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Kids, Minivans, and Drug-Dealing: How the Recession Pulls Ordinary Families Into the Weed Game

Struggling to keep their house and feed their kids, a California family goes from typical to criminal.

For some time, I'd been hearing stories from my sources in the interstate marijuana racket about law-abiding "civilians" turning to the game because of the recession, and so, armed with introductions, I hit the road to meet some of these unlikely criminals face to face. That's how, on a hot evening in June, I found myself in Dan's Northern California kitchen.

Dan isn't his real name. Nor are any of the names in this story, for obvious reasons. But his situation is a familiar, harsh reality for many Americans, as I learned while doing research for  my recent novel on this subject. Dan is in his early 40s, a slim, soft-spoken former short-haul trucker who once owned all the toys: a used Mercedes, snowmobiles, Jet Skis. When they were both employed, he and his wife—a retail manager—easily cleared $100,000 a year. "We ate out breakfast, lunch, and dinner," Dan, now a minimum-wage laborer, tells me with folded arms. "That's the way life was for 17 years."

Today, Dan's toys are gone, sold to support an underwater mortgage. His wife, who kept her job, left him three years ago, driving away in the Mercedes. "She didn't like the fact that I sat at home and she was going to work," he tells me. "There were no jobs. I filled out a thing for the city, and 400 people were there for one opening—a garbage truck driver."

Keeping the house has been Dan's only real goal since 2008, when he was laid off. It's a simple three-bedroom, two-bath in a prefab, working-class subdivision off the I-5 corridor. "I wanted my kid to grow up in a safe community," he explains. "I have always made my house payment, and I've always made it on time." But he fretted over things like gas prices. "My daughter would say, 'Can I take your truck to the store?' That's 1.2 miles, which makes it 2.4 miles round-trip. If she went there once, I would not make it to work the next day. That's how my money was. I've fought for it the past three years working two and three jobs. I've even changed my morals."

From his window, I can see the jagged outline of the Klamath range far off to the northwest. Surrounding those mountains is the Emerald Triangle: Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity counties—the heart of large-scale pot cultivation in California. In 2010, state voters  rejected a proposal to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Nevertheless, in the 15 years since they passed Proposition 215—the state's vague and permissive  medical-marijuana law—growing the drug has become more socially acceptable, local dispensaries have proliferated, and associated businesses have flourished like pilot fish on a shark. Mom-and-pop shops sell high-tech gardening gear and starter plants called clones. Pot "colleges" like Oakland's Oaksterdam University offer "quality training for the cannabis industry." An inexhaustible array of  websites tout everything from fertilizer to legal advice and grow-room insurance.

Pot prices  have plummeted in California, in part because so many of the state's  estimated 1.2 million medical-pot users now grow their own. But with a bargain-basement $1,500 pound of "Cali outdoor" fetching $5,000 or more in Eastern states, there are fortunes to be made in interstate commerce. "Between the recession and the large amount of money you can make, there is just too much money involved not to do it," Sgt. Barry Powell, head of the Shasta County Sheriff's Marijuana Eradication Team, tells me. "In Shasta County, medical-marijuana growers have tripled over the last three years. Just off our aerial flights, what we're seeing in people's backyards is unreal."