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The Buds of Wrath

• October 20, 2009 • 5:00 AM

A financial stimulus for the recession-battered middle class: pot farming.

Sarah’s whole street reeks of pot. This is not hyperbole. When you turn the corner onto this lane of 1970s tract houses, you smell the tang: the sour, earthy, green odor that wafts up from lush marijuana plants steaming in the sun.

Sarah estimates that seven of 10 households on her semi-rural street, a couple miles from white-bread-suburban Rohnert Park, Calif., are growing weed. She ran into one neighbor at the hardware store, in the new section devoted to cultivation, with the special dirt, fertilizer and outsized plastic pots the growers use. Her next-door neighbors, two brothers, trade plant-sitting with her and let their pit bulls loose at night to patrol both yards. The women across the street have a small crop in their vegetable garden. And the new couple on the block, noticing the smell, mentioned they’d like to get in on it. In fact, she says, she doesn’t know anyone in Sonoma County who isn’t growing pot.

Sarah (who, like all the marijuana growers quoted in this article, asked that her real name not be used) doesn’t fit the image of a drug dealer. She’s 58, colors her hair strawberry blonde and wears souvenir T-shirts, jeans and Crocs. Her ranch-style, three-bedroom home is filled with furniture from Costco and cat-themed knickknacks. She seems as mainstream as they come — and she is typical of the new breed of marijuana producer in Northern California.

As the economy tanked, layoffs rose, retirement savings shriveled and home-equity credit lines fizzled, Sarah and thousands of middle-class folks like her began raising extra cash by following local ordinances that allow the limited growing of Cannabis sativa for personal or medicinal use — while hoping that President Obama will keep federal law enforcers occupied with other things.

The economics of pot growing are nice. The amount of space needed to grow a tomato plant will support a cannabis plant that, with a bit of TLC and luck, will produce from one-quarter pound to as much as 2 pounds of marijuana. When wholesaled to a dispensary, each pound will bring around $2,000.

Sarah’s printing business had been going downhill since 2005. “Now it’s totally gone,” she says. She’d planned to sell her parents’ home, invest the money and retire, but the house didn’t sell. So, two years ago, she fenced off a plot in her backyard and put in marijuana. She harvested about 3 pounds, clearing $4,000. Last fall, she spent $10,000 to build a 12-square-foot shed in her backyard, fitted with lights, fans and an exhaust system.

She just harvested her first indoor crop, 4 pounds that she sold for $12,000. “I have money in my pocket again for the first time since 2000,” she says.

The term of choice is “medicinal marijuana,” or sometimes, just “medicine.” California has a patchwork of local ordinances designed to enable the production of medical marijuana — and a cottage industry that enables almost anyone to qualify.

Sarah got a prescription, which let her apply for a license to grow the medicine. In Sonoma County, she’s entitled to grow 99 plants. But three of her friends also have cards, so if anyone asks, “I have a very large co-op.”

Local governments are doing more than looking away; some are looking to pot to save their financial butts. As California state legislators slashed funding for education and social services, and siphoned an additional $2 billion from local government treasuries, voters in Oakland found a way to put some back. On July 21, the city of 400,000 voted for a 1.8 percent extra sales tax on medical marijuana. The measure could raise nearly $300,000 in 2010 alone. State legislators are actually considering legalization. If the state passes the Marijuana Control, Regulation and Education Act, it could put zing in the state coffers to the tune of $1.38 billion a year.

And California is just one of 13 states that have legalized the possession and cultivating of small amounts of marijuana for medical use.

Marijuana is California’s most lucrative crop — by a mile. Richard Lee, president of Oaksterdam University, an Oakland company that openly teaches people how to successfully grow and sell marijuana, estimates California’s total 2009 haul at $15 billion. While there’s no definitive information on how much of this is grown by mom-and-pops, as opposed to foreign drug operations, Lee believes that most of the smaller producers’ medicine stays in-state.

Although President Obama has made a vague promise not to make mom-and-pop cultivation a priority for enforcement, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency can still keep mom and pop on edge. Its official position is, “Smoked marijuana … is not medicine and it is not safe.” The agency points to Gonzales v. Raich, a Supreme Court decision giving Congress the authority to regulate marijuana within the states, regardless of any state laws authorizing medical marijuana.

Within walking distance of Michael’s stucco two-bedroom in San Francisco’s Sunset District, the DEA, working with the San Francisco Police Department, busted a large-scale indoor farm, arresting four people after the agents found not only pot but also methamphetamine, cocaine and a loaded gun. The 2-year-old investigation was on a roll, having busted two other operations in the same neighborhood that week.

Despite the 75 marijuana plants quietly photosynthesizing in a secret room on the garage level of his rented house, Michael approves of the busts. “You can’t have a bunch of cowboys out there running operations that are dangerous to the neighborhood. It’s going to give the business a bad name,” he says. “The unwritten rule is, ‘If you’re in violation of federal and California law, you’re open to being busted’ — and deservedly so.”

