Snapshot of a grower

For one local farmer, pot is part hobby, part public service.

AMONG THE THOUSANDS of Americans who grow marijuana for sale, the man I'll call Kevin is probably pretty typical. He hasn't gotten rich, but once you've got growing marijuana down to a system, seven or eight crops a year provide a nice cushion for a man like Kevin, with a low-paying day job, kids to raise, and bills to pay.

If, like him, you also have a green thumb and an interest in experimental botany (not to mention a personal fondness for the weed), it's about the perfect combination of small business and hobby, with a constant whiff of danger to spice the routine.

Kevin started like most growers, raising a few plants for himself and friends using cuttings provided by another grower. It was a good strain when he got it, and over the years he's refined it through judicious breeding with other lines.

In his first 10 years or so of serious cultivation, Kevin produced only small quantities of pot for sale: enough to bring in around $20,000 a year at current prices. More recently he's expanded, so now the take is more like $50,000 to $60,000 a year: about as much as a stand-alone grower-marketer can distribute without undue risk and hardship.

Kevin raises his crop in his home in a nondescript semirural area near Seattle. The neighborhood is neither so populous as to provide nosy next-door neighbors nor so remote that business generates traffic noticeable above normal background levels. It's an ordinary house with a few unobtrusive modifications to facilitate farming while avoiding notice: nothing a weekend handyman with plenty of time couldn't accomplish.

The most ticklish aspect of commercial pot growing is managing power consumption. Fluorescent grow lights don't consume a lot of electricity, but when you double or quadruple your indoor acreage, it's going to show up big-time on your bill. But if your house was all electric when you bought it, a judicious use of alternative energy sources lets you shift juice from space heating to pot growing without any suspicious blips in the light bill.

Over the years, Kevin's business has expanded from stand-alone farming to franchising, providing new growers with cuttings and expertise, sometimes in exchange for cash, more often for a percentage of the first crop. But the business is still pretty much home-based: Potting up established cuttings grown in their own special room, maintaining the desired temperature and humidity, pruning large leaves, pinching for bushiness, and waiting 40-odd days until the flower buds are sticky and glittering with crystalline smoke-stuff. Then it's time to have a few friends over to help with the harvest.

These days, it's only the thumbnail-sized buds which have any commercial potential, retailing for around $45 for an eighth of an ounce. Leaves, which made up the bulk of a kilo of Mexican dirt-weed in the old days, are more a recycling problem than a profit center.

Kevin is not obsessive about security, but he's not careless, either. Most of his customers are close friends. The biggest risk to his operation is probably not the law but the lawless. He's been robbed in the past when someone in his circle indiscreetly boasted to the wrong people about their acquaintance with a pot farmer. At least once, fearful of such incidents, he shut down his operation.

Why did he start up again? Partly because the extra income does come in handy, partly to keep his own stash topped up—but also because he believes he's performing a public service. A number of his customers use his product medically, to increase appetite, kill pain, stave off nausea.

But as far as Kevin's concerned, they aren't the only ones who benefit. For him, marijuana has always had the nature of a sacrament—something that aids spiritual exploration as well as reconfirms the social bond with friends and loved ones.

Under the law, Kevin is a dangerous felon. Even he sometimes wonders how he's been able to operate for so long with impunity; surely after all these years, They must have their eye on him? It's a disquieting thought—but not disquieting enough to make him pull the plug on his operation. Maybe someday—when the kids are grown, when it's time to retire—he'll consider becoming a humble customer rather than a source. But not just yet.

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