The High Road

Growers who cashed in on illegal pot now welcome legalization and taxation.

It's a sunny June afternoon when the door to Tie Dye 2, a hippie clothing store along Highway 101 in Laytonville, flings wide open. Mendocino County Sheriff Thomas Allman steps in, setting off a two-toned ding. Wah-waaah.

He's there to speak with the store owners, Fran Harris and James Taylor Jones, who have been illegally growing pot in the hills for nearly a decade.

With matching silver manes and thoroughly tie-dyed outfits (socks included), Harris, 52, and Jones, 65, are huddled around a computer in the back room, working on the store's website with a hired tech guy. The store — decorated with trippy murals, large geodes, and enough tie-dye to induce an instantaneous LSD flashback — isn't a very busy place. So it's always a treat when somebody comes in.

However bizarre it may sound, this sheriff's entrance is no exception. "For Tom, we'll stop any meeting," Harris says.

The sheriff, it turns out, is a buddy. "They are involved in a lot of community events," Allman says of the couple. "James and Fran are my friends."

At the store, smiles and hugs are exchanged before the sheriff — in plainclothes — gets down to business. He's there, he says, to give them an update on the department's plans to regulate pot farms. Growers with out-of-sight plants who meet an exhaustive list of environmental and safety standards and who are part of medical marijuana collectives will be permitted to grow up to 99 plants. Harris and Jones, in their eagerness to become as law-abiding as possible, have signed up.

The two tell Allman that they were already planning to send a certified letter of their intent to form the Peace and Love Collective. In exchange, the sheriff says he will ensure that their grow stays "as safe as possible," meaning local law enforcement will not give them trouble. Once the program gets under way, the department will inspect their plants for a one-time fee of $1,050. Then Harris and Jones will be issued 99 bar-coded zip-ties at $25 apiece. These will identify their plants as legal medicine in Mendocino County.

This idea has not been wildly popular with growers. Jones can think of only half a dozen other people who might willingly expose their crops to law enforcement. And they know a lot of people in the business.

Harris and Jones have been in and around Mendocino County since 2001, growing, smoking, tie-dyeing, and accumulating friends. Although they consider themselves small-time growers, there's nothing small-time about their lifestyle. They remodeled their beautiful home in the hills, which has a view that stretches for miles. They take yearly vacations in Hawaii, where they rent nice cars and stay in nice hotels. Harris was recently able to retire from her job as a statistician at UCSF.

They'll admit it: The pot business has been good to them, and a lot of the good has come from breaking the law. But as marijuana has become more widely accepted, to the point where its legalization has landed on California's November ballot, Harris and Jones have established themselves not as criminals, but as a beloved, model couple in their community. Their ascent demonstrates that crime really does pay, and that it isn't necessarily a bad thing.

In Mendocino County, it's no secret that a large but unknown percentage of the population is breaking federal, state, and county law regarding the growth, sale, and transportation of marijuana. But some of the scofflaws are respected, perhaps for good reason.

By 2002, Mendocino's previously prosperous logging industry was teetering on the verge of extinction. Combine that decline with the nationwide recession, and it's no surprise that there are very few jobs here. If it weren't for marijuana, locals say, the county would be broke.

"We have government and weed," Allman acknowledges.

In Mendocino, growers have been able to take advantage of the 1996 passage of Proposition 215, aka the Compassionate Use Act, and 2006's California Senate Bill 420, which allowed the sick to grow and smoke marijuana for medicinal purposes, and for people to form collectives and establish midsized grow operations.

Growers could then claim they were producing marijuana for specific patients, then sell the pot illegally just about anywhere. Not all growers sell outside their collectives, but the profits can be tempting.

"A minority of people are legitimately using medical marijuana," Allman says.

Although state law says collectives must be not-for-profit and "closed-loop" (meaning they can only supply to their own), that's rarely the case, according to growers we talked to. Instead, marijuana grown in the names of local patients is distributed far and wide, to dispensaries, individuals, and illegal dealers who travel to Mendocino from all over the country. Eric Sligh, editor of Grow magazine, says he has attended underground pot auctions where growers get together and illegally sell their "medical marijuana" to the highest out-of-state bidders.

Mendocino is part of a tricounty area known as the Emerald Triangle, where people expect to find some of the best marijuana in the country. That fact has brought on what some like to call "the Green Rush."

"There's that Gold Rush mentality up there, for sure," says Cathy Smith, owner of San Francisco's HopeNet dispensary, who lived outside Ukiah for several years. "They're moving up there, and they think they're gonna make millions."

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