How Times Have Changed: When a Marijuana Farmer Cried Out, 'Thank God, the Police!'

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Doug Fine's latest book, Too High to Fail: Cannabis and the New Green Economic Revolution.

Late on the afternoon on a windy (and the blusteriness is important) summer Sunday in 2010, Mendocino County, California, deputies under the command of twice-elected sheriff Tom Allman were dispatched to a Redwood Valley farm, about 20 minutes from the county hub and two-sushi-bar city of Ukiah. According to the dispatcher, a burglar alarm had gone off— one of those jobs where the alarm company calls the authorities. It turned out the alarm’s red laser sensors were protecting a fairly fragrant one-acre, 99-plant cannabis crop. The two deputies responding to the call parked beside a three-story flag pole that was displaying what can fairly be called superlatively patriotic (in fact, sheet-size) versions of both the Stars and Stripes and the California state flag. There they were met by the farm’s chamber of commerce member owner, 33-year-old Matt Cohen, and all three proceeded to his no-longer-beeping field, which also happened to be just past his medical cannabis cooperative’s processing room.

Other than that, though, the farm looked like it could have been owned by a Reaganite, or perhaps a fairly meticulous graduate of the local 4-H Club. Sure, there was the overwhelming, unmistakable, and locally ubiquitous eau de cannabis. But you can’t breathe in Mendocino County without that. There was a Farm Bureau Member sign affixed to the farm’s front gate. There were even a couple of friendly goats. The grounds were immaculate, and the lettuce was leafing out in the front vegetable garden.

One of the deputies at the alarm sensor powwow noticed the nearby “9. 31” registration permit issued by his own department hanging rather nicely framed on the processing room wall. Chapter 9. 31 is the county land- use ordinance that created the functionally named Zip- Tie Program that bands every registered cannabis plant in the county in a bright yellow anklet. For a total annual cost to the farmer of about $8,500.

These zip ties, in turn, allow Cohen’s not-for-profit, Internet-based cannabis delivery cooperative, called Northstone Organics, to grow the 99 plants (worth close to a million dollars in the down buyer’s market of 2010), as far as the County of Mendocino was concerned. The peace officers could also see the chamber of commerce member-in-good-standing certificate posted next to the cannabis cultivation permit.

So the deputy in charge did what he does when checking up on any law-abiding citizen: He asked Cohen if everything was all right, learned that the buzzer had been a wind-tripped false alarm (no one was trying to burgle the crop this day, though it happens*), wished him a good evening, and departed, presumably feeling a sense of a job well done. Oh, and then the same thing happened again three weeks later. With the same result.

Today, the aboveground and locally legal cannabis cultivators of Mendocino County think of those alarm bells roughly the way the denizens of Philadelphia treated the peals of the Liberty Bell in 1775. Because not only had local law enforcement fundamentally (and seemingly impossibly) reversed its stance on the Drug War (even the current sheriff had busted 9. 31 permittees in the past, be fore the ordinance), but also the 9. 31 badge could be used as a valuable marketing tool for, say, Bay Area cannabis dispensaries eager to find a legal, sustainably grown source for their cannabis medicine supplies. In other words, 9. 31 could serve as a high- end brand. Like Cristal, or “Cuban seed.” But fairly traded. 9. 31. Remember that number. We’re going to be hearing a lot about it in these pages.

At least in Mendocino County, Matt Cohen was as above-ground as the hardware store owner or the vintner, and thus was protected from “rippers” (as cannabis thieves are known) by the law enforcement professionals he funded—“as I should be,” he maintained in one of our first conversations, sounding like a conservative great uncle.

“We’re growing the best quality, sustainably grown medicine in the world,” Cohen told me. “Why is that something to hide at a chamber of commerce meeting? People like me are the businesspeople helping America remain competitive in the world economy.”

The overall professional and cultural soundtrack of the county, in other words, is no longer “I Fought the Law” but “All Together Now.”

If you can accept the lucrative internal logic in that rarified space, then you realize that of course the Sheriff’s Department comes to check that everything’s copacetic with Cohen.

They were explicitly on the same side, you see, Cohen and the deputies and the chamber of commerce— even if this last organization didn’t know it yet: promoting a high-end, regulated, Mendocino County-branded cannabis industry.

Now, that might not be what Sheriff Tom will publicly tell you. He’s a law enforcer, not an economic booster. And, as he reminded me more than once, he has other sheriffs calling to ask about the 9. 31 Program. His spin has to emphasize law and order.

So his soundbites generally stick to the “I’m just following the law, whether I like it or not” line. Or the “I’m trying to keep my deputies out in the field, tackling this county’s real problems” argument. Or, at most, the populist “I’m giving legitimate medical marijuana growers the opportunity to comply with the law— but I’m not going to stand for punks coming up here to pollute our county and make an easy million” Rambo take.

To someone who grew up in the Just Say No era, by contrast, in fact in an East Coast suburb where you’re still, today, probably going downtown for a joint and might lose your kids, the Mendocino County situation that would allow such a cannabis/ law enforcement partnership immediately struck me as astonishing and important. The landmark Zip-Tie permitting experiment thus forms the narrative backdrop as I examine the potential for a legal nationwide cannabis economy to replace the massive, current largely illegal one. I conducted this examinaton by following a single plant over nine months from birth (that is, not from seed but from mother-plant clone cutting) to patient.

