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.

Jamie Soja
Come September, these pot plants could be as tall as the deck.
Jamie Soja
Come September, these pot plants could be as tall as the deck.
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.
James Taylor Jones and Fran Harris 
live in tie-dye.
Jamie Soja
James Taylor Jones and Fran Harris live in tie-dye.
Ashley Harrell

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."

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.

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.

Eventually Jones couldn't stand to keep living that way. He was also out of money. He borrowed a few hundred dollars, moved into his Mustang with two dogs, and drove up to Marin. Once there, he began attending every AA and Al-Anon meeting he could. "I did that for years, every day," he said. "Monday through Monday."

Eventually, Jones worked his way out of his funk and got an apartment in Corte Madera. Then one night in 1991 at a Gulf War protest rally in Berkeley thrown by Wavy Gravy — who is now a friend and neighbor — Jones met Harris, a long-haired hippie statistician who also had Southern roots.

Harris was with her boyfriend that night, huddled under a tarp to avoid a torrential downpour, and a mutual friend made the introductions. All agreed that they should head to Harris and her boyfriend's home for a joint.

When they arrived, Jones took note of the woodwork in the couple's home, and told them he could do better. Soon, the three were inseparable, traveling and following the Grateful Dead, smoking and growing weed, and creating and wearing their own unique brand of tie-dye. Eventually, Jones moved into an in-law unit behind the house.

Things soon went awry, and Harris and Jones got together. They moved around, growing and smoking pot everywhere they went. When California legalized medical pot in 1996, they got cards. Jones needed marijuana because of arthritis and "other issues," he says. Harris needed it to remedy pain in her neck caused by cervical degenerative disc disease. Eventually the couple moved to Marin, where for the first and only time in their lives, they got busted. Discovered growing 40 plants, Jones was charged with cultivation, but he was able to go to a drug diversion course and get the charge expunged. "I have a totally clean record," he says.

About a decade ago, Harris and Jones decided they wanted to buy a house with some land. The dot-com–era prices mostly ruled out the Bay Area, especially considering that the couple had $40,000 of what they call "Jerry Garcia credit card debt." So they started looking north. Laytonville was small and remote; they found a home and 20 acres for $170,000. They didn't move to grow pot, they say, but after a year of living there, Jones had created an outdoor garden of about 100 plants.

He recalls that a friend came over to check out the plants and wound up offering the couple $100,000 — cash — on the spot. That's when they knew they'd be able to make some money.

Harris and Jones don't invite many people to their grow compound, and they certainly don't want anybody knowing where it is. Let's just say that it's way back in the hills. You have to travel on a partially paved road to get to it. There are locked gates you must pass through. Then there are five big dogs to deal with. Smokestack is the most formidable: He's an Italian mastiff, and if he doesn't like you, he'll turn your arm into his personal chew toy.

On a recent Sunday, Harris and Jones escorted SF Weekly to their hippie enclave wonderland and offered an exclusive look inside the business they've built over the past decade.

In the entryway to their comfortable two-story home lies their insignia — a giant marble peace symbol, set inside a heart. Jones designed it himself. Since they purchased the property in 2001, he has remodeled almost the entire home to make it sturdier, and rebuilt the staircase with recycled redwood.

The upstairs bedroom has enormous windows, and you can see for miles from the second-story deck. But the most interesting part of the view lies just behind the house. Pot plants. Lots of them.

Last month, many of the outdoor plants were waist-high, but those were hardly the extent of the operation. There was also a shed where small plants were being cloned and incubated, and a greenhouse crowded with marijuana.

There were far more than the allowable 99 plants on the couple's property, but for good reason. Extracting the most marijuana possible from the fewest plants involves discarding a large number of male or otherwise inadequate plants. (Male marijuana plants don't produce buds worth smoking.) Some of these were also scheduled to be given away to friends. Only the most vigorous female plants, the ones that looked as if they were capable of producing multiple pounds of pot, would find a place in the ground.

