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Bringing In the Harvest

California law permits the cultivation of cannabis for medical marijuana patients, but farmers who grow the quasi-legal crop are still hounded by law enforcement.
 
 
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Deep in the hills of Northern California's Mendocino County, past three locked gates and up a winding dirt road, the trimmers at Green Mountain Farm are bringing in the harvest. The marijuana plants, which stand four to seven feet tall, are garlanded with dense clusters of fragrant, seedless buds that must be carefully picked and cured before they are dampened by winter rains -- or seized by law enforcement, which has set a record by destroying well over one million marijuana plants this year.

The 50 trimmers at this clandestine grow site work 16-hour days for three weeks, hand-trimming top-grade marijuana destined for medical marijuana patients and dispensaries in San Francisco.

"It's a race against time," says Antie M, manager of the Green Mountain Farm collective, which is cultivating 280 plants for 125 patients.

Under California state law, caregivers and patients are permitted to grow marijuana for a group of patients and can be reimbursed for their expenses. In exchange for allowing the growers to post medical cannabis recommendations from patients' doctors at the grow site -- providing some degree of legal protection for the growers -- the patients receive free cannabis. Most collectives meet their expenses by selling their surplus pot to dispensaries or directly to other patients.

Each patient at this collective will receive a quarter pound of free cannabis, plus a chance to take in beautiful scenery, eat good food, and listen to live music.

While San Francisco city supervisors haggle over cultivation limits and zoning restrictions for medical cannabis dispensaries there's another reality taking place a couple hundred miles to the north. Whatever the supervisors decide, someone has to grow all the pot that gets smoked by patients in the city -- and no matter how friendly city officials are to the end product, the growers are still hounded by law enforcement.

The trim camp at Green Mountain Farm is only one of many such gatherings taking place throughout northern California this month. And this constellation of quasi-legal outdoor marijuana grow sites doesn't just cultivate exquisite medical cannabis.

The farmers who tend these plants are also creating environmentally and socially responsible cannabis farms very different from the armed, old-school, commercial marijuana plantations that feed an insatiable market but often damage the land.

An estimated 80 percent of the medical cannabis consumed in San Francisco comes from outside the city. Let's follow some of these buds as they make their way into town.

Family farm

Quietly cultivating a cannabis crop and then hosting 50 trimmers at a clandestine grow site miles from a power line requires impressive planning. Arriving blindfolded at Green Mountain Farm, I discover a comfortable camp resembling an agricultural version of a Rainbow Family gathering.

The trimmers at Green Mountain sleep in a tidy tent village and eat tasty vegetarian meals prepared by two paid cooks in a well-equipped kitchen complete with two gas ranges and two refrigerators. They take hot showers and listen to music from a laptop and iPods -- all powered by a generator running on 50-cents-a-gallon vegetable oil.

The cultivators here trucked in $30,000 worth of compost to privately owned land to ensure that their cannabis met San Francisco standards. Under California law, patients and caregiver-cultivators are allowed to grow at least 6 mature and 12 immature plants per patient unless the county or a doctor authorizes more. Mendocino County allows 100 square feet of plant canopy per patient. Antie M, who is descended from eight generations of tobacco farmers, says the lush plants in this garden meet those guidelines.

The water that sustains this crop is supplied by a well. A 10,000-gallon tank feeds the irrigation system for the garden, which grows to the edge of the kitchen. A 75-foot-long temporary structure, which serves as a trimming and drying room, stands nearby. The atmosphere in the camp is relaxed but focused. There are no alcohol, hard drugs, or weapons, and everyone must be quiet by midnight. Some people smoke cannabis while they work. The night I visit, the camp puts on a talent show. A shiatsu massage therapist is on hand for those with aching shoulders.

"We live together and work together, we sit and trim plants all day long, it is a very harmonious organization," a 56-year-old trimmer named Jojo says.

The trimmers at Green Mountain Farm range in age from 18 to 65. They are people of color, white folks, queer, straight. Antie M says he met many of the trimmers at music festivals and other gatherings. Others are simply friends. Many trimmers are patients from the collective who also get their free quarter pound. Some are not.

The trimmers are paid in cannabis, and the pay scale is set up to encourage a rapid harvest. Trimmers earn 2.5 grams of cannabis an hour for the first 100 hours, 3 grams for the next 100, and 3.5 grams per hour after that. After the first 200 hours, those who work 8 hours a day can make an ounce -- worth $400 retail -- a day. According to Antie M, 90 percent of the grow is sold to medical cannabis dispensaries. The rest goes to patients in the collective and workers: Trimmers who work hard the entire season can leave with as much as $8,000 to $10,000 worth of cannabis.

"A patient can get their entire year's supply of marijuana," Antie M says. "[With] what people earn here, they can support themselves for a year, they can live their dreams, travel."

