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I Thought My Suburban Pot Secret Was Safe ... Then the DEA Crackdowns Started

A journalist dives into understanding medical marijuana laws by growing some pot himself.

It was sometime around 2 a.m. when I heard the car doors slam. I live on a very quiet street in Fort Collins, Colo., surrounded by working families who are usually falling asleep under the blue glow of their TVs by 10 p.m., and any noise in the night usually means that something is about to happen. And on that night I was certain it was about to happen to me.

Six marijuana plants were growing in my basement and because of shortsighted planning on my part, their odor had gotten completely out of control. Having never grown pot before, I foolishly overlooked the prominent admonitions printed in every growing guide I relied upon to help me with my harvest, that odor control was of the utmost importance. But equipment designed to mask the smell (ozone generators, activated carbon filters) is expensive. How much stench could six little plants really produce? I remember thinking. Well, a lot.

As I lay there in bed night after night praying that sealed doors and windows would at least contain the eau de cannabis indoors and not alert the neighbors to what I was up to, I inevitably questioned my wisdom. I’m not a drug dealer or suffering from some crippling illness. I don’t even smoke marijuana for fun; if I did, I’d at least have a better excuse for subjecting not only myself but my wife and son to the stress of running a clandestine suburban marijuana farm.

I’m just an author whose idea to research and write about medical marijuana laws and the legalization debate through hands-on experience seemed damned near genius when I concocted it in late 2009, while watching an episode of  “Weeds.” That looks subversively fun, I thought. And profitable. And hey, I live in Colorado, one of what was at the time 13 states to approve medical marijuana use. Writing about this law and all of its attendant controversies — is it just a ploy by clever potheads to give legal cover to perfectly healthy stoners, or was there something to the whole medical benefits argument? — through complete immersion was a no-brainer. I’d be the  A.J. Jacobs of pot and have far more fun than he had: Would you rather try to abide by the dictates of the Bible for a year or grow some weed and try to abide by your state’s medical marijuana laws?

Diving into the deep end of a subject is nothing new for me, even if it means breaking the law. I once tried to smuggle a diamond out of West Africa while researching diamond smuggling for “Blood Diamonds” (the rough diamond I bought on the black market in Freetown, it turned out, was a fake, but I didn’t know that until I got to the United States). I learned how to pick locks for “Flawless,” a book about a diamond heist, and I even snuck myself into the vault that was robbed so I could see what it was like. Compared to those minor crimes committed in my dedication to research, what was growing a little pot?

A lot more than I’d bargained for, as it turned out. First of all, it’s no minor crime. It’s a federal felony to grow even a single marijuana plant, with a minimum fine of $250,000 and a minimum five-year prison sentence. This is true whether you’re growing to alleviate the symptoms of chemotherapy, to get stoned watching “South Park” or for journalistic research. I knew this going in, of course, and figured that with so many people growing marijuana in Colorado at the time — in late 2009, in the wake of the Ogden memo, which signaled that the feds were going to leave state-sanctioned medical marijuana users and their suppliers alone, you were hard-pressed to find someone who wasn’t at least considering the idea — there would be safety in numbers.

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