Weeditopia

HIGH TIMES MAGAZINE (FEBRUARY 2008)

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WEEDITOPIA

Journey to an eco-minded medical marijuana farm in Northern California, where a new generation of green ganja growers just might save the planet.
BY DAVID BIENENSTOCK

Such looseness in personal contact may be a result of widespread marijuana usage; certainly it is associated with it. One of the riskiest experiments of the new government was to deliberately make marijuana a common weed. Not only were legal prohibitions ended, but free top-quality seeds were distributed, in a campaign aimed at providing "do-it-yourself highs." The result is that every house and apartment can have its own garden or windowbox where the hemp is grown. It is as if, among us, we had a third tap in the kitchen which provided free beer. But most Ecotopians seem to smoke marijuana with considerable discretion, and it is likely that the worst feature of the policy is that it deprives the government of a large source of tax revenue. -- Ecotopia: A Novel

It's 5:10 p.m. on a Friday afternoon in Northern California. While the rest of the working world sits, stuck in their cars, watching the freeways clog, the skies smog and the roads rage with the collective anger of all those other commuters, stuck in their stupid cars, blocking my way, the staff of residents at the Namaste Center for Sustainable Ganja Farming (a pseudonym) move among the hundreds of pot plants that represent their communal livelihood with a serene grace. Naturally, there's plenty of work to go around here--hard work even, especially during planting and harvest--but there's no rush hour. No cubicles. No memos. No punch cards. No television. No processed foods or high-fructose corn syrup. No PlayStations. And no wild parties, freaky ceremonies or spontaneous orgies (at least not during my brief stay). Just life on the farm at this strange, magical moment in time, when growing weed in California seems barely legal.

In the relatively small ganja garden closest to the main house, Dirt (not her real name) works the earth with a long shovel, turning over a mix of potting soil, oystershell, worm castings, glacial rock dust, high-phosphorous bat guano, kelp, soft phosphate, green sand, perlite and Alaskan Magic organic humus. A tall, beautiful young woman raised as a vegetarian by hippie parents, Dirt graduated in 2005 with a degree in photojournalism, and not coincidentally contributed all of the photos for this article. She wears a wide straw hat to block the sun that's been beating down all day, like a 1,000-watt grow light hung in the sky. It's only late June, but her skin's already tanned to nut brown after so many mornings and afternoons of labor in the great outdoors.

Dirt lives about five minutes away (on foot, by way of a deer path) in a tepee nestled into a rare oasis of trees on this steep hillside, which overlooks a valley of pale, dry scrub grass, dotted here and there with bright green vineyards. Once upon a time, trees covered this property, but over the course of generations the previous owners cut them down for firewood and building supplies. The new management has been on the land less than a year, but they've already planted a small orchard, including pears, persimmons, walnuts, nectarines, apricots, figs, peaches and five varieties of apple. Some of the trees won't yield fruit for years, but that's okay--this ganja farm has a long-term vision.

For her part, Dirt not only works with the more than 400 outdoor, organic medicinal-pot plants on this 40-acre experiment in communal cannabis; she also helps tend to the two large vegetable gardens on- site, which will soon produce enough food to feed the permanent staff of seven, plus the dozens of full-time pot trimmers they'll need to house and employ come harvesttime. Dirt loves growing both weed and veggies, but her long-term goals include planting a garden of additional medicinal plants.

"Ganja brings in the money for right now, but in the future I want to integrate other herbs to make new medicines," she says, eyes alight with excitement. "That's what draws me to this land."

A short walk up the hill, conscious-rap beats play to a greenhouse covering more than 150 perky young pot plants, all of which have just been induced into early flowering by a light-deprivation technique. Cannabis starts budding when there's less than 12 hours of sunlight in the day, with those tiny flowers eventually developing into the fat buds stoners love to smoke. Sophisticated marijuana horticulturists know that by fully enclosing the greenhouse every night a couple of hours before sunset, the plant's natural 12/12 light cycle can be triggered early, tricking them into budding more than a month before Mother Nature makes the days short enough for the plants to flower on their own. Inciting such an early adolescence saves time, maintenance, expense and risk, and it also ensures a "rolling" harvest, so all 400 plants don't have to come down at once.

Lionheart, another live-in gardener, offers every plant in the greenhouse individual attention each and every day, even though they're all set up on automatic "top-feed" watering and nutrient systems. This way, he can spot any problems early, before they spread. He also believes that the plants respond to his loving human presence--and on this pot farm, nobody laughs off such a notion, especially when you're espousing it while surrounded by lovely, bushy, bright green ladies just giving off their first scent of sweetness. Remember, only female pot plants produce smokeable buds, and they mustn't be pollinated by males or seeds will form. And so the greenhouse is really an all-girl hothouse, full of horny females producing sticky resin in an increasingly desperate attempt to attract a man who will--fortunately for us, at least--never come.

So while the rest of the outdoor plants on the property continue producing leaves, roots and stalks, the greenhouse girls have just started transforming from the pubescence of vegetative growth to the maturity of flowering. They're striving and thriving, but also unfulfilledÉ just like this new generation of ganja growers, who honor the struggles and accomplishments of the hippies and herb growers of days past, but also know that the largest challenges are yet to come for illicit farmers on a planet approaching ecological crisis.

Mornings here start early--just after sunrise, in fact, with yoga in a small "temple space" on the second floor of the main house, followed by work in the gardens until the heat of day turns thoughts toward lunch, then maybe a siesta in the shade. We hold hands in a circle and offer a nondenominational blessing before digging into each communally prepared meal. For lunch today, we shared a mixed-green salad featuring the first cucumber grown on the property, plus quinoa, an ancient South American grain.