"If you put in a long day, you can earn two ounces a day," says a sixtysomething trimmer named Sheila, who clips steadily at the bud in his hands. "Thank you, God. I came to work, and I would love to hold on to a half pound and sell the rest, maybe a pound and a half or more."

Sheila, Antie M, and many other people at Green Mountain Farm are queer men, radical fairies who say watching friends die from HIV/AIDS motivated them to become cultivators. A trimmer named Keer, who has lived with HIV for 10 years, sits quietly on the sofa inside the camp kitchen. He says he first started cultivating marijuana 15 years ago with medical cannabis pioneer Dennis Peron. Keer says Peron emphasized growing high-quality cannabis, not just quick marijuana crops designed to generate fast cash.

"When Dennis and Brownie Mary came along and started the Medical Cannabis Buyers Club in San Francisco, it felt safe, and people could get higher-quality marijuana that was not sprayed or at least organic," Keer says. "The seed they planted caused people to start educating each other, and it grew into a community and set a good example."

Community service

Not all the growers are men. Green Witch and members of her all-women's cannabis collective slip quietly into San Francisco one night, taking a break from their harvest up north. High Priestess Farm, which the collective operates, serves 24 mostly low-income women in San Francisco, who each receive six ounces of free cannabis every year.

A member of the collective, named Elf, runs three patient-support groups. She works with eight collectives, which contribute free cannabis each week and earn the money to feed at least 100 indigent San Francisco patients.

"The old-school model are drug dealers, and the new-school model are community workers and healers," Green Witch says. "Our business structure is not about a guy who is never on the land but gets a huge percentage. We share the responsibilities, the risk and profit, evenly."

Mary Jane, a 63-year-old elder in the medical cannabis community who grows for the Grandmother Farm collective, in Mendocino County, also helps supply dispensaries. Her collective provides a pound of free cannabis to patients who are often unable to grow it for themselves.

Plant yields vary wildly. Mary Jane, whose plants have been besieged by fog and rain this year, says she'll be lucky if she gets two ounces per plant.

Mary Jane says she's working with the Mendocino Branch of the Medical Marijuana Patients Union to develop LINK, a matchmaking service between cultivators and patients. "If we have a number of small collectives growing for patients, we can help prevent profiteering and make sure patients get their medicine," Mary Jane says.

While the collectives have protection under state law, all are concerned about being raided by federal authorities. The women keep their grows under 100 plants -- the cutoff for a federal five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence.

"There is a legal fund for the risk-takers, and our sister farms make sure that no matter what happens to us, our patients will get their medicine," Elf says.

The women of High Priestess Farm emphasize that they run an organic farm. Benedict, who spent five and a half months alone tending the plants at Green Mountain Farm, shares these values. And he is wary of a possible raid by law enforcement. When he first arrived, Benedict says, he was frightened of being arrested. "I'd lie awake at night completely terrified."

One day law enforcement paid a visit. Three helicopters surfaced over the ridge and circled the grow, hovering so low that Benedict says he made eye contact with the officers inside. Those officers, Benedict says, worked for CAMP, the California Department of Justice's Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, which destroyed almost 100,000 marijuana plants in Mendocino County this summer.

That time, he was in luck: They never came back.

The old world

The officers of CAMP meet at dawn for a raid in the Shasta Trinity National Forrest. CAMP is an interagency marijuana eradication task force, and there are officers here from eight law-enforcement organizations, including the National Guard. Five CAMP units, with 15 officers each, are on call around the state to support local law enforcement when they raid marijuana gardens.

The men wear camouflage and carry a variety of weapons: AK-47s, .22 rifles, .410/.22 combination guns, Colt sidearms, and M16s. There's a helicopter on site, which transports a Short Term Airborne Operations team that drops agents into marijuana grows. The helicopter has flown five days a week since May and burns a hundred gallons of fuel a day.

CAMP commander Michael Johnson says he relies on county officials to tell him whether a grow site is a posted medical marijuana garden in compliance with local cultivation limits. He says CAMP is not a threat to medical marijuana farms.

"To my knowledge, we have not been involved in one medical marijuana grow all this year," Johnson says.

As a California law-enforcement officer, Johnson says he respects state medical marijuana laws and has orders from the state attorney general's office not to step outside them.

"There is so much commercial marijuana out there, we don't have time to deal with medical marijuana," Johnson says. "We are focused on the large gardens-for-profit, and there are plenty of those to keep us busy."

Johnson says CAMP has destroyed well over a million plants this season, up from 621,000, in 2004.

Funded by the state and federal government, CAMP's 2004 budget of $1 million was increased by 30 percent this year, Johnson says. He says his unit targets multi-thousand-plant grows that are mostly on public land.

