A couple of days after I talked with Anna Hamilton, I met up with a grower alongside a frontage road in southern Humboldt. I'll call him Robert Grant. He wore logging boots, cargo pants and a T-shirt, and had the wiry build of someone who spends a lot of time on the move outside. We followed a labyrinthine route along dusty roads to a piece of land perched halfway up a pretty draw full of oaks, golden meadows and firs, with sweeping views of the surrounding hills.
Grant originally came from Southern California to chase the surf on the coast nearby. He slowly worked his way into the marijuana scene, careful not to disturb the local detente. It has served him well. At this particular spot, 60 plants were perched in the sun, standing in long raised beds and a handful of blue plastic kiddie pools. The leafy plants were as tall as apple trees; together, they were probably worth about half a million dollars, wholesale.
Among them were strains with names like Blueberry, Amazing Haze and Armageddon. But Grant was most excited about a new twist on one called Super Silver Haze.
"We've been working on it for nine years," he said, reaching to pull down a bud that glistened with silvery resin. I took a deep whiff, and my head filled with the plant's breathy, arresting allure.
Grant saw my eyes widen.
"Yeah," he laughed. "That's ... that just rocks."
Breeding marijuana is its own kind of magic. Grant talked about the elusive quest to balance a body high with a head high; to blend the perfect combination of looks, aroma, flavor and THC; and to encourage resistance to mold, an incessant problem with the coastal fog. Breeding and growing styles can border on the occult. One breeder meticulously tracks each plant's parentage in his quest to produce super-potent "stupid dope." Others drive nails through the plants' stalks, on the theory that torture will produce more THC. And one group of ritualists grows weed that's beyond hand-crafted, observing elaborate precautions to avoid touching the buds during harvest -- the better to preserve their sanctity.
Grant's pot patch reflected the evolving state of the Northern California marijuana business. His cannabis was contracted to a medical marijuana dispensary in Sacramento. In the middle of the garden, angled toward the sky, was a white board painted with a red cross. An attached bundle of paperwork noted his compliance with the state's medical marijuana law.
"That's for the helicopters," Grant said. He had little fear of a raid. The helicopters appeared once earlier in the summer and then stayed away. And now it seemed the entire industry was poised to come further out of the shadows.
In 2009, with the California budget going up in smoke, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger -- no dummy about his constituents' yen for dope -- began to consider legalizing recreational use of marijuana, and then taxing it, as a way to stem the state's looming fiscal crisis. The state tax office estimated that a $50-an-ounce levy on marijuana could, when coupled with increased sales-tax revenue, generate $1.4 billion for state coffers. The legalize-and-tax mantra was subsequently taken up by Oakland entrepreneur Richard Lee, who created Oaksterdam, a sort of vo-tech school for aspiring pot growers, and almost single-handedly turned the city into a medical-marijuana mecca.
When I met with Grant, Californians were within weeks of voting on Proposition 19. Many growers opposed legalization because it was sure to drop prices, although they hesitated to say so on the record. Others, like Grant, felt differently.
Despite the spreading legalization of medical marijuana, the profit margin has stayed fat: For a grower like Grant, it typically costs $400 to $500 to grow a pound of marijuana that will go for $2,000 wholesale. And with full legalization, he explained, "you're talking about a lot more consumption." Even if prices were to fall to $1,000 per pound, he said, "I'll take that. Absolutely."
From Grant's perspective, full legalization seemed, at some point, inevitable. Several fellow growers had recently formed the Humboldt Growers Association, in essence a lobbying group to help growers shape -- and get out in front of -- the regulations that legalization was sure to bring. The Growers Association had begun drafting its own proposed regulations to submit to the Humboldt County board of supervisors, which would govern the manner and extent to which marijuana was grown, and allow the county to collect taxes and fees.
"Everything's tracked. Everything has a permit number that tracks it right down to the farmer," Grant said. "It's just like lettuce, just like tomatoes, just like strawberries."
After years of keeping their heads down on the outlaw fringe -- where politics meant little more than supporting the local road-maintenance association -- growers were taking a big step into a new and complicated realm.
"There's a lot of uncertainty in the air," Grant said. "But a lot of entrepreneurs are really excited about the potential."