How Green Is Your Pot? 

A new collective is trying to sell sustainable, organically grown marijuana, but patients are hooked on indoor weed that wastes energy and pollutes the planet.

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Pot growing was part of the Sixties and Seventies back-to-the-land movement, she said. Hippie gardeners crossed American native sativas and imported Hindu Kush indicas and got faster growth, earlier flowering, and serious highs.

Local growers became super successful at adapting the plants, and dope became the economic engine of Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity counties, she said. In the Eighties, the federal Campaign Against Marijuana Planting and its famous helicopters only succeeded in driving growers indoors.

Using street lights for sun and media like hydroponic rock wool for soil, indoor weed became perversely stronger. Untethered to any need for soil or sun, the Emerald Triangle's potent indoor dope growing practices then spread like an invasive species.

And just as "hydro" practices moved south from Humboldt, the state began to see a rolling back of decades of pot prohibition: Proposition 215 in 1996; Assembly Bill 420 in 2004; Attorney General Jerry Brown's guidelines in 2008; numerous court victories; the Obama administration's "Ogden" Memo in 2009; and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's signing of a bill to downgrade possession of marijuana to an infraction in 2010 have taken the risk out of the federally illegal weed.

In addition, the Great Recession, coupled with the collapse of the construction industry, has prompted nearly every half-bright pot aficionado to come up with the same idea at the same time: Grow it.

Hydro is a feature in almost every neighborhood in Northern California now. Billboards from San Francisco to Humboldt advertise hydroponic supplies, such as chemical nutrients, plastic hosing, high-intensity discharge lighting, fans, air conditioning, and water tanks.

Perhaps tens of thousands of people — many from the cratered real estate industry — have entered the California business of growing dope. The medical marijuana industry alone in California is now estimated at $1.3 billion per year. Perhaps one out of forty homes in the city of Oakland has an indoor garden, as measured by the number of fire department calls per year featuring the presence of a pot farm.

But the fact that seemingly everyone in California took to indoor growing didn't cause the rugged Humboldters to retire. They reloaded.

Following the legalization of cultivation for medical purposes in California in 1996, Humboldt County saw a 25 percent rise in per-capita residential electricity use compared to the rest of California, according to data compiled by Humboldt State University.

Perhaps even bigger than Humboldt's newfound thirst for grid power was its "diesel dope" scene: thousands of plants, grown sometimes in buried shipping containers, fed by diesel-fired generators, the kind used for hospitals in emergencies. Entire creeks buzzed at night, Kemp said, shattering the region's famed serenity. Some local owls can no longer hunt because the loud generators destroy their ability to stalk their nighttime prey.

But a tipping point came in May 2008, following the now-infamous Hacker Creek diesel spill. Renters on a Humboldt dope-growing property were trying to transfer diesel from a big tank to a smaller tank and spilled about six hundred gallons of diesel fuel into Hacker Creek, killing nearly everything in its path.

Neighbors called the cops, who fined the landlord and ordered a clean-up, Kemp said. It was said to be the third spill in that location. Land that was "the next step away" from pristine had become as toxic as a superfund site. No insects buzzed, and the air reeked of diesel and caused headaches.

"That was the only one I've ever personally witnessed, although the stories are that big growers don't tend to share these things; I mean, neighbors aren't really excited if they find out you poured diesel in the ground," Kemp said. Still, "it happens all the time," she added.

Some indoor farms use so many chemicals on their marijuana that trimmers have gotten blisters on their hands. "They don't realize what they are doing to the neighbors and themselves; a lot of these guys ... spray the bejeezus out of their stuff," she said.

A group of long-time farmers who had already started the group Put Them In The Sun were furious about Hacker Creek. It added fuel to their campaign, which has become GrowItInTheSun.org. "It's truly sad; these people are appalled at these practices," Kemp said. "They could not believe it. They had come up here to escape, after fighting in riots in the Sixties. They thought they were starting a movement to change the Earth and bring man into a more balanced relationship with nature. Instead, it's destroying nature."

But GrowItInTheSun.org is just a tiny voice compared to the giant indoor scene. Each month magazines like High Times, Kush, West Coast Cannabis, and Culture feature "nug porn" — close-ups of crystalline, lab-grown pot that can fetch $60 per eighth of an ounce.

They have brand names like "LA Confidential" and are only available at select stores. Indoor farmers usually grow them from clones. Dispensary operators say these strains have "bag appeal": the sight of sparkly flower-tops, bursting with rich aromas.

Richard Lee, operator of Coffeeshop Blue Sky in Oakland, said that indoor is simply better: It's stronger and can be controlled more. And according to Stephen DeAngelo at Oakland's Harborside Health Center, which has 80,000 patients, four out of five customers prefer indoor to outdoor, even at steep discounts for outdoor. A program to try to sell more outdoor flopped, he said.

Why? Growers at the Tea House Collective say Californians are simply misinformed. "Our idea is — a lot of people have heard the industrial grow propaganda about outdoor and just simply don't know anything about it all," said Collective founder Charley Custer. "If they check it out they'll like it."

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