Jason Gassaway, of the Shasta County Sheriff's Department, arrives with his dog, Jet, whose job is to run down suspects fleeing from a grow. "Most of the grows are armed, so it's good for us to prevent deadly encounters," Gassaway says. "Most of the time, when they see a dog, they give up."

Johnson says three hunting parties have encountered armed growers this year. One cultivator was killed earlier this summer in a shoot-out with a Fish and Game officer, who was wounded in the exchange.

We pile into trucks, drive to a trailhead, then hike silently up a steep slope. A half mile up the hill, we see irrigation hoses and smell cannabis. I look down and see we are surrounded by marijuana plants -- or what's left of them. The entire garden, camouflaged under oak trees, has been harvested. An agent estimates the grow appears to have been several thousand plants, cut down a few weeks ago.

The plants, terraced on the hillside, appear to have been small. The stalks that remain support runty, shriveled buds. A detective on the raid says most of the marijuana on these farms is sold for $2,500 a pound out of state because it doesn't meet the standards Californians expect from their cannabis.

Kris Hermes, legal campaign director with Americans for Safe Access, a patients' rights group, says he has heard no reports this year of marijuana grows raided by CAMP. But he notes that medical cannabis growers around the state continue to be prosecuted by local, state, and federal authorities. He points to two collectives in Butte and El Dorado counties raided by local sheriffs last month. Down the hill from the harvested garden, we find what remains of the growers' camp. They've left behind their camp stove, plastic sheeting, pots and pans, and pieces of cardboard that appear to have been slept on. No snug tent village or lovingly prepared food for these farmers.

Agent Eddy, a quiet Latino man, says many of the farmers apprehended in the gardens this year come from one Mexican state.

"They come from very poor towns in Michoacn; the organizers go there and pay them a couple of thousand of dollars to come here and farm marijuana," he says. "I don't think I'd want to stay here all season and live like this."

Johnson says CAMP made 46 arrests this year, almost all Mexican field-workers. He says the grow owners are members of Mexican cartels that plant multiple large grows with the assumption that a certain percentage of them will get raided.

Hermes is skeptical about the Mexican cartel allegation, which, he says, is an attempt to draw public support away from marijuana growers. He says this account is similar to a claim put forth by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) that a group of San Francisco dispensary owners raided this summer were members of an Asian mafia.

"Law enforcement loves to issue sensational statements grabbing the public attention and providing a favorable environment to justify their harsh reactions to marijuana cultivation and distribution," Hermes says.

But CAMP officers are just as sincere about the righteousness of their cause as the medical cannabis growers are about theirs. Many agents point to the environmental damage done by commercial grows, and it's clear this grow site was no environmentally sensitive cannabis farm. We see bags of nitrogen fertilizer, rat poison, and malathion pesticide, which the agents say leaches into the local water supply. The hillside and the growers' camp are strewn with trash.

When we descend the hill, I ask Agent Jeff Wallace if he thinks the environmental damage from grows on public land would be eliminated if marijuana could be cultivated openly. "I wouldn't agree with that argument," he says. "It's still a gateway drug for meth or cocaine; I wouldn't want my kids out there recreationally smoking marijuana."

Johnson argues it would be too difficult to control the quality of legal marijuana, and public land provides rent-free, cheap, well-hidden grow sites. "People grow marijuana freely in Mendocino," Johnson says. "But there are still hundreds of illegal gardens. Why would legalization stop that if there is a market and money to be made growing it?"

Sheila, the trimmer at Green Mountain Farm, disagrees, pointing out that large marijuana grows are still illegal. "The laws that were created force people to be clandestine," Sheila says. "They have created a problem for themselves; it is a way to keep busy."

The trim continues

Meanwhile, back at Green Mountain Farm, the trimmers work with quiet intensity harvesting Trainwreck, Grand Daddy Purple, New York City Diesel, Super Kush, and other cannabis strains grown at the site.

Each carefully numbered plant is first chopped at the base with pruning shears, and the branches are cut off with buds intact. The branches are trimmed and brought to the fanners, who cut off the larger outer leaves with two patented Canadian TrimPro machines that look like giant fans inside a metal mesh cage.

The roughly trimmed stalks are carried over to hand trimmers, who sit among the plants on a sunny ridge. Using tiny scissors, the trimmers carefully shape the buds. The trim is gathered in cardboard boxes on their laps and sent to trim racks, where it is dried and used to make hash or marijuana edibles.

After manicuring, the stalks are walked over to the dry room, kept at a constant 50 to 60 percent humidity with the help of a humidifier, a dehumidifier, an air conditioner, and a swamp cooler. The buds are dried for 10 days before being snipped off the stalks and bagged.

