Growing Pot: The New American Economy

The very first thing you notice about Karl is the dirt under his fingernails. And after spending a short amount of time with him, you find out that he spends about 10 hours a day managing the horticulture division of a large landscaping firm, for which he's paid around $32,000. But despite his obsession -- he's always washing his hands vigorously -- his hands are perpetually dirty. In his attic Karl grows the world's most expensive cash crop, marijuana. If he wanted, in his spare time, Karl could potentially earn more than his yearly legal wage.

Karl is 25 years old, soft-spoken and polite. His speech hints at the slightest tinge of a long-forgotten southern drawl. I sit with him in a century-old Victorian home in a lower-middle class, ethnic neighborhood. The interior of the house is standard bachelor chic -- very little decoration, even less furniture.

As we sit in the living room, drinking a beer and watching television, I follow a faint pair of sirens up one block, down three more until they are virtually screaming from the window behind me. I panic, knowing that above Karl's ceilings you'll find enough marijuana to earn Karl more than a few nights in the slammer. Red and blue shadows dance on the curtains. Peeking out onto the street, I see two squad cars at the adjacent apartment complex. Two cops escort a man from his apartment, cuff him, and throw him in the back of the one of the squad cars. His wife and kids seem unfazed; they watch just long enough for the car's lights to be out of sight. Drugs? Domestic violence? I turn back to see what Karl makes of the situation. He hasn't even flinched. At no point in the last half-hour has he lost focus on the M*A*S*H rerun.

A little later, outside Karl's picture window, I glimpse his garden. In the dark, I can just make out the glow of flawlessly round tomatoes, blood red, just below me. Outside, a couple of elementary school aged kids spot me from the window. "Ask Karl if he'll come out and skate with us," they say, skateboards in hand.

"I'm finished for the day, guys," Karl says from behind me. "Come back tomorrow afternoon, though."

As the heat from the day finally wears off, Karl leads me to the bathroom of his house and points to a two-foot-by-two-foot square on the ceiling, just above the toilet. The Hole. "There it is," he says. Karl pulls out a ladder from a nearby closet, climbs it, pushes out the square and pulls himself up. I climb up behind him. Once upstairs, my eyes adjust to the darkness. Soon I'm able to make out a small shed, four feet in height, 10 feet in length and width, sitting amidst a pile of insulation. If I squint, I can just make out the dimly lit outline of a door on the side of the shed. Karl fiddles with something near the door, and soon he's crawling inside on all fours. I follow.

The very first thing I notice is that it really stinks -- like being in a pile of freshly cut grass. Everything around me is a blend of green, silver and searing white light. The walls around me shine like aluminum foil. Green foliage is everywhere, rooted in long, plastic, dirt-filled containers. A weave of extension cords and power strips line the floor. Rows of marijuana plants slump under the weight of crystallized fruit, that looks like a knit of off-green, yellow and orange fibers sprinkled with spun sugar. My first thought: Holy shit. My second: There must be thousands of dollars worth of pot up here.

This is ground zero for the New Marijuana Economy -- an economy run by productive, taxpaying citizens involved in a high-stakes game of economics, genetics and deceit. Marijuana buyers are at an all-time high; meanwhile, growers continue to improve their product, creating superior pot in a time of heightened demand. So while most of the recent discussion surrounding marijuana has been over legal reform for "casual users" or the hotly debated issue of medicinal use, somehow we've overlooked the simple fact that marijuana is now the most prized cash crop in the world. Some strains sell upwards of $500 per ounce. Many wonder if the war on drugs has made any dent in marijuana availability. Even the far right questions the logic of marijuana laws.

"An effective law diminishes, rather than increases, the number of violators who have to be arrested," writes The National Review editor and conservative icon, William F. Buckley. He cites marijuana as the best evidence of the drug war's ineptness. "There are 70 million Americans who have smoked marijuana, and about 10 million who still do so," he says. "Why aren't they in jail? Do [drug war proponents] really wish that they were in jail?"

Accounting for those who grow their own and other extremes, let's say those 10 million users spend an average of $40 per month for one-eighth of an ounce. Even by that conservative estimate, we're looking at some $4.8 billion injected into our economy. Yet, those underground sales supply no tax base to support our strained penal system.

In the United States, one criminal is jailed for every 100 violent crimes committed. Over one-half of America's convicted felons are not sentenced to prison, at least in part due to overcrowding. Most violent criminals serve less than one-half of their sentences, and as recently as 1992, the average murderer released from state prison had served only 5.9 years. In the meantime, since 1998, the U.S. has averaged 700,000 marijuana arrests per year, 80% of which are for possession. All things considered, the war on drugs is becoming increasingly hard for anyone to maintain. That's why the issue of "casual use" has come to the forefront of the pro-marijuana campaign.

"I pretty much use it everyday," says Natasha, a 24-year-old interior designer who uses marijuana to give her a "creative burst" during work and to relax her afterward. She started smoking pot at age 13 -- that's when her dad decided that she was old enough to handle a joint. By the time that she was a freshman in high school, smoking at home around her parents was "no big deal." "I smoked pot everyday at lunch break," she says.

I ask if she regrets any aspects of her longtime marijuana use. She looks at me and furrows her brow. "I got great grades in high school, stoned the whole way through it. After graduation, I worked to put myself through college. I have a great job and make a good living. What do I have to regret?"

Carol, 35, is a wife, mother of three and a manager of several employees at a mid-sized business. She tells me that she smokes pot because it lifts her periodic bouts with depression. For her, marijuana has done what numerous antidepressants never did: it makes her feel less depressed. For days after smoking pot, Carol says the effects still improve her feelings. At other times, she does it for fun, nothing else. "Last weekend," she says, "I had a couple friends over, who are just like me (demographically speaking), and we all got stoned. Then we went shopping and cooked this huge meal at my house, and just sat around all night talking and laughing."

For folks like Karl, growing is more of a hobby than flirtation with the law. "I've been growing [pot] since I was 13," he says. "My first experience? Me and some buddies just found some pot plants that some [people] planted in the woods. We each took a tiny plant and kept it as our own. Growing didn't really work the first few years, but it sure has the last 10."

"For me, it's more for fun than anything else," Karl continues. "I do it for myself -- personal enjoyment, if you will. Taking care of my plants gives me something to look forward to the next day. It's the same with any living thing that you can care for. Everything that comes along [with] growing marijuana is just bonus. I like to hook my friends up. Really, you just have to be smart. I'm fairly low-key about it, so I stay under 1,200 watts of lighting, always in a 10-by-10 space, or smaller, usually around 30 plants. Keeping it down that low is a necessity."

As we climb out of The Hole again, it takes some time for my eyes to adjust to the change in light. "I burn pretty religiously myself, and take care of a lot more [marijuana] than you'd think," he says while stuffing his glass pipe with a few pinches of bud. "But between friends, and friends of friends, and their friends, I take in anywhere between six to nine grand every three months."

As for his status as a potential felon, Karl doesn't seem too concerned. "I could give a shit," he says. "In some states, it's illegal to have oral sex. I live by my own moral framework, not someone else's."

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