can be grown, but what the council proposed was simply too restrictive. “We bring money in from New York and L.A. and spend it here,” he said as he walked along the terraces of his farm, checking his plants for caterpillars. “You can’t eradicate the logic of the free market, and if that ordinance had passed, growers would have moved elsewhere. This is a huge economic asset for this region. You’re really going to give that up?”
This fall, growers and Butte County officials agreed to negotiate a new ordinance, through a committee composed of representatives from both sides of the debate. Despite initial acrimony, during weekly meetings held over the course of two months, they agreed, against the expectations of nearly everyone involved, on a set of regulations.
Tuesday, in a 4 to 1 vote, the Butte Board of Supervisors passed the ordinance into law. It gives the county California’s most liberal rules for growing marijuana. Residents with between .5 and 1.5 acres will be allowed to grow six mature plants; the number rises in increments according to acreage, topping out at 99 plants for anyone on 40 acres of land or more. “Growers must be doing cartwheels up and down Highway 70,” one resident who opposed the ordinance said at a public meeting held to discuss the matter.
“This allows both parties to work together,” said Andrew Merkel, a local grower who is chairman of the Western Plant Science Association, the Butte growers’ PAC, and who sat on the commission. “If someone’s being a nuisance it gives neighbors the opportunity to have their concerns addressed. It’s got strict environmental regulations. And it allows us to grow our medicine without worrying the sheriff going to come around at any moment and try to hassle us or illegally shut us down.” He laughed. “We kicked ass on this thing.”
Sam Kornell is a freelance writer living in Oakland.