6 Surprising Realities of the Legal Weed Industry

#3. Even Where It's Legal, It's Not Legal

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Growing legal marijuana is an industry with less regulation than the people who sell crystals as a health product. Some trim camps are lovely places -- small houses or cabins in the middle of nowhere filled with industrious groups of friendly hippies smoking weed and making money. But that's not efficient for the larger, less legal operations. And we spoke to some people with experience there, too. They told stories of working in huge drafty barns in the dead of winter, clustered around long tables in large groups. It was, essentially, a weed sweatshop.

Jay Directo / Stringer / AFP / Getty
So one of the better types of sweatshop, but still shitty.

"You're pretty expendable, and you're very replaceable. We were expected to log in 16 hours a day sitting still, just meticulously trimming tiny little pieces for hours."

"No hygiene, either. They didn't need to provide that. No bathrooms."

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But hey, shovel.

A lot of trimmigrants are in the country illegally; kids from Denmark and Sweden and Germany and Spain, flocking from their homelands to make a shitload of tax-free cash and being exploited by people who don't speak their language and can't hear their complaints.

Because there's no Better Business Bureau for weed farmers. I heard stories of trimmers, at the end of months of work, being ejected from farms at gunpoint without pay. What were they going to do, call the cops? Say, "This guy didn't pay me for my possibly illegal labor"?

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"Oh yeah, we'll get right on that."

The farmer I stayed with has a medical grower's license from the state of California. Copies of his license are posted on the grow house, and every possible step has been taken to make sure the farm is legal under California law. But growing weed is still a federal crime. At one point, on our way to the farm, a truck appeared behind our car on the road. My source overshot our exit, driving half a mile out of our way until the stranger's car turned off down a country road. Only then did we double back and roll into the farm.

"I get freaked out whenever I see two black cars, or a car with exempt plates [typically indicating a government-owned vehicle], and I just assume they're following me. You see big white trucks and just assume they belong to the government. They look too clean -- if it's dirty and old I don't worry. But if you keep your car clean here you're either rich or a cop."

These aren't phantom fears, either -- growing pot for a living means dealing with helicopters over your house on a regular basis.

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"We're actually just here to fill a couple blunt wraps."

"I was just about to go to bed and this helicopter started circling around the general area. I thought I was screwed, and going to spend the night in jail. They were doing circles over my place for a good 10 minutes. It was definitely loud and noticeable -- enough that I unplugged my lights. Then I thought, 'If they're really going to bust me, would they do that Saturday night at 10 pm?'"

Those helicopters represent the only "oversight" in the legal marijuana industry. The FDA doesn't regulate this stuff, so there aren't any laws about what pesticides you can use or how many ladybug carcasses are allowed per ounce. Even where pot is medically or outright legal, there's very little regulation. (Oregon is one of the few states with laws requiring dispensaries to test their weed, and that's a recent change.)

Joe Amon / Denver Post / Getty
We've always felt the least important part of selling medicine is making sure it's clean.

Turns out even the lawmakers around legal marijuana are totally chill.

#2. The Legal Pot Industry Is Hurting the Environment

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Each grower is permitted up to 99 plants under state law. Depending on the time of the harvest and the skill of the farmer, that can be anywhere from 50 or 60 to a couple of hundred pounds of cannabis.

"Before expenses, one farm can make between $300k and $1.2 million."

Adam Gault/Digital Vision/Getty Images
Not quite "fuck you" money, but definitely "kiss my ass" money.

It's little wonder that -- according to some sources -- pot may be the single most valuable crop in the United States. Corn and wheat are worth $23 billion and $8 billion, respectively. The total yearly value of harvested pot could be as high as $100 billion. California grows the vast, vast majority of America's pot. We're talking more than 21 million plants, and that's just the legal grow ops.

Wait, people grow pot illegally?

At 99 plants per farm, there could be more than 200,000 weed farms, nearly all of them located within 200 miles of each other. And these farms aren't all high-tech, indoor operations like you saw in Weeds. Outdoor grow ops are eight times more common than the indoor ones. It's a matter of money for most growers: Dirt and sunlight are free because God don't give you no electric bill.

But the price of this harvest is greater than a few crumpled $20s and Doritos-Locos-induced drive-thru heart attacks. And what indoor greenhouses there are basically add a 60-foot long chunk of rebar to the Camel's back that is California's power grid. Indoor weed growing makes up 8 percent of California's household energy use, a whopping 4 million tons of greenhouse gases per year. That's another 1 million cars worth of robot farts in California's atmosphere.

Ann Cutting / Moment Mobile / Getty
In other words, a few minutes of light L.A. traffic.

On a national scale, pot accounts for roughly 2 percent of household energy consumption. A lot of medical marijuana advocates like to portray the battle over pot as a fight between corrupt, toxic pharmaceutical companies and the holy, cleansing power of cannabis. But it's worth noting that pot production in the U.S. requires six times more energy than the entire U.S. pharmaceutical industry.

One of the outdoor farms we spoke with reported going through 2,000 to 3,000 gallons of water per week. Farms average around six gallons of water per plant per day. Since California's in a permanent state of drought, some growers have taken to re-routing water from natural streams and rivers. They've sucked out enough that some waterways can no longer support their populations of fish.

Maybe if you spelled it differently the hippies would give 'em a bit more support.

Douglas Mason / Getty
Don't worry, this Phish is doing just fine.

#1. The Growers Don't Want It to Be Legal

Craig F. Walker / Denver Post / Getty

Right now, California is in the midst of a gold rush. Trimmers come with the contents of a backpack and a dream of earning enough money to buy a car or fund a year of college. Growers come with thousands of investment dollars and the noble aspiration of choking a donkey with gargantuan wads of cash. Both groups can achieve their goals safely as long as they play by three fairly simple rules: Keep quiet, get a license, and use cash. (Or "pass after one," "bring your own," and "don't spill the bongwater," depending on who you ask.)

But Northern California's stinky money press might soon come to a grinding halt. Pot lovers around the country live in hope of the same day most growers dread: legalization. Legalization means federal oversight, licenses, bank accounts, and rules about how many trimmers you can stick in a woodland shack without a functioning bathroom. In other words, it means an end to the gold rush.

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And an end to a golden age for shacks.

There's a reason many growers across California opposed Proposition 19, the 2010 amendment to straight-up legalize marijuana in that state. My primary source for this article supported legalization because "nobody should go to prison for smoking a blunt." But he wasn't the norm. Pot producing counties like Humboldt and Trinity saw a majority of their people vote against Prop 19.

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"I'm not voting against pot, I'm voting for money."

It's worth pointing out that growers in Colorado and Washington haven't exactly seen their profits collapse. But those folks are still paying for their solid gold jet skis and champagne hot tubs in cash. Banks won't take their money yet, and that makes it much easier to avoid pesky crap like taxes. Skirt the DEA and it's a laugh. Fuck with the IRS and the hammer comes down. The growers are all too aware of their impending demise:

"Most of us know we only get four or five more years like this, before Philip-Morris or Marlboro gets into the business. We're Main Street USA, and the Walmart of weed is coming."

For more insider stories, check out 8 Terrifying Life Lessons From a Former Terrorist and 5 Reasons Being a Male Porn Star Is Less Fun Than It Looks.

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