Pubdate: Sun, 28 Mar 2010
Source: Union, The (Grass Valley, CA)
Copyright: 2010 The Union
Author: Tom Durkin, Special to The Union
Note: Tom Durkin is a freelance writer based in Nevada City.
Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/find?115 (Cannabis - California)
Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/opinion.htm (Opinion)
GROWING MEDICAL MARIJUANA
California's Underground Economy
(Author's note: In 1982, I won a California State Fair Media Award
for agricultural reporting on the marijuana crops in El Dorado,
Placer and Nevada counties. Even before then, as a writer and
sometime drug abuse counselor, I've had occasion to cover both
legalization - and enforcement - efforts ranging from debates in the
State Legislature to a raid on an illegal Mexican plantation just
outside of Colfax last year.
My assignment from The Union was to share my knowledge of how local
medical marijuana growers walk the line - and cross the line - in
complying with the law.
With the exception of Cindy Griffith, manager of CannaMedix, every
conversation I had with my sources was strictly off-the-record - at
my own insistence. This is not an investigative report. It's just an
observation, from my limited perspective but long time experience,
with the alternative communities of Nevada and Placer counties.)
Petit Sirah, Af Gui, Merlot, OG Kush, Sauvignon Blanc, OT Pineapple,
Burgundy, Purple Urkle, Grey Riesling, NorCal, Zinfandel, Blueberry
.. listening to wine makers and medical marijuana (MMJ) growers talk
about their boutique delicacies is often simply a matter of switching
They both speak with knowledge and passion, brag about their organic
blends, closely guard their trade secrets, decry low-grade commercial
product, have their own political organizations and lobbyists, worry
about market prices, and love to sample and critique each other's
When you get down to it, vintners and pot growers do have a lot in
common. They are, after all, both farmers and drug dealers. (Alcohol
is a drug - get over it.)
Of course, there are major differences - mostly involving the
legality of what they grow and sell.
Nevertheless, MMJ growers are engaged in a quasi-legal agricultural
industry that appears to be inevitably on track to become as legal,
taxed and regulated as the wine industry in the coming years.
On March 24, the California Secretary of State certified a November
ballot initiative that will ask voters whether marijuana should be
legalized and regulated for adult recreational use.
Additionally, in February, Assemblymember Tom Ammiano (D-San
Francisco) introduced AB 390 - the Marijuana Control, Regulation and
Education Act - a law that would accomplish essentially the same thing.
Legal to Grow; Legal to Sell - Not So Much
Many - but not all - of the MMJ growers I've talked with over the
years would like nothing better than to legally sell their crop to
medical dispensaries. Regardless, these growers say they just don't
know how to make the connection with legal cannabis dispensaries.
"It's a huge gray area in the law," explained one exasperated grower.
Unlike large-scale commercial growers, most local MMJ growers are not
They are, for the most part, respectable members of the community.
Often they are business owners, productive employees, professionals,
artists, seriously disabled people. I've known lawyers, teachers,
dentists and politicians to grow.
Some grow because they actually do have a legitimate medical need.
Others grow because, well, they just like to smoke weed.
And there are some who use the cover of MMJ to grow for the extra
income they need to survive in a tight economy.
Virtually all are keenly aware of the legal limits of how much they
can grow. Some have learned the hard way when the police have seized
excess crop. Although they do appreciate that law enforcement will
protect their legal crop, most would prefer to fly completely under the radar.
This is largely because they all fear thieves and home invasion
robbers more than the police. Those who do arm themselves, post guard
dogs, set booby traps and alarms, and even sleep outside with their
crops, often have an attitude reminiscent of yesteryear's gold miners
protecting themselves against claim jumpers.
'Script Mills v. PR Clinics
It's an open secret that it's ridiculously easy to get a 'script
(prescription) to grow and possess MMJ. Just as there are "'script
doctors" who will prescribe pain pills for money, there are clinics
that specialize in dispensing a "physician's recommendation" (PR) for
MMJ for the right price and the flimsiest of evidence of actual medical need.
That pay-for-play tactic, however, won't get you a PR at CannaMetrix
in Grass Valley, asserted Cindy Griffith. The manager of the new
cannabis clinic at 1117 E. Main St. (530-477-9900) stressed the
clinic's doctors follow the letter of the law when it comes issuing an MMJ PR.
A prospective patient must provide recent medical proof from his or
her doctor of a legally eligible condition covered by California's
Compassionate Use Act. "An 18-year-old just can't waltz in, claim
chronic back pain and get a PR," she stated.
By law, doctors may not write an MMJ PR for their own patients. The
CannaMetrix doctors, therefore, must review and concur with a
diagnosis provided by another doctor, Griffith explained.
Furthermore, the clinic does not sell marijuana, she added.
Griffith decried a notorious storefront clinic in Citrus Heights
where the doctor demands cash up front, paid directly to him, not his
receptionist. His sleazy operation "makes you feel dirty," she said.
Furthermore, if a 'script doctor gets busted, that puts all his or
her patients at risk of having their PRs invalidated - and therefore,
in violation of marijuana laws, Griffith noted.
It's The Underground Economy
Although the wine and dairy industries might beg to disagree, it is
widely believed that marijuana is by far California's largest cash
crop. A March 24 online article from BusinessWeek estimated illegal
marijuana sales pump $15 billion into California's underground economy.
The California State Board of Equalization has estimated the state
could gain $1.3 billion a year in taxes and fees if marijuana were
legalized. Legalization advocates also claim millions of dollars
would be saved in law enforcement costs.
Legal or not, marijuana - especially the organic, world-class MMJ
typically grown in Nevada - brings in big bucks. Last year, at
harvest time, an ounce of high-end grass was selling for about $250,
which was relatively low because there was a glut on the market.
A common complaint at bud-trimming parties last fall was that,
"Everybody is growing it." Nevertheless, boutique growers with big
city connections were able to command as much as $400 an ounce.
One veteran grower, whose long-time legitimate business succumbed to
the economy last year, said he grossed $18,000 on a $6,000 investment
in his 2009 crop.
Another grower, an arthritis-crippled grandmother, claimed with
oh-so-wide innocent eyes that she made no profit. "That would be
illegal," she said as she vacuum-sealed a quarter pound of Purple
Urkle in preparation for smuggling to parts unknown.
Yet another grower told how her little "victory garden in the war
against the war on drugs" kept her family afloat when her husband
lost his job. "Cannabis saved our family."
Marijuana creates odd coalitions.
Most big-time growers and law enforcement organizations are against
Law enforcement has its traditional reasons.
The growers fear a drop in prices, new taxes and fees, and intrusive
Even winemakers are leery of the competition.
Meanwhile, liberal advocates find themselves in rumpled bedclothes
with fiscal conservatives.
The advocates say marijuana is a mostly harmless drug (compared to
alcohol, tobacco, methamphetamine, heroin, and a pantheon of
prescription medications). Furthermore, they argue it has proven,
legitimate medical efficacy.
The fiscal conservatives see a potential windfall for government that
far outweighs any negative arguments against legalization.
They say it is insane to ignore a $15 billion river of untaxed
revenue in a state facing bankruptcy.
The fact remains MMJ will continue to be an integral part of Nevada
County's economy whether is aboveboard or underground. Northern
California enjoys a reputation of growing some of the finest organic
grass in the world - and a lot of people want to put that in their
pipe and smoke it, along with a nice glass of Northern California wine.
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