By Peter Hecht
Dec. 14, 2009
ARCATA 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 marijuana."
Co-op members grow, earn
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.
He points out his "Northern Lights Blueberry" plant, a hybrid of
Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa strains that patients tell him
"is an excellent pain and inflammation reducer and helps people sleep."
He talks up his "Train Wreck," a C. sativa plant with "a cerebral
effect." He touts his "Redwood Kush," a C. indica product that, "if
you want to sit and calm down, is the ideal smoke."
California's cultivation laws are more hazy 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
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."
'A waterfall of weed'
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.
He got a physician's recommendation for medical pot, citing back pain
and congestion, and began growing. His "Purple Hindu Kush" became a
hit at Arcata-area dispensaries.
"Many people said my stuff was the first to get them stoned in a long
time," 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.
Michele Cotter and Jaye Richards, two 49-year-old Arizona women,
would like to try. They moved to Humboldt County this year seeking to
get into the legal cannabis business.
They got freshly minted medical pot recommendations for whiplash and
hypertension. Then they stopped at THC, looking over jars of "Pot
Pourri" and "Bud Crumble" and buying a few marijuana caramels.
"I've never used it in my life. I'm a virgin. … But maybe I could
make some money," said Cotter, who is studying at the Southwest
College of Naturopathic Medicine, a school specializing in the
"healing power of nature."
Richards grew up on a soybean farm and is trained as a chef. An
Arizona property manager racked by the economy, she decided becoming
a pot grower and baker was an ideal alternative.
"People need to feel better. And there's always a market for that," she said.
There may be new markets to come. 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.
Meanwhile, 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
But Turner is setting up a computerized "virtual grow room" to
organize his Humboldt cultivators to compete in a fully legal pot market.
"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."