The High Road

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

For many people, of course, that never happens. Some find it trickier to grow the plants than they thought. Or they realize they have to set up a network of buyers and pay to have the pot illegally transported. Or some antipot neighbor runs them out of town (which happened to Smith, she recounts with a smirk).

Based on her experience — and the fact that her son and his family still live there — Smith says growing is crucial for Mendocino. "Cannabis growers do a lot for the county," she said. "They put in a skate park. ... My grandkids are getting a great education."

Harris and Jones estimate that they gave about $20,000 to charities and individuals in Laytonville last year. All along, they've been giving away pot to friends, sick people who needed it, and to anyone standing near them at a Grateful Dead show. When Jones is driving his truck, which is painted with Dead designs, just about everyone in town — including sheriff's deputies — will wave a friendly hello.

HopeNet dispensary owner Cathy Smith knows of Mendocino’s Green Rush firsthand.
Stuart Dixon
HopeNet dispensary owner Cathy Smith knows of Mendocino’s Green Rush firsthand.
Eric Sligh tends about 300 illegal plants, far off Laytonville’s main drag.
Jamie Soja
Eric Sligh tends about 300 illegal plants, far off Laytonville’s main drag.

Many know Jones for his weekly column in the Mendocino County Observer. The column, which he writes for free, usually runs at the top of the letters page. "Those people are widely loved," local marijuana patient and activist Pebbles Trippet says.

For growers who haven't become prominent members of the community, law enforcement remains an obstacle. Federal law states that possessing or selling any amount of marijuana, medicinal or not, is illegal. An increasing number of would-be pot entrepreneurs have also been ensnared by confusing and ever-changing state and county laws.

In 2006, the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department confiscated 250,000 marijuana plants. In 2008, that number increased to 380,000; last year it reached an all-time high of 541,000. Most of those plants were from large-scale, nonmedical operations, but some belonged to purportedly medicinal gardens that contained more than the county's previous limit of 25 plants per parcel.

Enforcement is necessary not only because it's the law, Allman says, but also because "where there is marijuana, there is money. Where there is money, there is greed. And where there is greed, there is violence. ... I have 11 people in custody right now for home invasions."

That hasn't stopped people from trying to get into the business. The heavy influx of marijuana growers has created a surplus of pot, and as a result, its wholesale price has fallen. When Harris and Jones first moved to the county, pot sold for $4,000 a pound. Now, they're lucky to get $2,200. Meanwhile, growers say, dispensaries facing high overhead costs haven't passed on this price decrease to the consumer.

Harris and Jones hope that with the formation of their collective, they can provide high-quality pot to patients at reasonable prices. "$200 an ounce, directly to patients," Jones says. "We'll be growing totally organic, high-grade, marked with zip ties; we'll be paying taxes all the way through. County, state, and federal. Providing the best pot in the world."

In November, California may become the first state to approve a ballot measure legalizing possession of an ounce of pot for adults, whether they have a medical marijuana card or not. Under Prop. 19, they would also be permitted to grow as much pot as they could in a five-square-foot area.

Polls have indicated that nearly half of voters support the measure. Should it pass, the California Legislature must then tax and regulate marijuana. Depending on whom you ask, that's either a necessary step toward the widespread acceptance of marijuana, or the doom of the medical marijuana community.

Some more hesitant medicinal providers may be concerned about losing their clandestine profits and cushy way of life. They claim that further changes in legalization might eventually pave the way for large-scale farms to move into the market — and where would that leave the mom-and-pop growers?

Kevin Reed, who runs San Francisco pot delivery service Green Cross, is worried that legalization will have California looking ever more like Amsterdam. On a trip there, he noticed that in an environment where everyone was allowed to smoke, medicinal pot had become inconsequential.

But some marijuana advocates like Trippet say that while the medical community will certainly shrink, that's a good thing. Because medical marijuana is the only kind that's partly legal, lots of people who claim they're in the business for the medicine are simply taking advantage, she says. She doesn't believe medical providers' profits should be boosted by recreational users.

Many of those who grow for the medical community and are pushing for legalization and taxation also happen to be fairly well-established. For these growers, it diminishes their chances of getting into trouble and losing their newfound livelihood. Many have come from backgrounds where they've taken plenty of risks, and those successful pot-growing baby boomers are now ready for some security.

The life James Taylor Jones leads now was something he never imagined. He grew up in a poor town in coastal North Carolina, receiving regular beatings from both his parents. Like so many people in search of a different kind of life, Jones came west in the '60s and enrolled at UC Santa Cruz.

After graduating, he scored a job as a cabinetmaking apprentice. A man he worked with was also a cocaine dealer, and soon Jones, who was also an alcoholic, found himself addicted to cocaine. He worked, drank, and snorted coke all week, took a day of rest, then went right back. He remembers once being up for 13 days in a row.

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