And that final medical destination was something I tried to keep firmly in mind over the course of the 2011 growing season. This was not always easy, since it sure takes a long time and a borderline excessive amount of work to get it there. But I knew it was crucial to remember that the entire raison d’être for the Mendocino cannabis industry as it existed in 2011 was to help people who use the plant as part of their medical treatment. That’s what state law demanded.

It’s important to understand, though, and the venture capitalists who are watching the industry very closely do understand, that the model on which I focus is mappable to other uses for cannabis:

Other parts of the country might similarly benefit by growing cannabis as part of a domestic textile or food production resurgence, or for a domestic fuel source. Industrial varieties can also be useful in the building-supply, cosmetics and paint industry. But in the famous Emerald Triangle region of Northern California I studied, the cannabis varieties grown are, well, potent. Even beyond medical limitations, farmers in Mendocino County, that charging front edge of the cannabis Green Rush, that first American county to fully end the Drug War, can (for now) only aspire to be legal if adhering to what the California courts (if not the governing cannabis legislation) seem to be shaping as a “not-for-profit collectively cultivated medicine by-and-for patients” model. Some other medical cannabis states, like Colorado, currently run a state-regulated for-profit model.

So, “medical” it is in Mendocino County in 2011. Even if you believe, wrongly, that the whole idea of medical cannabis is a load of bunk, that is frankly irrelevant, from a “bailing out bankrupt governmental coffers at all levels from the federal to the local” perspective. In fact, the fellow whose department benefits from the proceeds of the Zip-Tie Program, the very fellow evangelizing Ordinance 9. 31 in neighboring counties and states, more or less agrees with you.

The first time I met with Sheriff Allman, in his office full of valor citations and flanked in the hallway by framed photos of every other county sheriff since Mendocino’s 1850 incorporation, he told me that, in his view, “maybe five percent” of medical cannabis claims were legit.

That’s his view, not the law’s: The wording of California’s successful 1996 Proposition 215 ballot initiative allows for medical use of cannabis to treat “any . . . illness for which marijuana provides relief.” Some other state programs are much more restrictive— in cases like New Jersey and New Mexico perhaps too much so, as a glance at the body of medical research indicates.

During our second interview, Sheriff Tom (it’s an informal county) said something telling while giving me what I had learned is the standard honest law enforcer’s line about how much he’d rather get a call that involves someone using cannabis than an alcoholrelated one, let alone one involving cocaine, meth, or prescription drug abuse. I think the way he phrased it was “I’ve never seen a stoned man beat his wife— he generally just plays video games.” With those words, a thought occurred to me. I asked him if that might be considered effective medicinal use and therefore bump up his 5 percent legitimate use estimate.

“What?” he asked. “Playing video games?”

“Cannabis— what would you call it?—mitigating potentially violent tendencies in, say, an undiagnosed chronically depressed person.”

“OK, maybe 20 percent,” the sheriff amended curtly but with typical good humor.

Tom Allman likes his job. Our third interview had to be delayed 20 minutes while he cradled office and cell phones and resolved a violent dispute at a local indigenous casino. Then he clapped his hands once, apologized, sat down, and said, “Where were we?” In 1984, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that allowing VCRs to record programming did not in itself violate the federal Copyright Act of 1976 unless the copied material was used for a “commercial or profit-making purpose.” In other words, even if huge numbers of people didn’t use the devices legally (you know, without the express written consent of Major League Baseball or HBO), those who did still had a right to own them. The ruling is widely considered to have launched the multibillion-dollar home entertainment revolution that today brings us, for better or for worse, Ishtar via instant download from nearly any spot on Earth. 

Similarly, with cannabis, I discovered that assertions that many essentially “healthy” people (baseball-game tapers, in the VCR example) were obtaining doctor referrals for cannabis is irrelevant. For one thing, if production of the plant we’re discussing becomes legal for broader uses, from housing insulation to poison-ivy tincture to Middle East dispute resolution, you can just add on a few zeros to the billions in value you’ll see it already generates within the confi nes of its medicinal designation. So that’s just an additional upside. For another, even within that medical realm, all I needed was one Carl Reid to know that medical cannabis brings people genuine relief that they can’t find elsewhere. If those who use it “just” for stress relief tag along with that, it’s a small price to pay. Totally worth it. Here’s why:

Carl being a New Mexico friend, I knew his long medical story before I embarked on my research for this book. The most recent chapter concerned his difficult, yearlong saga getting access to reliable cannabis in the Land of Enchantment even after his Veterans Administration doctor acknowledged it was a wise course.

A 63-year-old Vietnam veteran with a titanium pin in his back, Carl is not faking his pain. I was introduced to him by a mutual friend in 2009, when we went for a hike. About a mile in, I heard a heart-rending groan and saw on Carl’s face a harrowing scrunched-like-a-dried-apple expression. He was just trying to stand up following a water break under the shade of some yuccas. I guess I kind of leapt skyward in surprise.

