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Growing medical marijuana: California’s underground economy

(Author’s note: In 1982, I won a California State Fair Media Award for agricultural reporting on the marijuana crops in El Dorado, Placer and Nevada counties. Even before then, as a writer and sometime drug abuse counselor, I’ve had occasion to cover both legalization – and enforcement – efforts ranging from debates in the State Legislature to a raid on an illegal Mexican plantation just outside of Colfax last year.

My assignment from The Union was to share my knowledge of how local medical marijuana growers walk the line – and cross the line – in complying with the law.

With the exception of Cindy Griffith, manager of CannaMedix, every conversation I had with my sources was strictly off-the-record – at my own insistence. This is not an investigative report. It’s just an observation, from my limited perspective but long time experience, with the alternative communities of Nevada and Placer counties.)

Petit Sirah, Af Gui, Merlot, OG Kush, Sauvignon Blanc, OT Pineapple, Burgundy, Purple Urkle, Grey Riesling, NorCal, Zinfandel, Blueberry … listening to wine makers and medical marijuana (MMJ) growers talk about their boutique delicacies is often simply a matter of switching vocabularies.

They both speak with knowledge and passion, brag about their organic blends, closely guard their trade secrets, decry low-grade commercial product, have their own political organizations and lobbyists, worry about market prices, and love to sample and critique each other’s premium brands.

When you get down to it, vintners and pot growers do have a lot in common. They are, after all, both farmers and drug dealers. (Alcohol is a drug – get over it.)

Of course, there are major differences – mostly involving the legality of what they grow and sell.

Nevertheless, MMJ growers are engaged in a quasi-legal agricultural industry that appears to be inevitably on track to become as legal, taxed and regulated as the wine industry in the coming years.

On March 24, the California Secretary of State certified a November ballot initiative that will ask voters whether marijuana should be legalized and regulated for adult recreational use.

Additionally, in February, Assemblymember Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) introduced AB 390 – the Marijuana Control, Regulation and Education Act – a law that would accomplish essentially the same thing.

Legal to grow; legal to sell –

not so much

Many – but not all – of the MMJ growers I’ve talked with over the years would like nothing better than to legally sell their crop to medical dispensaries. Regardless, these growers say they just don’t know how to make the connection with legal cannabis dispensaries.

“It’s a huge gray area in the law,” explained one exasperated grower.

Unlike large-scale commercial

growers, most local MMJ growers are not hardened criminals.

They are, for the most part, respectable members of the community. Often they are business owners, productive employees, professionals, artists, seriously disabled people. I’ve known lawyers, teachers, dentists and politicians to grow.

Some grow because they actually do have a legitimate medical need. Others grow because, well, they just like to smoke weed.

And there are some who use the cover of MMJ to grow for the extra income they need to survive in a tight economy.

Virtually all are keenly aware of the legal limits of how much they can grow. Some have learned the hard way when the police have seized excess crop. Although they do appreciate that law enforcement will protect their legal crop, most would prefer to fly completely under the radar.

This is largely because they all fear thieves and home invasion robbers more than the police. Those who do arm themselves, post guard dogs, set booby traps and alarms, and even sleep outside with their crops, often have an attitude reminiscent of yesteryear’s gold miners protecting themselves against claim jumpers.

‘Script mills v. PR clinics

It’s an open secret that it’s ridiculously easy to get a ‘script (prescription) to grow and possess MMJ. Just as there are “`script doctors” who will prescribe pain pills for money, there are clinics that specialize in dispensing a “physician’s recommendation” (PR) for MMJ – for the right price and the flimsiest of evidence of actual medical need.

That pay-for-play tactic, however, won’t get you a PR at CannaMetrix in Grass Valley, asserted Cindy Griffith. The manager of the new cannabis clinic at 1117 E. Main St. (530-477-9900) stressed the clinic’s doctors follow the letter of the law when it comes issuing an MMJ PR.

A prospective patient must provide recent medical proof from his or her doctor of a legally eligible condition covered by California’s Compassionate Use Act. “An 18-year-old just can’t waltz in, claim chronic back pain and get a PR,” she stated.

By law, doctors may not write an MMJ PR for their own patients. The CannaMetrix doctors, therefore, must review and concur with a diagnosis provided by another doctor, Griffith explained.

Furthermore, the clinic does not sell marijuana, she added.

Griffith decried a notorious storefront clinic in Citrus Heights where the doctor demands cash up front, paid directly to him, not his receptionist. His sleazy operation “makes you feel dirty,” she said.

Furthermore, if a ‘script doctor gets busted, that puts all his or her patients at risk of having their PRs invalidated – and therefore, in violation of marijuana laws, Griffith noted.

It’s the underground economy

Although the wine and dairy industries might beg to disagree, it is widely believed that marijuana is by far California’s largest cash crop. A March 24 online article from BusinessWeek estimated illegal marijuana sales pump $15 billion into California’s underground economy.

The California State Board of Equalization has estimated the state could gain $1.3 billion a year in taxes and fees if marijuana were legalized. Legalization advocates also claim millions of dollars would be saved in law enforcement costs.

Legal or not, marijuana – especially the organic, world-class MMJ typically grown in Nevada – brings in big bucks. Last year, at harvest time, an ounce of high-end grass was selling for about $250, which was relatively low because there was a glut on the market.

A common complaint at bud-trimming parties last fall was that, “Everybody is growing it.” Nevertheless, boutique growers with big city connections were able to command as much as $400 an ounce.

One veteran grower, whose long-time legitimate business succumbed to the economy last year, said he grossed $18,000 on a $6,000 investment in his 2009 crop.

Another grower, an arthritis-crippled grandmother, claimed with oh-so-wide innocent eyes that she made no profit. “That would be illegal,” she said as she vacuum-sealed a quarter pound of Purple Urkle in preparation for smuggling to parts unknown.

Yet another grower told how her little “victory garden in the war against the war on drugs” kept her family afloat when her husband lost his job. “Cannabis saved our family.”

Strange bedfellows

Marijuana creates odd coalitions.

Most big-time growers and law enforcement organizations are against legalization.

Law enforcement has its traditional reasons.

The growers fear a drop in prices, new taxes and fees, and intrusive government regulation.

Even winemakers are leery of the competition.

Meanwhile, liberal advocates find themselves in rumpled bedclothes with fiscal conservatives.

The advocates say marijuana is a mostly harmless drug (compared to alcohol, tobacco, methamphetamine, heroin, and a pantheon of prescription medications). Furthermore, they argue it has proven, legitimate medical efficacy.

The fiscal conservatives see a potential windfall for government that far outweighs any negative arguments against legalization.

They say it is insane to ignore a $15 billion river of untaxed revenue in a state facing bankruptcy.

Whatever.

The fact remains MMJ will continue to be an integral part of Nevada County’s economy whether is aboveboard or underground. Northern California enjoys a reputation of growing some of the finest organic grass in the world – and a lot of people want to put that in their pipe and smoke it, along with a nice glass of Northern California wine.

Tom Durkin is a freelance writer based in Nevada City. For comments on this article, e-mail kmidboe@theunion.com or call (530) 477-4251.