Pot Growers’ Strange Trip Through American Capitalism

The state of the universe.
Feb. 27 2013 10:21 AM

Pot Growers With PACs

A black market learns to work the system.

Ayrn Taylor, a United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) member and employee at the Venice Beach Care Center, displays medical marijuana during a media visit at the medical marijuana dispensary in Los Angeles, California February 6, 2013.
Ayrn Taylor inspects a marijuana plant at a medical marijuana dispensary in Los Angeles.

Photo by Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters

Patrick and Shannon are sitting on the redwood deck of their cabin in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range. Clouds swollen purple with rain blot out the midday sun, and the glow from Patrick’s MacBook Pro illuminates their faces. Five terraces are carved into the facing slope of a tight valley full of pine trees; that’s where Patrick and Shannon have established their 60-plant pot farm.

Patrick and Shannon (their names have been changed to protect their privacy) are in their early 30s and are graduates of one of the country’s most prestigious universities. In 2008, sick of floundering in a weak economy, they moved to Butte County to make their fortune in the cannabis-speckled hills of Northern California. For years, they had watched friends who hadn’t bothered with college disappear to Northern California for eight months at a time and return bearing shoe boxes full of cash. None of these friends had been arrested.

Infrequent consumers of their own product, Patrick and Shannon’s interest in pot is financial, not mystical. During the fall elections, they followed with professional curiosity the successful efforts to legalize marijuana in Washington and Colorado. Historians may one day identify Nov. 6, 2012, as the moment marijuana legalization began a long, hazy march across the 50 states. Legalization may eventually snuff out Patrick and Shannon’s business, whose profit margins depend on prohibition. And legalization in other states represents serious competition to California growers. But they’re not giving up their business yet.

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California has a more suitable climate than Washington and Colorado, and its weed carries brand status they lack. Rappers in Houston, suburbanites in Connecticut, and stoners everywhere know that behind locked metal gates adorned with prayer flags and affixed with No Trespassing signs, up twisting dirt driveways, the weed cultivars of Northern California produce the country’s finest organic, artisanal marijuana.

Patrick and Shannon are convinced that California remains the best and most lucrative place to cultivate ganja, but not just because of climate and branding. The real reason for their confidence is difficult to explain to outsiders, who have trouble believing it could be true. Northern California is currently in the grip of one of the weirdest legal trends in the history of American capitalism. To understand it, Patrick suggests, it might help to consider what is going on in his home county, where a curious political conflict came to a conclusion just this week.

Pot growers began populating the verdant Northern California counties of Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity, known as the Emerald Triangle, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. At the time, locals worked in the timber industry, which was still booming. Cultivating marijuana was illegal, and although a savvy grower who operated in careful secrecy could escape the attention of the local sheriff, the risk of arrest and imprisonment was nevertheless serious.

That changed with the passage in 2003 of California Senate Bill 420, which

allowed state residents with an easily obtainable doctor’s recommendation to legally grow six marijuana plants. It also allowed Californians to organize “collective” gardens of any size. This loophole was quickly discovered and exploited by savvy pot entrepreneurs across the state, and a rush followed.

“I’m probably one of four people in my town of a few hundred who doesn’t have a grow,” says Kent Collard, the head of a popular summer camp in Trinity County. “Everyone here’s doing it. Last spring a guy set up a grow across the field from the elementary school, and people got upset about that, but mostly just because he didn’t put a fence around it.”

To regulate the amount of pot being grown within their borders, counties have turned to zoning ordinances, which they use to restrict the number of plants residents can grow according to how much land they own. Some of these ordinances appear to be devised or enforced with the purpose of preventing only the most flamboyantly illegal behavior. Northern California includes many of the state’s poorest counties, and the explosion of pot farming has been an economic boon for the region. In early December, officials in Yuba County voted to allow 99 plants on plots over 20 acres and 18 plants on less than an acre—at the time the state’s most liberal ordinance.