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Sarah's whole street reeks of pot. This is not hyperbole. When you turn the corner onto this lane of 1970s tract houses, you smell the tang: the sour, earthy, green odor that wafts up from lush marijuana plants steaming in the sun.
Sarah estimates that seven of 10 households on her semi-rural street, a couple miles from white-bread-suburban Rohnert Park, Calif., are growing weed. She ran into one neighbor at the hardware store, in the new section devoted to cultivation, with the special dirt, fertilizer and outsized plastic pots the growers use. Her next-door neighbors, two brothers, trade plant-sitting with her and let their pit bulls loose at night to patrol both yards. The women across the street have a small crop in their vegetable garden. And the new couple on the block, noticing the smell, mentioned they'd like to get in on it. In fact, she says, she doesn't know anyone in Sonoma County who isn't growing pot.
Sarah (who, like all the marijuana growers quoted in this article, asked that her real name not be used) doesn't fit the image of a drug dealer. She's 58, colors her hair strawberry blonde and wears souvenir T-shirts, jeans and Crocs. Her ranch-style, three-bedroom home is filled with furniture from Costco and cat-themed knickknacks. She seems as mainstream as they come — and she is typical of the new breed of marijuana producer in Northern California.
As the economy tanked, layoffs rose, retirement savings shriveled and home-equity credit lines fizzled, Sarah and thousands of middle-class folks like her began raising extra cash by following local ordinances that allow the limited growing of Cannabis sativa for personal or medicinal use — while hoping that President Obama will keep federal law enforcers occupied with other things.
The economics of pot growing are nice. The amount of space needed to grow a tomato plant will support a cannabis plant that, with a bit of TLC and luck, will produce from one-quarter pound to as much as 2 pounds of marijuana. When wholesaled to a dispensary, each pound will bring around $2,000.
Sarah's printing business had been going downhill since 2005. "Now it's totally gone," she says. She'd planned to sell her parents' home, invest the money and retire, but the house didn't sell. So, two years ago, she fenced off a plot in her backyard and put in marijuana. She harvested about 3 pounds, clearing $4,000. Last fall, she spent $10,000 to build a 12-square-foot shed in her backyard, fitted with lights, fans and an exhaust system.
She just harvested her first indoor crop, 4 pounds that she sold for $12,000. "I have money in my pocket again for the first time since 2000," she says.
The term of choice is "medicinal marijuana," or sometimes, just "medicine." California has a patchwork of local ordinances designed to enable the production of medical marijuana — and a cottage industry that enables almost anyone to qualify.
Sarah got a prescription, which let her apply for a license to grow the medicine. In Sonoma County, she's entitled to grow 99 plants. But three of her friends also have cards, so if anyone asks, "I have a very large co-op."
Local governments are doing more than looking away; some are looking to pot to save their financial butts. As California state legislators slashed funding for education and social services, and siphoned an additional $2 billion from local government treasuries, voters in Oakland found a way to put some back. On July 21, the city of 400,000 voted for a 1.8 percent extra sales tax on medical marijuana. The measure could raise nearly $300,000 in 2010 alone. State legislators are actually considering legalization. If the state passes the Marijuana Control, Regulation and Education Act, it could put zing in the state coffers to the tune of $1.38 billion a year.
And California is just one of 13 states that have legalized the possession and cultivating of small amounts of marijuana for medical use.
Susan Kuchinskas writes about technology, business and health from Berkeley, Calif. She's been a staff writer for AdWeek, Business 2.0, M-Business and InternetNews.com; her work has appeared in a wide variety of publications, from Art & Antiques to Wired. New Harbinger will publish her second book, The Chemistry of Connection, in April. She's also an organic gardener and beekeeper.