As days often do at harvest, this one begins with a late-morning drive into the hills and wee valleys of a northern county.
Up a dusty road to a small parking area, where she's met by an old friend, ZM heaves her stuff into the four-wheeler, then locks her little city skate, a VW Golf, which would be reduced to rubble if it attempted the road ahead. When she returns in a week, the car will be so powdered with dust, it will look like it's been to Burning Man in her absence.ZM is a part-time itinerant marijuana "picker." Her part in the great chain that brings high-quality cannabis to the consumer is to manicure each and every bud individually to the specification of the particular grower, and to do it well and with good spirits.
"I love this time of the year," ZM shouts over the grinding of the engine. In the rather rudimentary back seat, she is struggling to find the least damaging position in which to endure the startling and frequent crowhopping of the truck across ruts deep enough to swallow a Birkenstock. At a smooth stretch, the driver pulls over to admire the lovely valley below, with its ponds reflecting the blue sky and its quiltish regularity of form, painted in muted greens and glowing yellows by the brush of harvest time.
A sudden right onto a small, curving road shortly brings them to the homestead. The assortment of construction materials in the yard suggests that this place is a work in progress, and so it is. An old one-room cabin is settled into a cut in the hillside. A big, lovely clawfoot bathtub is somehow perched on the steep hillside behind the cabin. The porch looks down on the road and the mature forest beyond, and from that porch, three full-grown rottweilers are charging in full dudgeon.
The proprietress of the place, all 4 feet 11 inches of her, shouts at the dogs by name, and they quiet, then boil around the truck to snuffle ZM, who is unconcerned. They soon become bored, and lunge off to get underfoot as she carries her stuff up the stairs and into the work in progress.
Behind the original cabin, the family is adding three rooms and a bathroom that will more than double their living space. Building on is never quick enough, and this addition is in its second year, partly because the men in the clan still have day jobs in the city and can only spend two or three days a week here. This little marijuana farm back of nowhere is a collective effort. A couple, whom we shall call Deb and Will, and two of Will's best friends are working it together: buying in, hauling compost, swinging hammers, splitting wood--and growing organic smoking cannabis in several varieties.
ZM throws her stuff onto the bed and opens a sturdy plastic bag which contains her tools: a delicate bonsai pruner; a pair of fine hairdresser's shears; a light; a spring-loaded clipper; and two identical stainless steel bowls, about three-quart size.She quickly doffs her traveling clothes and dons some shapeless denims and a venerable T-shirt. She is ready to work.
In the large room, a long table stands under bare 12-volt light bulbs, surrounded by four very miscellaneous chairs. On it await more clippers, their points down in a small glass of alcohol. ZM has brought her own bottle of drinking water as well as chewing gum, a travel mug and a generous supply of organic yerba matÈ, which will be her steady companion during the ensuing 10-hour days of relentless snip-snip-snipping.
In the adjacent rooms, marijuana plants hang upside down from rope lines, unfinished electrical cable and nails lightly sunk into the bare joists. ZM sets up her station, cuts some branches from the dry plant brought out by Deb, places them on the table and begins.
Her arrhythmic snipping will continue, with only a few breaks for food, sleep and other survival activities, for as long as four days at a stretch. While she is working, ZM is available for chat, girl talk, political discussion, pontificating, sharing observations about life, telling and hearing stories, listening to music and Amy Goodman--but she will virtually never lift her eyes from the buds in her hands. No eye contact.
"It can become a habit, talking with people without ever looking at them," she admits, "and I have to remind myself to look out my eyeholes at people during meals and downtimes. Sometimes I spend days and days with a person, and we still feel like strangers because we've hardly laid eyes on each other."
Outside the glass door, the dogs are thundering back and forth along the verandah, belling about the ORV coming down from the grow site, which it does about five times a day.
After she makes sure ZM has all that she needs, Deb departs for her own work at the grow site, down the little road, accompanied by all three dogs, and up over a rise to a large army tent with its side flaps raised. Several sleeping tents on nearby platforms serve as bivouacs for the night guards. A baseball game issues from the radio of a white four-wheeler parked near a sunny half acre that is fenced to about 12 feet. The top wires have streamers and sticks tangled in them, to give the deer a visual so they will not even try to leap over. Inside are many 10-gallon planters in rows, each with one vibrant cannabis plant reaching its buds to the sun.
There are several varieties here. All are clones, all are females, perfect copies of the mother plants from which they were cut and carefully rooted. They have clever names like Crystal Chunk, Purple Kush, MK Ultra. Some are tall and light green, with slender leaves and numerous small buds dotted along their long boughs, terminated with the flourish of a hefty bud (called a "cola") as long as your hand. Others are squat and dark, their leaves broad and their buds heavy and bristling with tiny hairs that turn from milky to red as they mature. The fractal pattern of the center of each terminal cola is repeated perfectly by the succession of larger and larger leaves that feed, define and display the treasure at the center. Some of these cola buds are as long as a bottle of wine and are referred to in terms of certain livestock anatomy. They all look like they are dusted with fine sugar that glitters in the sun.