Antie M says his intention for Green Mountain Farm is that it be a place of healing where people can ease off alcohol, hard drugs, and turbulence in their lives. A handsome young trimmer named Travis Wade, who says he used cannabis to kick a methamphetamine habit, says living on the land is strengthening his body. A trimmer named Shockra, who fled his damaged house in New Orleans and refugee camps, says the money he makes trimming will help him start a new life.

"Creating community is a major driving factor in bringing this all together," says Antie M, who arranged for a six-piece band to play all last weekend at his trim camp. "I want it to be an incredible experience for people."

I ask Antie M if he's worried about getting busted. He says two of his grows were raided in previous years by county authorities who seized the crop but declined to press charges. He says he has learned to plant smaller grows and has no animosity toward law enforcement.

"If they really want me, they can come and get me, but I am really trying to play by the rules," Antie M says after dinner at Forrest Farm, a smaller 100-plant grow he also manages. "It will be interesting to see what happens between now and Halloween."

The risk

Up in Lake County, California, Eddy Lepp's collective openly cultivated the largest-known medical cannabis crop -- 32,000 plants -- and was busted by the DEA. He's now in federal court pleading a religious defense, because federal law does not allow him a medical defense. If convicted, he could serve life in prison.

Phil and Bobby, the cultivators at the Oak Tree Farm collective, in Lake County, are keeping a close watch on their grow. To prevent potentially losing their entire crop to law enforcement, they grew a second, early harvest in their greenhouse, forcing the buds to mature early using light-deprivation techniques.

The two growers have also banded with other small cannabis farms to create an insurance fund that would partially reimburse a farm that gets raided or suffers crop failure.

But these cultivators say one of their greatest concerns is simply being robbed. "The biggest risk is our neighbors," says Bobby, who says two men jumped the fence in the middle of last year's harvest and demanded a payoff. "Someone was going around with a map of the farms last year strong-arming people."

"You can call the local authorities and have them come out and support you and just hope that they don't turn you over to the feds," Phil says.

Back in San Francisco, Hector is also worried about federal agents. His 350-plant indoor grow, which produces about two ounces per plant, supplies a 12-member patient collective, two dispensaries, and an AIDS hospice. Over the past year, Hector says, more of San Francisco's medical cannabis is coming in from outside the city because it's become perilous and costly to grow in town. "I am concerned about the San Francisco Police Department kicking in the door because of their past cooperation with federal officials," he says.

San Francisco's proposed dispensary regulations offer no specific protections for grow collectives. City supervisors are debating cultivation limits. The regulations attempt to protect dispensaries under state law by defining them as "any association, cooperative or collective of ten more qualified patients or primary caregivers that facilitates the lawful distribution of medical cannabis."

Some dispensaries have become grow collectives to comply with the law. But Hector says his collective, which does not run a retail operation, has no intention of registering with the city and revealing the location of its grow. To do so would be too dangerous and expensive. "We are not going to pay $7,000 in permitting fees to give away free marijuana to hospices," Hector says.

On the road

Antie M still has to get his cannabis into the city. We load up his vehicle with several pounds of dried, manicured bud and head into San Francisco. "I've got some Trainwreck," he says on the phone to a dispensary manager. "It's very sparkly."

State law allows eight ounces of medical cannabis to be transported for each patient but doesn't explicitly permit sales to dispensaries. Each county has different limits and interpretations by law enforcement. They could seize the cannabis and arrest us.

Antie M asks me to keep an eye on the speedometer. He says he learned to abide by motor vehicle laws after he was stopped once for running a stop sign with two pounds of pot in the car. We drive like model citizens. I watch for police. Near San Francisco City Hall, we get stuck in heavy traffic. As we approach the dispensary, I ask Antie M please not to make an illegal left-hand turn.

We arrive without incident, park legally, and walk into a dispensary. It's evening, and the place is almost empty. We sit behind the counter, and Antie M and the clerk look at the cannabis under the microscope. It shows no sign of rot or pests and shimmers with droplets of resin. "Beautiful job; well done," the clerk says. The room is pungent. Purchasers come and go. A patient asks for Trainwreck and is told they'll have it soon. It takes Antie M almost an hour to find a scale large enough to weigh his cannabis; the triple beam scale is too small. We finally find a larger scale to weigh the crop. The buds weigh eight and a half pounds.

Antie M agrees to a price of $3,600 a pound. He is pleased to discover that while most of his plants yield an average of one and three quarter pounds of buds, he has just sold a plant that yielded almost three pounds.

He steps into an enclosed alleyway behind the dispensary and loads the transparent bags of cannabis into a bucket. The dispensary owner pulls the bucket up to his second floor office and sends down $5,000 in cash. The rest of the cannabis will be sold on consignment.

Antie M puts the cash in a bag and heads back up to Green Mountain Farm, where the harvest continues.

Ann Harrison ( ah@well.com) is a San Francisco-based science and technology reporter. This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian.