Each day, 2 million Americans smoke marijuana, among them many thousands of Seattleites. And, according to sources in the pot community, those Seattleites aren't smoking B.C. bud, at least not to the degree they were a few years ago, despite press accounts and law-enforcement claims that what's harvested in British Columbia one day hits the streets of Seattle the next.
Instead, it's locally grown weed that's eroding the market share of the much-hyped, supposedly highly potent Canadian cannabis. There's a simple reason for this.
"B.C. bud sucks," says a grower who agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity. "It's dry, there are no [THC] crystals on it, it doesn't smell good, and you have to smoke it every 15 minutes to stay high. Now, if I open a bag of my stuff in the next room, you'll know it. And you only have to smoke it maybe once an hour."
What he means is that Washington weed is the "kine," the Bordeaux of bud, while B.C. bud has become the equivalent of a quart of Ripple.
His account is largely supported by conversations with other growers, marijuana activists, and casual users. In fact, many in the local pot community say that a kind of Fertile Crescent has sprouted up around Seattle, one that supplies upward of 50 percent of the pot consumed here. Noted pot-growing appellations around the region include the Olympic Peninsula and Bremerton, as well as Seattle proper.
WHEN I LEARNED of this phenomenon several months ago, I set out to report on the work of growers. Their farming is illegal, to be sure, but it produces a product that many in the area prize. All the same, even the most casual of growers refused to talk. Over time, however, I was able to convince a couple of local growers to discuss their craft at length. In exchange for their honesty on a subject that only rarely makes its way into print, Seattle Weekly agreed to withhold their names, descriptions, and personal details of their lives. In both cases, I was able to verify the identities of the growers.
So how do they do it?
"You'll never find two growers that do everything the same," says one grower, who adds that he knows of at least 20 others who actively grow marijuana in Washington. He says that growing pot is easy. It is, after all, a plant.
What emerged from discussions with the growers is that, in many respects, growing good pot is quite similar to producing fine wine. Much as many Northwest vintners follow low-yield growing practices (fewer grape bunches on a vine result in a more flavorful wine), pot growers purposely clip buds early in a plant's growth cycle to focus the plant's energy (and THC production) on a select number of buds.
Many area growers set up grow rooms in the basements of homes they rent in urban areas. In more rural areas, growers often use outbuildings. Either way, most growers limit production to fewer than 100 plantsthe result of a largely mistaken belief in the grower community that law enforcement won't prosecute smaller grows. The grow rooms are typically 250 square feet in size and can accommodate separate "veg" and "bloom" rooms. The veg room is where the plants do their initial growth; its walls are either lined with Mylar or painted flat white (one grower reportedly insists on seven coats of paint) to create wraparound sunshine. Light is supplied by a series of overhanging, 1,000-watt halide lights, kept running upward of 18 hours a day. Using less light, the bloom room is where plants make their final push to produce THCthe active ingredient in marijuanabefore being harvested. Exhaust fans ensure a proper exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the rooms.
A 100-PLANT OPERATION can yield between 4 and 6 pounds of marijuana buds, depending on the abilities of the grower, his mania for low-yield methods, and the variety of the plants. Commonly grown varieties, or strains, in the Seattle area include Burmese Skunk, Haze, and Northern Lights. Sometimes you'll even hear mention of the near-mythical "UW" strain. According to local legend, it was developed for UW cancer patients in the 1970s and is valued for its taste and high THC content. (Another legend links its origin to the University District.)
An efficient grower can turn out four or five harvests a year. How much money a grower sees depends on output, quality, and the state of the bud black market at harvest time. Both growers I interviewed reported making between $20,000 and $40,000 a year from pot farming and report that few growers make a living from their work. One grower says that while most growers in the Seattle area keep grow operations small, there are some growers who run 400-plant operations and take in over $200,000 a year.
Growing costs include rent, electricity, fertilizer (some growers swear by Miracle-Gro), soil, and gardening supplies. A pound of locally grown pot can fetch $4,000.
Most grows in the Seattle area are indoor operations. An estimated 50 percent employ hydroponics. The remainder is plants grown in fertilized soil. One grower says that it takes two to three years for a grow operation to become profitable. Until then, an apprentice grower's yields are usually spotty as he learns to contend with insects, fertilizer, plant care, mold, and scorched plants.
It is not clear how much pot is grown in the region. Even state and local law- enforcement agencies don't seem to have a handle on how big the local pot trade is, except to say that it is large. In 2002, authorities seized 43,000 plants from across the state, according to the Washington State Patrol. Most seizures result from tips from, for example, hikers and hunters who run across outdoor grows on public land and report them to police.
Still, it is clear that lots of marijuana is grown in the Seattle area. Pot smokers, who only rarely know the ultimate source of their purchase, have few problems finding weed in Seattle. In fact, you'd have to be a fairly naive person with no friends to not have some level of access to marijuana in this area.
SO HOW DO GROWERS keep from getting popped by the police?
"I trust no one," says one grower. "I let no one see my grow." Another uses a few well-vetted outside laborers to help tend his farm. (In neither case was I able to view the work of these growers.)
Either way, there is a fair amount of stealth and common sense involved, say the growers. The biggest potential problem comes from neighbors in urban areas. A full-blown pot grow can smell like the aftermath of a skunk fight. So growers fit their exhaust fans with carbon filters; some even employ ozone machines, which reportedly neutralize the skunky odor. Even with the odor of growing under control, some growers are careful to not grow in one residence for more than a year or two; one grower says that he moves every two years to make sure that neighbors don't have a chance to get wise to him.
Law enforcement says the growers are just kidding themselves. "Eventually they all get captured, one way or the other," says Thomas O'Brien, a Drug Enforcement Administration spokesperson in Spokane.
One grower reports being wary each time he turns his car onto his home street. "It's not easy coming home to the houseunless your balls are big enoughand wondering, 'Are the cops there?' 'Did someone narc me out?'"
Penalties for marijuana cultivation vary. Under state law, growing any amount of pot can land you a sentence of five years, plus a $10,000 fine. On the federal level, growing less than 110 pounds (50 kilograms) of pot gets the offender five years and $250,000; after that, the penalties can go as high as life in prison.
One grower didn't even blink when I asked him why he runs such a risk for comparatively small financial gain.
"You can't tell me I can't grow this plant," he says. "It has been on this Earth for thousands of years. I'm simply an enterprising American, and we have the right to do whatever we want in the privacy of our homes as long as it hurts no one else." He likens his stand to Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Ala.