Michael, in his early 50s, used to make $150,000 a year as a commercial construction manager, but when he was laid off in the summer of 2008, he saw the writing on the wall. He had some savings and still does a few handyman jobs, but it’s not enough to pay the bills. “It’s intimidating out there,” Michael says. “We are in a depression, and it’s going to be years before it’s going to come back. I need to diversify.”

He read books, searched the Internet and took a class at Oaksterdam before setting up his indoor greenhouse. He hopes to harvest every 12 weeks but says he has “no frigging idea” how much he’ll make. “In order to justify this and make it worthwhile, I need to grow approximately 1 pound every month. That’s achievable. If I did 2 pounds a month, I’d be incredibly happy.

“It’s just a safety net.”

Luke’s one-room cabin is so small that you can reach everything from the bed. The TV is near its foot, the microwave is on the left and the mini-fridge is on the right. This is good, because this way he can reach his meds and the cream for his coffee without getting up.

Luke, 64, has been on Social Security disability since 1993 when he was diagnosed with AIDS. He just finished radiation therapy for a tumor on the back of his head. “It hurts all the time,” he says. “Pain relief is why I smoke marijuana.”

Financial relief is why he began growing it two years ago. He lives on $1,000 a month from Social Security. Kaiser keeps him alive with a cocktail of drugs. But his rent and utilities are $700 a month — even though he doesn’t have an indoor bathroom. And he needs about an ounce of pot a month.

“I could buy it at the dispensary for $50 for an eighth of an ounce, or I could buy 10 marijuana seeds, grow 10 plants and have 10 ounces,” he says. For a small investment in seeds, fertilizer and electricity, he grew enough to last a year. He found it remarkably easy to sell the surplus to other medical marijuana users.

“I didn’t know anything about dispensaries and buyers’ clubs; I just knew there were people around who would buy it every two weeks or every month,” he says. This year, Luke went further, growing 120 plants, starting them in a greenhouse that was already on the property in the hills between Santa Rosa and Bodega Bay.

He bought four 1,000-watt lights and filled nearly every square foot with plants in plastic pots. He isn’t getting rich; he’s already spent everything he’s made so far.

Luke is cautious, but not overly concerned about getting busted. His understanding is that with his medical marijuana card, he’s allowed to have up to 3 pounds in his possession. And he’s heard that the feds have backed off arresting people in California, while the Sonoma County Sheriff has stated that marijuana-growing is his lowest priority.

Besides, he adds, “Knowing I could catch swine flu on Friday and die on Monday is another reason not to worry.”

If Luke is just maintaining, Sarah and Michael believe that pot will become legal — and their recession-spawned businesses could really take off.

Michael has been careful to establish himself as a serious businessman within the nascent California industry, and attending classes and meetings, openly paying for seeds and plants with checks.

“When the line starts forming for licenses to become a legitimate producer, the people that have established their reputations will be given the first consideration,” he believes. “If I have an ongoing relationship with a reputable dispensary, of course I’m going to be considered.”

He also knows that dispensaries have become more like gourmet markets than seedy drug clubs. “The quality has got to be just top-notch. It’s not just potency,” he says. “Smokability, taste, smell, sensation — all these elements are terribly important and have to be addressed.”

Sarah, too, sees herself as part of the vanguard of what she thinks could be as big in Sonoma County as the wine industry. She’s studying the medicinal qualities of different varietals and experimenting to see the effects of exotic pot types like Lavastan, Very Berry and Agent 99. These are among the many hybrids of Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa that are showing up in dispensaries, without much documentation as to their origins or effects.

Maryanne, who’s come by on a golden August evening to pick up a bag, is an example of the discerning buyer Sarah wants to serve. “Before we met Sarah, we didn’t know where our pot came from,” Maryanne says. “We didn’t know whether it had been sprayed with pesticides. Hers, we know it’s organic. And I like the spongier bud; it works better in the vaporizer.”

While legalization might open the market to industrialized farms, Sarah expects to charge a premium for small-batch, organically grown product. “I’ll be like a boutique winery,” she says. “You’ll come to my farm to get your primo flavors.” She might even start a bed-and-breakfast. People who came from Michigan or Arizona would go back, she says, and tell their friends, “We went to wineries and stayed on a pot farm.”

In the meantime, Sarah is just happy she had the money to get the window on her car fixed. The bed-and-breakfast can wait.

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Susan Kuchinskas
Susan Kuchinskas writes about technology, business and health from Berkeley, Calif. She's been a staff writer for AdWeek, Business 2.0, M-Business and InternetNews.com; her work has appeared in a wide variety of publications, from Art & Antiques to Wired. New Harbinger will publish her second book, The Chemistry of Connection, in April. She's also an organic gardener and beekeeper.

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