Monday, December 28, 2009

Pot town USA

By By Peter Hecht, McClatchy Newspapers

Saturday, December 26, 2009

ARCATA, Calif. — Stephen Gasparas was destined for this fog-chilled,
redwood-shrouded coast — America's most renowned region for
legal cultivation of marijuana.

He started growing skunky-smelling pot as a young man, in the closet of
his mother's suburban Chicago home. Later he visited cannabis fields
in India. Ultimately, he shared spiritual puffs at a gathering of the
famous moveable commune, the Rainbow Family, where a grizzled hippie
told him Humboldt "is the place you ought to be."

Today, Gasparas, 39, is a medical marijuana entrepreneur operating
legally in Humboldt County. He has moved from cultivating pot for
personal use to heading a cannabis growing and buying collective he says
has served 4,000 medical marijuana users.

Humboldt County — and in particular the college town of Arcata —
has become an epicenter for political and legal debate over the
unintended consequences of Proposition 215, California's
"Compassionate Use Act" for marijuana.

Since passage of the act in 1996, medical marijuana users have streamed
into this county, a liberal and libertarian bastion that decades ago
began attracting pot growers.

Their now-legitimate business — aided, legal experts say, by
Proposition 215's vagueness on personal pot-use limits — has
turned a so-called crop of compassion into a lucrative industry.

With the most wide-open cultivation policy in California, Humboldt
County allows individual growers of medical marijuana three annual
indoor harvests of 100 square feet, 99 plants and up to 3 pounds of
dried marijuana at any one time.

In 2003, the state Legislature approved restrictions that limited
medical marijuana users to six mature or 12 immature plants and 8 ounces
of pot at one time. But the law allowed local governments to approve
looser limits.

So in Humboldt, medical pot users converted small town houses into
growing factories — and bountiful earnings from sales to patient
collectives and pot dispensaries across California.

In a North Coast "Kush" rush, local outfitters such as Humboldt
Hydroponics in Arcata stack shelves with growing trays, high-intensity
lights and plant nutrients called "Big Bud," "Bud Candy"
and "Voodoo Juice."

Pot production — from nurseries that provide irrigation and growing
supplies to dispensaries that generate sales tax — is a mainstay of
the local economy.

"I would say that in 99 percent of cases, people growing medical
marijuana are growing it for profit," said Humboldt Sheriff's
Sgt. Wayne Hanson, who specializes in narcotics enforcement.

"It is the source of income for the county of Humboldt. Nobody wants
to say that," he added. "But there is no logging here anymore.
Fishing is sporadic. And people make their living growing

Under California law, anyone with a doctor's recommendation for
medical marijuana can join a patient cooperative and get compensated for
providing the network with pot for its members.

But few envisioned the burgeoning industry that has taken root in
Humboldt, where medical marijuana users are marketing their excess
plants to cannabis cooperatives and dispensaries hundreds of miles away.

"Many growers are exploiting vagueness in the medical marijuana laws
and will continue to do so until the law is clarified," said state
Deputy Attorney General Peter Krause.

State law permits nonprofit cooperatives, such as the Humboldt Patient
Resource Center in Arcata, to grow medicine for members.

In a fragrant room where he tends plants for hundreds of patients,
gardener Kevin Jodrey shows off pot "cultivars" like a winemaker
touting prize-winning varietals.

Hazy laws

California's cultivation laws are hazier when it comes to some of
the other medical marijuana operations sprouting in Humboldt.
Authorities and growers alike report instances in which as many as a
half-dozen medical marijuana users join together to grow hundreds of
plants in a single home. They dry and package exotic marijuana strains
they sell directly to multiple dispensaries and networks in Los Angeles
and other major California cities.

Krause said state law is unclear whether "collectives in urban areas
can have remote members in distant counties whose only job is to grow
the medicine."

Besides legal growing, Sgt. Hanson said, Humboldt authorities confront
illegal operations, including grow houses that vastly exceed plant
limits and have little to do with medical use. He said local growers are
also victimized in pot-seeking home invasions.

Even in Humboldt County, marijuana tolerance has its limits. The city of
Arcata got fed up with stench-filled pot houses disrupting neighborhoods
and creating fire risks with 1,000-watt grow lamps and dangerous wiring.

Last year, it restricted medical pot growers to 50 square feet of
growing space — still more than most everywhere else in California
— and set limits on electricity use. The county is considering a
similar policy.

Randy Mendosa, Arcata's police chief and acting city manager, said
the town is sick of its notoriety. America's Arts & Entertainment
network recently dubbed Arcata "Pot Town, USA," and its cannabis
culture drew coverage from the Sunday Telegraph in London.

"We have been over-saturated with this," Mendosa said.
"It's becoming damaging to the community. We just don't want
to be the national `spokescity' for marijuana."

Even Gasparas was shocked by the pot prevalence when he came to Humboldt
in 2004.

"I didn't know there was a waterfall of weed," he said.

Gasparas' iCenter medical marijuana collective now operates
dispensaries in the Humboldt County towns of Arcata and Mill Creek, as
well as Redding in Shasta County. He says the nonprofit network pays him
a "compassionate" salary of over $100,000 a year.

In Arcata, The Humboldt Cooperative — a nonprofit known locally as
"THC," the medicinal compound in cannabis — pays $3,200 a
pound to its network of up to 150 medical pot growers.

"We're a paradox. We're a legal business in an illegal
world," said THC director Dennis "Tony" Turner, whose
cooperative has provided pot to 8,500 California patients since its
inception in 2003.

Turner figures the collective pays its growers between $35 and $60 an
hour, depending on whether they are "journeyman-level"
cultivators or supervising floricultural technicians who ensure that the
medicine flowers without toxic materials or pesticides.

"Not everyone can grow medical weed," Turner said.

But the pot-grower market may be expanding soon. Last year, a state
appellate court threw out restrictive plant limits for pot patients that
are standard in most California counties. If the state Supreme Court
upholds the ruling in a decision due in February, Humboldt-style medical
cannabis harvests could become more common elsewhere.

Humboldt medical growers watch anxiously as signature gatherers
circulate petitions for four 2010 ballot measures seeking to legalize
marijuana for all adults.

Gasparas fears legalization could replace Humboldt's medical growers
with big agribusiness and low-grade "factory bud" that
diminishes the "spiritual experience."

But Turner is setting up a computerized "virtual grow room" to
organize his Humboldt cultivators to compete in a fully legal pot

"The people who do this legally are good people," he said.
"We don't want to be outlaws. We want to be survivors. ... We
want to avoid seeing our local economy go into the toilet."

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