“Sorry ’bout that,” he apologized. “Gotta keep movin’ or things start cramping up in the ol’ spine.”

Ours was a short, flat hike that day, and Carl’s gait was best described as “hobbled.” Though he didn’t complain a bit about the pace or the heat or the rattlesnakes, he did later tell me he was “on his ass” for a week afterward. This is a guy who spent much of his working life after the military as a railroad engineer, and who didn’t consider a day started until he was outside.

Carl hurts. A lot. Always. For three excruciating decades now. He remembers the 110-pound pack “in the jungle” that did it— the first “click” that progressed by stages and finally caused his back to “give out” during an ice-cream-churning incident several years after he left Vietnam. This started a series of taxpayer-funded surgeries, each designed, Carl says, “to remedy the damage caused by the previous one.”

Later that same day after our hike, I praised one of Carl’s truly incredible turned wooden bowls that I saw in a display case at our mutual friend’s house. He managed to make the grain almost a narrative part of the piece.

“You take commissions?” I asked.

“Afraid those days’re behind me, my friend,” Carl said. “I can’t stand up long enough anymore to work at my lathe.”

Having maxed out on the quite legal Vicodin, to which he considered himself dependent even though “it wasn’t helping anymore,” Carl spent much of 2010 trying to do something he never imagined he would: become a part of New Mexico’s fledgling medicinal cannabis program. He’d heard about its anti-inflammatory benefits for injuries such as his, and he’d been informally experimenting on a black market supply of the plant. He’d heard the clinical benefits, in fact, from his doctor.

One problem was, he said, that “my VA doc knew cannabis could help, but she couldn’t sanction it. She’s federal.” (In December 2010, the biotech company Cannabis Science, Inc., announced that it had formed a Military Advisory Board, which, according to the company press release, “will help identify and develop actionable policies to help ease the burden on veterans serving with debilitating injuries and illnesses. The board will provide an institutionalized conduit for the evolving concerns of military veterans to be brought to the attention of senior policymakers and the public.”)

Fast-forward through a year of bureaucratic-labyrinth wandering and $200 in out-of-pocket doctors’ fees from multiple “nonfederal” caregivers— when it started, New Mexico’s was not one of the easier programs to join. I called Carl in mid-2011 to assess his progress. He’d been accepted in the New Mexico program, and was using a home-delivered oral tincture of cannabis-infused olive oil, which he administered sublabially (under his tongue) in a 30-milligram dose twice a day.

Actually, I had to wait a week to speak with him, because when I first called he was away on a week-long backcountry horseback trip.

“I was on a horse for the first time in a dozen years— and it’s monsoon wildflower season,” he told me in a tone that sounded like a much younger man than the fellow I remembered hearing groan more than a year earlier. “It was phenomenal. It was a dream I didn’t dare to have.”

And it was federally felonious. Not that Carl gave the Federal Scheduling Quagmire much of a thought. He was feeling too good.

“I feel the most mobile I can remember feeling in 30 years,” he gushed. “It’s such a huge pain reducer. And even if it wan’t (Carl drops the s in words like wasn’t), if it just got me off the Vicodin, then I’d be ahead of the game. But it’s done more’n that. It’s given me my life back.”

“Should I ask? Should I ask?” I wondered. Horseback-riding was impressive enough— I knew that after his combat posting Carl had served in a ceremonial calvary unit, and missed it. Maybe that was enough. Ah, heck, I asked anyway.

“So, are you taking bowl commissions?”

“I’m looking to rent studio space downtown with some good natural light,” he said, referring to the Yankee Street artsy section of his hometown of Silver City. “Better ambiance with all those other studios around. When you came back, maybe you can help me move my lathe. There might be something in it for you.”


*Footnote: A farmer I followed in 2011 named George Fredericks heard the gunshots from a lethal garden grab gone bad on a nearby ranch in 2010. To even mention such rare incidents in an era where meth and alcohol violence is a daily occurrence is to overemphasize it significantly. Still, it happens about once per year in Mendocino County, explicitly because the plant is illegal. And while any violence is deplorable, unacceptable, and cause for reflection, it is worth asking what other multibillion-dollar business claimed one life or fewer in the past year. While you’ve read this footnote, someone has been killed or injured in an alcohol-related motor vehicle accident and by the time you finish this chapter someone will have died from a prescription drug.

 When it comes to the safety of living with my family in Mendocino County for a year, I think it’s worth noting that I left my keys in my truck throughout my county tenure and never locked my cabin.  It’s one of those places where wallets get returned by Good Samaritans calling the radio station. In fact, Mendocino County has low enough crime to ensure that when there is the annual cannabis-related violent incident, media can trot out the ex-logger curmudgeon for the reliable "this used to be a nice place to raise kids" quote. Guess what? It still is an extraordinarily great place to raise kids. When I took my late-afternoon writing break each day, my oldest darted ahead of me to the nearby creekside park to play with whatever new or old friends were there.

Copyright Gotham Books, 2012 -- All rights reserved. This excerpt has been published with permission from the author.


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