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.

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. 

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.”