At harvest, the plants display different stages of maturity according to their strain. Some of the hairs on the buds are plump and milky, indicating that they are not ripe and will be left to put on more weight and more potency before being harvested. Others show more red hairs and are nearing their peak. Through her jeweler's loupe, Deb inspects the all-important trichomes, bearers of the psychoactive resins that marijuana smokers love. At that magnification, they look like tiny thorns, and they are also maturing from milk to copper.
There's something sexy about these desperate ladies, all straining to attract the pollen that will never come, as there isn't a male cannabis plant for miles around. They will complete their life cycle, as dictated by the light and temperature, without ever realizing fertility. They are sinsemilla--"without seeds."
Inside the big tent, the grow manager, Des, is working with the dozen or so plants hanging upside down to dry. He is pulling off leaves, checking for mold and loading the ORV with plants that are ready for ZM's clippers. He's a bit of a surprise in this setting: a tall black man with shoulders like an Oakland Raider, impeccably dressed and groomed, smiling under his 21st-century shades. Des, who has taught college-level political science and applied mathematics, will use his share of the money from this crop to go to Thailand for the eye surgery he needs to cure impending congenital blindness.
ZM is a respected member of an upscale North Bay community. She will earn about $4,000 in the several weeks that it takes to bring in, dry and manicure the outdoor marijuana crop. This will allow her a month or so of economic slack to pursue her projects, which this year include producing community events and creating a new product and the means to bring it to market.
Back in the cabin, Deb brings hot yerba maté lattes and snacks from one room and a steady supply of fragrant green stems from another. She sits for a few minutes to chat. "My life is idyllic here," she says. "We lived in the city for 25 years. We raised our kids there, but in the last few years we were there, it became increasingly dangerous in our neighborhood. We started looking for land. We have friends in this county, and when we found this place, we knew it was home."
Deb is being characteristically modest. She and Will raised two kids of their own, and helped with several other peoples' kids as well, all in a city of millions. When the young ones were fledged, Deb and Will sold their city house and, with a couple of longtime friends, bought this place four years ago. It is paid for, and they buy more nearby mountain land whenever it is available and they can afford it. Friends bought the land below and are putting up yurts. Old Ed up the hill is in fact very old, and they will buy his land when he passes.
The cannabis crop gives Deb and Will, her husband of 30 years, a safe place that is home. It both requires and allows Deb to spend more time on the mountain and less time doing itinerant bookkeeping services in the city. Deb has a lovely little horse, the neighbors are friendly and far away, and the well runs cold and clear.
ZM's fingers are black and sticky. Though she is careful to touch the buds only minimally, this cannabis is sparkling with resinous crystals that inevitably coat surfaces with what is colloquially known as "finger hash." As she prepares to break for dinner, ZM rolls this tarry stuff off several fingers and into a little black ball, which she stashes in a tiny box she keeps in her pocket with her lip balm and cell phone.
After dinner, the family adjourns to the cutting table. ZM resumes her relentless, high-speed trimming while the others smoke and talk. Will explains his work by saying, "It's medicine. Marijuana is medicine. My work is to grow the best medicine possible for myself and the patients we supply. I love my work here, and I love my work in the city." (Will teaches at-risk young men and women construction and job skills.) "Cannabis allows me to work with these kids, even though my pay is pretty low, to try to help them prepare for real life, and stay sane doing that and build a place for my family.
"I fell in love with pot the first time I smoked it. I learned to grow it that same year, and for years and years, I never sold it. I just knew it wasn't right. I actually gave away most of what I grew. I just had to grow it, couldn't stop, never wanted to. I got good at it. Then, a few years ago, I felt a shift that I had permission to also sell pot."
Is that because of the laws? "Yeah, it was Prop 215, but it was also a spiritual shift, I guess," he says. "Now we have this place. I'm doing the things I love to do and do best: growing cannabis and working with the kids. Deb and I are solid. I am a happy, happy man." He inhales deeply. ZM nods pensively and reaches for another stem.
Further north, there is a rather good dirt road that winds deep into forested hills. Redwoods grow in the low, wet places; higher up grow oak and pines. The white oaks seem to be doing well, but all the tan oaks are failing rapidly or already dead. The road goes on and on, but eventually we turn off it at a flat space occupied by what at first appears to be a very large Tonka toy, which explains the goodness of the road, and a weathered four-wheeler with Bear in the driver's seat. He greets us warmly and revs it for the short but precipitous ride to his house at the top of the hill.