The operation, though a highly profitable one, is nothing compared to what some of the neighbors are up to. "Fran and I, we're really small-time," Jones says. "Some of the people on our street have four or five hundred plants. ... In our forests and parks, they're finding grows with 15,000 [or] 20,000 plants."

Those kinds of grows upset Harris and Jones, particularly because of the damage they can do to the environment. Illegal, large-scale growers often use pesticides and rat poison, which can hurt local wildlife and wandering pets. They also divert stream water and leave behind trash and leaky generators. There's no concern for anything but money.

Harris and Jones, on the other hand, use organic fertilizer for their custom strains, which this year include Green Crack, OC Kush, and Diesel. There will also be Headbands, a killer combination of Kush and Diesel. "Intellectually stimulating," Jones says. "Doesn't sap your energy." He points to another plant he called Blue Dream, but on the tag it said something different: Blue Balls. When asked about this, Jones laughs, then explains that it was a combination of Blueberry and Monkey Balls. How were they not going to call that Blue Balls?

"It's a vigorous plant," he says. "Come back and you'll see."

By August, you won't be able to walk back here, Harris adds. These plants were going to get 15 feet high, as tall as the deck.

Although Harris had brought in a decent salary as a statistician, it was these plants that allowed the couple's lifestyle to change dramatically. Over the first several years of growing pot, they were able to pay off their Jerry Garcia debt. Eventually, they were taking those long vacations in Hawaii, putting money into real estate, donating to political campaigns, and giving to charity.

Now, Jones says, they'd like to start moving their money from the ground into the bank. "By paying taxes, you can do that," he says. "It's not washing money."

"It's just making money legal," Harris adds.

In May 2009, after 15 years of making and selling their own tie-dye without a storefront, they opened Tie Dye 2. Jones recalls that at concerts in the '70s, when people on LSD saw the clothing, they used to come up and say, "Wow, those are really groovy clothes." These days, rock star friends like David Nelson, who once played with Jerry Garcia; and Rob Eaton of the Dark Star Orchestra are wearing Tie Dye 2 apparel. Wavy Gravy also wears their tie-dye. Harris and Jones themselves wear it almost every day. There was one day, Harris remembers, when Jones didn't: "I barely recognized him," she says.

Although the passion for tie-dye is clearly there, Harris and Jones have yet to turn a profit from it. "A lot of people in town might know that we're growers, but they think our business is our life and that [tie-dye] is supporting us," Jones says. "The truth is, we're supporting the business."

Harris and Jones also have plans for three acres they've purchased across the street from the store. They want to erect a nonprofit vegan restaurant and community event center, where they can invite their favorite bands to play. They already pay some musicians to put on concerts at events center Area 101, and though those concerts usually lose money, Harris and Jones consider them a kind of community service.

That's hardly the extent of their generosity. Around the holidays, Harris and Jones used to walk around town handing children envelopes stuffed with Benjamins, but they stopped that after it caused a scene, Jones says. They continue to give hundreds of dollars at bake sales, and they donate several thousand dollars to the yearly North Pole Toy Express, a toy drive benefiting impoverished families.

Harris and Jones also give away plenty of their pot, and come harvest season, they pay their most dedicated trimmers upward of $25 an hour. After their pot is trimmed, dried, and bagged this year, it will go to a handful of predetermined customers.

About half will go to the Peace and Love Collective, Jones says, and a small amount will wind up in dispensaries in San Francisco. The rest will be sold to a buyer from Philadelphia, who will ship it himself. According to state and federal law, everything about the Philadelphia deal is illegal. Medical marijuana growers are not permitted to sell to people outside of the collectives they have formed, and the pot is not allowed to be sold or transported outside of California.

A few years ago, Jones remembers, a woman transporting the pot he had sold got pulled over in Iowa with 170 pounds. She was an illegal immigrant from Brazil, and she was deported, he says. He was surprised it didn't end worse than that.

Although Jones won't say exactly how much he expects to make this year, you can be sure it's more than the $55,000 salary he reported last year. Each year, he reports a little bit more of his earnings, because he wants to pay tax, he says. He wants to be totally legal, and he can come closer to that goal by registering his grow with the county sheriff's department.

