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Broke? Try Selling Pot

Young Americans have taken a hard hit in this recession. In California, supplying pot to medical dispensaries offers a lucrative source of cash.
 
 
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Tony slams shut the trunk and climbs into the driver's seat. He sets his phone down on the console and turns the ignition. I sit in the passenger seat. Tony is a lot like any other 20-something California guy. His cell phone buzzes constantly. He's working on a college degree. He has a girlfriend. He's even started his own business.

But I have to ask him, as he backs the car out of the parking spot, how much marijuana are we driving around?

"Forty-four plants," he laughs. "Not that many."

Not that many?

Tony makes his living growing and tending clones -- marijuana plants -- that he distributes to Sacramento medical cannabis dispensaries.

While he makes a delivery, he's letting me tag along -- with a few stipulations, of course. First, "Tony" isn't his real name. Second, some details about his life and business have been tweaked or left out here. While he insists that his operation is legal -- California's Proposition 215 legalized marijuana for medical use -- he still worries about legal action from the Feds, as marijuana is still illegal under federal law.

Young Americans have taken a hard hit in this recession. The New York Times' Steve Greenhouse's coined the term "Generation R" -- "the millions of teenagers and 20-somethings struggling to carve out a future for themselves when the nation’s economy is in its worst shape in decades." Borrowing Greenhouse's term, academics have launched the website Generation Recession, which studies the short- and long-term effects of the economic climate on young Americans.

While jobs remain painfully scarce, some young people are finding employment in the medical marijuana industry. Tony is one of them. Of course, legal or not, selling pot in California has always been a profitable business endeavor. Now, though, it's gaining traction as a legitimate business. Several factors are probably influencing the change, including revenue in a recession and politicians both liberal and conservative speaking out about the downside of continued prohibition.

As he drives toward a dispensary, past half-empty shopping centers, Tony tells me his story.

A couple of years ago Tony was laid off from his government job. With work scarce, he tried something new: "Then I started selling buds online to cancer patients," he says.

Business was good. Soon he was making just as much as he was at his desk job. Business grew until he was distributing clones to Sacramento-area dispensaries. Tony prides himself on carrying strains nobody else grows.

The idea behind cloning is deceptively simple: take a productive marijuana plant, slice off one of its branches, then plant the branch until it produces its own buds.

Simple? Yes. But it requires a lot of work -- and a lot of investment. On a good month, Tony makes around $10,000 in sales. But his monthly expenses, including the staff he uses to tend the plants, can run upwards of $8,000.

We pull into the dispensary parking lot. It's a small, unassuming building sitting on a major road. Driving by, you'd have no idea what was sold inside. I help Tony carry the clones inside, plastic bins filled with foot-high plants.

Inside, three workers man the counter -- "budtenders" they're called. Tony says he sees mostly young people working the counters because it's a lot like any other retail job.

The medical marijuana business has boomed since California was the first state to approve its use in 1996. Since then, 14 more states and Washington, D.C. have approved medical cannabis by ballot initiative or legislation.

 
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