Bear has cheerfully agreed to talk with this reporter, as has his picker, Marjorie, who is locally known and respected for the quality and speed of her work. She is inside working now.
Through an ornate and utterly organic gate and past an unruly vegetable garden stands a white marine vinyl greenhouse, its flaps raised to the lovely day. Inside are several large pots, some with plants still in them, most with just bare stalks. Bear returns to his task of lopping off branches and laying them in a big black bag for transport to the drying shed. He points to a row of official-looking papers stapled to one of the center poles.
"I registered with the sheriff as a legitimate Prop 215 caregiver/grower three years ago," he says. "For the first time in maybe 20 years, we did not live in fear from August to November. We don't have to pray for protection when we hear helicopters in the sky, because we're on their maps as a legitimate 215 grow, and they respect that. We don't even keep watch on the road anymore, either, not like we used to." He waves a sticky hand at the certificates. "This is who we're growing for here, including me. In this county, it's so many square feet of grow space per patient. The state and some other counties tell you how many plants and how much dried weight each patient can have." He smiles contentedly, hoists two big bags spilling with vibrant green and trudges up the hill.
Inside the classic backwoods hippie house, Marjorie barely looks up. A pro. She is sitting near the warm stove, an old Timberline, in the best light in the room, snip-snip-snipping. Marjorie is surrounded by grocery bags containing various stages and components of dry marijuana, which her flying fingers and flashing blades are transforming into high-grade medicinal marijuana.
Like many experienced pickers, Marjorie doesn't smoke. Trimming pot is something she does because it's easy and convenient and pays well. To lots of single mothers in this area, it's the difference between making it and not making it. Marjorie has worked in large trimming crews, all of whom were single mothers, valued by growers because they are highly motivated and flexible.
Marjorie's technique is neat. She keeps the bud moving in her hand, keeps the snippers snipping with a steady rhythm. Don't fall in love with the individual buds, she advises, just make them look their best and send them on their way. Cut from the tip to the stem for a close shave, or from the stem to the tip for selective cutting and a shaggier bud--it's grower's choice. Marjorie prefers bonsai nippers, and she is, indeed, very fast. The buds she drops into the bag beside her are uniformly textured, the size of blackberries or, rarely, strawberries, with red hairs against a fresh green leaf, sugary and tight.
I notice a baby-food jar with a few green marijuana seeds inside. Bear is a grower of the old school, as are many hereabouts. He breeds his own seed, sometimes with his own male plant (grown indoors where it can't sow any wild oats), sometimes swapping boughs ripe with pollen with the neighbors. He has been growing in these parts for many years, from the early days of the marijuana boom, through the years and years of the annual federal reign of terror called CAMP, or the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, into the peaceful present.
Bear is an artist. His wife, who works in town, is a drug and alcohol counselor in the schools and at a residential treatment home. Together they have expanded their old cottage into a cozy four bedrooms (also a work in progress) and are raising the last two of their collective offspring.What are some of the changes he's noticed since Proposition 215?
"Well, first it's so peaceful these days, because we are growing medical marijuana. Small growers like us are not the targets anymore. They're going after big operations, thousands of plants, often being tended by Mexicans. They usually say it's the work of a Mexican drug cartel, but I reckon they're usually just a bunch of illegal immigrants hired by somebody to do the work and take the risk."
But it's not all rosy. "Another thing," Bear continues, "is the kids. Sixteen-, 15-year-olds from grower families [are] growing themselves, second generation--kids with lots of money of their own and no real reason to go to school or learn other skills. I don't know, there's something disturbing about that."
Marjorie agrees. In the small town central to this remote area, many shiny new trucks and SUVs are parked on the three blocks of the main street. A dozen coffee shops, cleverly named burrito places and grumpy-looking old bars occupy the storefronts of this venerable former logging town, now given over to a different harvest of equal or greater value. On the sidewalks, seriously dread-headed young people and more than a few older ones linger, hopeful of trimming work, their fingers suspiciously dirty, as young growers cruise in their overamped rigs.
The road to our third grow is paved and smooth. The site itself is not far off the road. Inside a modern building, waist-high troughs are planted with 10-inch clones that reach hungrily for the eerie full-spectrum light banks suspended inches above them. Fans whir, closely controlling the humidity and temperature in the room.
Rich, the proprietor of this cannabis intensive, smiles shyly. Behind him, shelves hold dozens of jugs and bottles of hydroponic potions, the contents of which are offered to the plants according to his own strict protocol. He speaks proudly of this strain, which he had a hand in developing. It is bred specifically for hydroponic cultivation and for crystal density. There are not many real colas, and those few are small, but these plants mature in 70 to 90 days without fail. Rich controls the nutrients and light cycle to optimize their growth and the concentration of psychoactive components in the cannabis. This grow op can be expected to yield 10 pounds of finished buds, worth over $3,000 per pound, four times a year.