The Mendocino Board of Supervisors has a few dozen rules for people hoping to collectively grow and zip-tie 99 plants. Growers cannot be convicted felons. None of the water or electricity can be illegally procured. The garden must be on five acres of land, out of sight, and at least 100 yards away from any neighbor.

Harris and Jones say they will eventually be able to comply with all of those rules. Theirs is one of six applications currently in the sheriff's office, although Allman says he's heard that about 10 more may be coming, and believes he'll end up with about 30 this season.

Trippet hopes that doesn't happen. Her main problem with the 99-plant deal, she says, is that it's filed under a public nuisance ordinance, essentially sending the message that pot creates a blight on society and must be closely monitored, rather than regulated like any other business.

Sligh, who tends a large grow in Laytonville, doesn't think the sheriff's department has the resources to be running such a program. The department — which covers 3,590 square miles and is facing a $3.5 million budget deficit — employs 42 officers, five fewer than it did when Richard Nixon was president. That doesn't allow for much oversight, Sligh says.

Allman says that for the program to work, people need to trust in the department. "If you are going to grow the 99 plants, law enforcement is going to have full access to your property," he announced on KQED several months ago. "We're going to be able to inspect."

The reality is that Sligh's grow has far too many plants for him to even consider exposing it to the authorities. To reach it requires driving on backroads for miles and passing through locked gates. A friend of his who owns a dispensary in L.A. found the property advertised for rent on Craigslist, Sligh says, and asked him to manage it. When Sligh arrived to check it out, there was already infrastructure for a grow in place.

The site was filled with junk, and had seemingly been abandoned in haste. Sligh hired two Mexican immigrants who live on the property and tend the plants daily. He returns every few weeks to monitor the progress, and says he will make money only if the grow is successful. The experience of tending the pot plants is itself valuable, he says. He believes that knowledgeable growers with experience in the black market will have good opportunities in the industry after marijuana is legalized.

Sligh has been watching with interest as cities like Boulder, Colo., find ways to inspect and tax marijuana grows. The financial rewards in creating such a framework mean it's only a matter of time before California jumps on board. In the meantime, Sligh isn't even thinking about exposing his operation to the sheriff.

So why are Harris and Jones gung-ho about it? Trippet says she's never seen the deputies go after anyone in the community with a solid support base. "The sheriff's deputies will never bust those two people," she says. "They are very well loved. It would make martyrs out of them."

On an evening in late June, an orange sun sets behind Laytonville, leaving dramatic pink streaks across the sky in a tie-dyed pattern. It's as if nature itself is on the side of Harris and Jones.

They are in their backyard, surrounded by their plants while being photographed for this story. They're excited to be stepping out of the shadows, revealing who they are and what they do.

But they're also exhausted. They have just returned from a trip back east, visiting their families in the Carolinas, where they swam every day and played poker late into the night. Most family members drank alcohol, except Jones, who continues to attend AA meetings. Although the couple has experienced a significant amount of family strife over the years, even Harris' father, an Episcopalian bishop, has come to accept them as the tie-dye-wearing pot providers they are.

Some of the plants have grown taller than Harris and Jones and will be even taller come harvest time in September. They've gotten rid of quite a few male plants, and have planted more promising females. Although they aren't down to the number they expect to have when the sheriff comes — about 80 plants, they say — they are getting there. They're hoping to harvest around 200 pounds this year, and to sell it for $2,100 a pound.

Whether or not pot is legalized in the fall, Harris and Jones plan to continue being able to sell their pot to loyal and trusted recipients. That said, they absolutely think marijuana should be legal. They've believed all along in the value of the product, not just for patients, for but anyone who chooses to smoke.

Harris and Jones may have risen up on the wrong side of the law, but the will of the people in California has shifted in their direction. And in the end, the law is created by the will of the people.

"It's an awesome life," Jones says, sounding as if he still can't believe his good fortune. "It really is."

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