Federally, marijuana production is still a major crime – one that can land you in prison for decades. Yet, in northern California, there’s a whole economy built around it.
They call the area the Emerald Triangle – made by Humboldt, Trinity and Mendocino counties. In Mendocino specifically, the gradual decline of the lumber industry led to marijuana becoming one of the county’s major commercial crops over the last decade.
Cultivating and selling marijuana for medical use is legal in Mendocino County, but of course there is a grey area when it comes to federal law, and how much you grow.
I spent a day behind the scenes on a pot farm in Mendocino to find out how it all works.
"A million-dollar view"
The marijuana farm is on a dirt road between Mendocino and Comptche, around two and a half hours from San Francisco. When I get there, the gate is wide open. It’s a beautiful plot of land.
“This is paradise! We look out over a very gentle slope with conifer trees, to a valley with a beautiful ridge on the other side. This is a million-dollar view,” says one the owners of this very profitable operation. He, and every other person I spoke with, preferred to remain anonymous. So, we’ll call him Tom.
Tom works with a couple to run this farm; we’ll call them John and Amy. We all go on a tour of the grounds.
“When we started here, this entire area was a struggling apple orchard,” says John.
John moved here with Amy and their daughter eight years ago, to grow weed. At the time, John was a carpenter and Amy, a teacher.
“My wife’s family – she dragged me over here because her entire family migrated,” John says.
First, he had to learn the basics of farming marijuana, but then he focused on cultivating specific varieties of the plant, and quickly became an expert.
“After three years in California, I started experimenting with organic farming and that changed everything, really. On quality and yield and everything,” says John.
Now, the garden has 25 marijuana plants, each about six feet tall. John’s partner, Tom, is also a chef and a winemaker. He compares growing weed to growing grapes.
“The process is very similar. What we are looking for here is a smell, a smooth smoke. With bud, it’s about the crystallization. You look at it, the color, how it’s finished,” says Tom.
And these traits translate into quality and profit.
“So in this market, a pound of this – it’s very high quality – goes for $1,700. And we pay our workers $175 to trim it. Per pound there is about $50 that goes into expenses on growing it and another $100 into labor just growing the plants. We are probably making about $1,000 profit a pound,” John says.
When I ask him how many pounds there were, he quickly does the math.
“$170,000 divided by two, that would be $85,000 a piece,” John replies.
And that’s from one outdoor growing season; they also grow indoors. So in a year, they’re potentially making over $500,000. Untaxed, of course.
The legal grey area
As we continue the tour, we make it to the drying room.
“So this is an actual indoor growing facility that we converted into a drying facility just for the time of the outdoor harvest,” says John.
The buds hang here to dry for about a week after being harvested from the plants. When the indoor growing begins, this room will be filled with seedlings, grown under artificial light.
“We do 99 on the indoor, that’s the federal allowance,” says John.
I ask him what he means by the “federal allowance.”
“Federally, they can’t prosecute the mandatory minimum under 99 plants,” says John.
Amy disagrees: “They could prosecute you for one.”
So, this is where the legal gray area gets grayer. Even Amy and John don’t seem to know where the law stands. See, John, Amy, and Tom have a license from the county to grow 25 plants for medical use. But obviously, at 99 plants, their indoor facility would far exceed that. The rule of thumb among growers is if you stay under 100, you’re safe. I called a local dispensary to confirm this, and the director said federally, even one plant is illegal. But, a grower is more likely to be prosecuted if he grows over 99 plants.
The previous year, the partners say their harvest was interrupted by helicopters. Federal agents came down on ropes and chopped down their entire crop. That’s about $200,000 worth of weed.
“It’s such a weird grey area. For us, they came in and they chopped them, but they didn’t prosecute. If we would’ve had 100 plants they could have brought in the federal part and prosecuted for mandatory minimum in California,” says John.
Which is five years. But his wife Amy says she doesn’t lose any sleep over it.