Imagine. There is a great demand for indoor-grown marijuana, and there is a lot of it being grown in these parts. Buyers want small, uniform buds, no stems at all, and either a light spiciness like Rich's strain or the dark skunky kind. Smokers pay well for it, too, somewhere around $10 a gram.
Out by the pool, two women are, of course, snip-snip-snipping away. They are listening to an audio book and, naturally, don't look up. We leave them to their work.
Malady or Medicine
The people we met in these stories are kind, sane, healthy and smart. Most of them have advanced college degrees. Why do they grow marijuana?
The easy, and wrong, answer is that they make truckloads of cash and live like kings. Though the cash flow is impressive on the surface, there is also substantial overhead: land, shelter and fencing; wells, pumps and chainsaws; workers; four-wheelers that get ruined in three years; and road-maintenance materials and equipment. Notice that nearly all the growers we met have not quit their day jobs, which means they are stretched between two usually breathtakingly different worlds, and they live very simply in both, without exception.
One grower did the math for me: calculated hourly, the grower receives less pay than the picker. Way less. The question stands: Why do they do it?
In a nutshell, they do it because they love it. These small mom-and-pop grow ops are labors of love that support the lifestyle that these unusual people choose: peaceful, forested land of their own to care for; hand-built homes; a remote and widely scattered but strong community; working within the natural cycle in difficult, beautiful settings; doing work that they are settled in their hearts is good and right.
But still, why marijuana? If the profit margin is so low, why take the risk?
Oddly, the risk is generally what makes it all worth it: marijuana prohibition drives and maintains the high value of the product. Normal market forces responded to the prohibition and scarcity of the product, and the dollar value of marijuana multiplied several times over the last few decades. On- and off-the-grid homesteads were bought and ultimately paid for with the value added by prohibition. Businesses were started, taxes were paid, candidates were supported, local politics were joined in. As the logging economy of the north counties declined, marijuana was there to support the small towns and businesses.
Naturally, a product with such a large retail value attracts the attention of organized crime. And marijuana, because it is illegal, also contributes substantially to law-enforcement, legal and prison-industry sectors. Of the roughly 2 million Americans known to be in county, state or federal prisons today, a little less than half are serving time for drug-related crimes, and about half of those are in for marijuana, mostly possession, but also cultivation and sale.
According to the FBI uniform crime reports in 2003, the number of marijuana arrests in the United States by state and local police was the largest in history: 755,186. And 88 percent of those arrests were for possession, not sale or manufacture. That's a lot of easy prisoners, and they're all in for a long, long time because of mandatory minimum sentences.
Wholesale prices are leveling off as more marijuana comes onto the market. It may be that the demand will not quite keep up with the supply in the near future, as more people figure out how to grow their own. One day, marijuana will have a market value that reflects its intrinsic value alone.
The last decade has been one of accelerating expansion in research and development of cannabis-derived medicines. In Israel, research is ongoing into cannabis extracts as a neuroprotective agent in the form of a medicine called Dexanabinol that can be used to treat post-traumatic stress in soldiers, as well as head injury, stroke, cognitive impairment following coronary bypass surgery, and osteoporosis.
GW Pharmaceuticals in England has, under the stern eye of its government, developed a sublingual spray called Sativex©, composed of whole extracts of the cannabis plant. April 2005, Canada became the first country to approve Sativex© for the treatment of neuropathic pain associated with multiple sclerosis. In January of 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a two- to three-year study of Sativex© as a treatment for cancer pain. In Europe, Sativex© studies are in progress for treatment of neuropathic pain from diabetes, spinal cord injuries and other sources. Other trials are looking into Sativex© for treating rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, psychosis, epilepsy, chronic pain and drug dependency. Stay tuned.
Medical marijuana laws are in place in 11 American states, most recently Rhode Island, whose legislature overrode the governor's veto. Conditions approved for medical marijuana in Colorado, for example, include cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS positive cachexia (wasting syndrome); severe pain; severe nausea; seizures, including epilepsy; and persistent muscle spasms, including multiple sclerosis. Other conditions may be treated with medical marijuana at a physician's discretion.
The health risks associated with medical marijuana are very few. Damage to lung tissue from smoking it is negligible. The greatest psychosocial concern about marijuana is its use by the very young. The brains of children are developing at a furious pace up through their late teens. Exposure, especially chronic exposure, to marijuana, before the brain has matured, has been correlated to some troubling mental illnesses, including transient psychosis and adult-onset schizophrenia.