6 Surprising Realities of the Legal Weed Industry
Pot is more popular and more legal than it's ever been. Well, at least since lawmakers first started using it as an excuse to arrest Mexicans. It's been outright legalized in Washington, Colorado, and the city of Portland, Maine. Meanwhile, legions of legal medical growers across California and 22 other states have helped turn weed into America's biggest cash crop. Cracked wanted the lowdown on getting high the respectable way, so we sent a "reporter" up to America's Drug Basket: Northern California. He (or she) "researched" several legal grow operations and spoke with people at every level of the industry. The Nacho per diem alone nearly broke our budget, so we sure hope this is good.
There's a Whole Industry Dedicated to Just Making Weed Pretty
Marijuana is one of those rare products where what you see is exactly what you get. Someone hands you a plastic bag full of pot, you hand them 50 or 60 bucks. The "advertising" begins and ends at, "Hey man, wanna buy some weed?"
For the straighter-edge among you, here's what a piece of quality medical marijuana looks like when you buy it:
You'll notice it looks like a nice, orderly green turd. Now here's how that pot looked right before it was harvested:
Like the turd of somebody who swallows their chicken bones.
Much of that is perfectly smokable marijuana, but it gets trimmed by an army of migrant hippie laborers. Up to half the harvested weight of the pot plant is trimmed off and either thrown out or (more commonly) turned into hashish. The only purpose all this serves is to make the pot look more appetizing (?) to a vast market of pot users who, we promise you, have never given a damn.
The migrant workers who make this happen are sometimes called trimmigrants, and every year they flood cities like Chico and counties like Humboldt in Northern California. Home Depots even put out baskets of trimming scissors with colorful advertisements as soon as the season starts. I saw trimmigrants hiking along the roadside, hoping to find some employment for the season. If they get picked up by a grower they could make as much as $200 per pound as a trimmer. The best can manage two or three pounds in a day. Some of the workers I met expected to make $8,000 to $10,000 in a three-month span, just listening to their iPods and manhandling weed. Who says college didn't prepare you for the job market?
There's a consequence to this extensive pot-beautifying, though: Everything you've ever smoked has spent an extensive amount of time in somebody's hands, and that means ...
The "Safe, All-Natural Drug" Could Actually Be Full of Serious Toxins
The vast majority of weed -- even legal California weed -- is grown outdoors. And you know what else loves growing outdoors? Other plants.
Shocker, we know!
Also? Crocodiles. But that's neither here nor there.
Speaking of plants, you know what is one? Poison oak. If you're not familiar, it is a significantly less fun type of plant that blisters your skin instead of lending you an appreciation for the blistering flute solos of Jethro Tull. And in a cruel twist of fate, poison oak loves growing in and around pot plants. If it cross-contaminates in the wild, what can you do? You can't just wash it off. You could throw it away, but think of everybody you've ever met who's smoked, grown, or dealt weed, and now think of all the times you've seen them throw it away. If that number is higher than zero, congratulations: You're a police officer.
And then there are the pesticides! Nearly every farmer and trimmer I spoke with reported using (or smelling) pesticides on their weed. This stuff is very literally money that you grow: Farmers aren't about to take the risk of losing money to a bunch of bugs. Tests performed on dispensary weed by the Los Angeles attorney's office found extremely high levels of the pesticide bifenthrin in two out of three strains they studied. With pesticides come dead bug parts, which have to be picked out of the buds. And, by the way, those hands picking dead stuff out of your pot? They aren't particularly clean either. Trimmers seldom use gloves, and when you've got a bunch of people crammed in a cabin in the woods all winter, some of them will get sick.
Now smoke the tissue!
"A lot of people sneeze on the weed," one source a-bit-too-happily confirmed. "You can't really help it."
Scientists analyzing marijuana have even found traces of salmonella and E.-fucking-coli on "pharmaceutical grade" pot. But in the trimmers' defense, omelets are delicious and sometimes the faucets don't work.
Weed Can Be Fairly Dangerous to Handle
Today's marijuana is between two and seven times as strong as it was in the '70s. Female plants, whether they're kept indoors or outdoors, are hidden far away from the prying eyes of male plants. Deprived of glorious pollination-induced orgasms, the ladyweed squirts out more and more THC in a desperate, hallucinogenic mating call.
It does look like it just got bukkaked.
But as Jeff Goldblum taught us, life finds a way. In pot's case, it finds ways to make its jailers pay for all the enforced celibacy. Trimmers I talked to reported developing weed allergies after lengthy exposure.
"I'd been trimming for two and a half months when I realized my wrists were constantly itchy. And it would get in my bra so my boobs got itchy too. After a while everything just itches, all the time."
There's really no leaf that's good to rub over your body for hours every day.
Good pot (the only kind grown for legal use) is also filled with tiny crystals of THC called kief. The kief gets everywhere, absolutely everywhere. It stains your hands black. Within a few hours your fingers are coated with enough hash to qualify as a felony in most states. It's a "sticky tar" that coats your hands:
"You can't wipe your face, because every time you do you wipe more kief and finger hash into your eyes. It stings, and it makes your allergies go all crazy."
Another trimmer had this to say: "We had a couple people who developed really serious respiratory infections from inhaling that all day long. One girl who came back with me is still coughing up a storm. It never quite went away."
One way or another, pot finds a way to make you cough.
Even Where It's Legal, It's Not Legal
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.
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."
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"?
"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.
"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.)
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.
The Legal Pot Industry Is Hurting the Environment
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."
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.
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.
Don't worry, this Phish is doing just fine.
The Growers Don't Want It to Be Legal
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.
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.
"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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