“Compared to some people, some people have 1,000 plants. Those people are afraid, all summer long,” says Amy.
After the weed is dried, it’s time to trim it.
“I’m picking up a bud and then taking off the big leafs and then making it into a pretty shape and cutting the stem,” explains a worker.
Inside a tent, there are bags of weed everywhere. People have come here from all over the world to trim.
“I am from Canada, from Vancouver, now I live in Mexico,” adds the worker.
This woman has been here for two months, but others have become local, full-time trimmers.
“I’ve lived in Mendo for just over four years,” says a second trimmer.
At first she had a regular, tax-paying job.
And she adds: “And of course you can’t make a living off of that. When you spend a little bit of time here and learn what the industry is here, you learn how you can actually supplement an income or change your income completely.”
It’s long, mind-numbing work, but if the weed is easy to trim, a fast worker can turn around three pounds a day, making about $175 per pound. Apart from the financial benefits, she says there are other perks that draw people here.
“I think a lot of us are calling our present job site – weed-topia. We have a chef who is cooking for us every day. We have everything that we ask, good music entertainment, good conversation, the random people that you meet, it’s all fantastic,” the second trimmer says.
Don't ask, don't tell
I find two other trimmers on their lunch-break. They’ve been in the business for a long time.
The third trimmer, a man in his 30s, remembers, “My parents grew [marijuana] when I was growing up, so I started trimming when I was like eight years old or so.”
“For me, off and on from when I was about 16,” says the fourth trimmer, a woman in her mid 30s.
For them, being involved in the marijuana industry is a way of life. They believe in the healing and medicinal values of the herb, but they’re still not open about what they do.
“Obviously when I meet a lot of people it’s not the first thing that I say about my self. I am a mother, too,” the fourth trimmer says.
And the third trimmer agrees. “I still wouldn’t tell everyone, I still tell people that I am a mechanic.”
The entire community is in a similar position. The growers, John and Amy, for instance, have a seven-year-old daughter, who regularly comes in and out of the farm. They say it’s normal for her.
“Because it’s what all of her friends’ parents do as well,” says Amy.
Even some of her teachers do this work. But there’s a very clear social rule around here.
“If I go into my daughter’s school and talk to somebody, a teacher or somebody else there, they would never ever ask you what you do for a living. They would know better,” Amy says.
Leaving the safe haven of Mendocino
Perhaps the most dangerous part of the pot-growing operation comes at the very end – the delivery. It’s the riskiest step because it means leaving the safe haven of Mendocino.
“It’s going to Los Angeles. That’s our hub,” John explains. He’s the one who transports the product. He says he carries 49 pounds at a time.
“With our particular license, 49 and under you have a really good case with a really good lawyer. But anything 50 and up you are in big f****g trouble,” he says.
“Where do you put the weed?” I ask.
“In the trunk of my car. In duffle bags,” he says.
When I ask if his heart races, he says no. “It’s a mind set. I just blow kisses and say daddy will be back in three days and I go,” says John.
I ask Amy if she worries when he's gone.
“I'm just trying not to think about it and then when I get the message - somehow I get the message that he’s there - I go: Phew!” she tells me.
"It's just like growing grapes"
Despite the high risk and uncertainty, John and Amy actually prefer their business stay as it is – illegal. They’re afraid of what would happen to their bottom line if they had more competition. But their partner Tom sees it differently.
“You can still get your price if you do a boutique, high-end quality product. It’s the same in the wine,” Tom explains.
When I ask if he’d prefer it to be legal, he says he doesn’t care. “It’s just like growing grapes. There is always a high-end market,” he says.
And just like at the end of a grape harvest, this weed-growing season ends with a party. All the workers gather around a big bonfire, burning what’s left of the marijuana plants. You can almost forget that these people are in hiding, because they are hiding in the open.
To listen to this story, please click on the audio player above.
All characters in the story asked to remain anonymous, so they were given pseudonyms.
This story originally aired on March 4, 2014.