Source: Observer
Date: 9 May 2010

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…

Ed Vulliamy

'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 prying eyes.

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 this."

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 cookies."

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 marijuana.

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, 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 stuff."

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 better.

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

and further reading

Mr Cannabis
Health Research
Spiders On Dope
Pot Suppositories?
Buy cannabis online?
The Nectar of Delight
Marijuana and Fries?
The Moriarty of Crime?
Government Pot Studies
Did Jesus use cannabis?
Mayor Bloomberg on Pot
Marijuana Home Delivery
Growing bud in Saudi Arabia
Jesus 'healed using cannabis'
Free Cannabis E-Mail Service
Alcohol and Endocannabinoids
Court victory for hemp industry
FAAH, anandamide and pain-relief
Spaghetti and cannabis-laced sauce
The Pros and Cons of Drug-smuggling
Are Pot Smokers Financing Terrorism?
Does Cannabis Wipe Out Bad Memories?
Was Shakespeare a Coke-smoking Pothead?

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