There's much discussion of optimal eating here, talk of "gluten-free" diets, raw food, slow food, local food, seasonal food, and the pros and cons of various obscure ingredients from the farthest reaches of the health-food store. There are also hugs that last longer than most songs on the radio, heartfelt talks that swing from silly to serious and back, and books on organic gardening, holistic healing, Eastern religion, veganism, mystical art and astrology. More than anything, there's time: to think, to breathe, to listen carefully and hear what the universe keeps telling you.

Meanwhile, way out on the eastern slope of the hillside, Water Bear and Spore work on installing a solar-powered pump that will push water from natural underground springs up to the top of the property, where it will then run down to fill two 2,000-gallon tanks, overflowing through a series of pipes that reach each of four distinct gardens on the farm. Solar power represents just the latest attempt at conservation on this land. The Namaste Center also composts its wastes, collects its rainwater, designs its gardens for long-term sustainability and reduces and reuses whenever possible.

Ironically, Water Bear and Spore sweat uncomfortably beneath the same unrelenting sun that currently feeds their plants and will soon power their water supply too. Most times, these guys blend work and fun until they're indistinguishable, but at the moment they're all business, tinkering intently amid an unfinished jigsaw puzzle of pipes, fittings, adhesives, wrenches and manuals. The solar pump-- including panel, tubes, fittings, filters, controllers, switches and shipping--cost $1,840 and will pay for itself within the first year, not to mention reduce reliance on petroleum-based energy and make everyone's life a lot easier when it comes to lugging water around by hand.

Water Bear's leaving tomorrow to visit family on the East Coast, and he wants to have the new system up and running in time to test it before sunset. Through trial and error, he inches toward a successful conclusion, with Spore paying extra-close attention since he'll be in charge of the pump while Water Bear's away. Spore's an aspiring mycologist (a.k.a. mushroom aficionado), an enthusiastic student of permaculture (see sidebar pg. 44) and a ganja grower off-and-on since he turned 13.

And about how much longer will it take?

"How long?" Water Bear pauses to estimate, picking wild blackberries from a nearby tangle that's just starting to ripen, fed by the same underground spring they're planning to pump up the hillside. "At this rate, about twice as long as it should."

Water bear's a journeyman electrician who spent the last few years partying down in Central America before fate--and an eco-minded fiancee --landed him here as the resident systems expert. Firefly, the aforementioned fiancee, serves as the farm's official financial planner and unofficial den mother. As the sun continues to sink toward the horizon, she flits from plant to plant like a fairy, carefully pruning back any dead or dying leaves so the rest will stay green and vital.

Holding the purse strings brings plenty of problems and few perks, but Firefly handles it all with grace. She's played the same role for ashrams, eco-villages and a small organic raw-foods company. It's always the same story: You can't change the world if you end up going broke. This week her job is all the harder in the absence of Gleeful, the owner, boss and chief executive officer, though he'd cringe at all three terms, preferring to think of himself as the "coordinator."

A dedicated yoga practitioner, Gleeful has traveled to India to study devotional singing during my visit. He's also building an intentional community (see sidebar) in Central America, in hopes of waiting out the coming ecological apocalypse with kind people on good land that features an immense waterfall and sweeping views of the surrounding mountains. Like this ganja farm, that community remains a work in progress--a long-term investment in gardening, forestry and sustainable design, keeping what used to be the all-American ideal in mind: self- sufficiency. Once this was a nation of rugged individualists, but now it's almost impossible to live off the land, and off the grid--unless, of course, you've got a few hundred pot plants to pay the bills.

And even then, you need the bread to put up in advance.

"There's plenty of good kids out there who will work hard, but we already spent $150,000 this year getting this going, and that doesn't include the down payment on the house. Let me tell you the reality, that it's a lot of hard work and a lot of risk. You can bust your ass for months and get ripped off by thieves," Gleeful told HIGH TIMES in an earlier interview. "I seek to bring people and plants together-- that's my skill. I'm not the greatest ganja grower--I got help for that --but I'm good at manifesting capital and finding investors interested in helping us."

Like everyone I met on the farm, Gleeful gets high on his own supply, but not nearly as often as you'd imagine. The vibe at the Namaste Center for Sustainable Ganja Growing promotes moderation and intention. "If there was a message I could give to all ganja smokers, I would tell them that these plants are sacred medicine, and if you're gonna use that medicine, be honest with yourself about your illness," Gleeful advises. "Herb is always a medicine, and it's often for people who are dissatisfied with their lives."

California's Proposition 215 permits the cultivation of limited amounts of cannabis for anyone with a doctor's recommendation. A patient with a medical card can also choose to have a caretaker grow the plants on his or her behalf. Often this means a close friend, but increasingly, since the voter initiative passed in 1996, it has taken the form of collectives, which pool enough doctors' recommendations to permit the cultivation of several hundred plants. In nearby Lake County, Eddy Lepp grew more than 32,000 plants in one season at Eddy's Medicinal Gardens and Ministry of Cannabis and Rastafari, each one registered to an approved patient, and although the federal government has raided his property twice, he has never been convicted of a crime.

Approved patients can also visit one of several hundred cannabis dispensaries in California, which openly sell top-grade marijuana and hashish. In Oakland--better known these days as Oaksterdam--little old ladies from the boonies show up once a year to buy their marijuana seeds from these same dispensaries, maybe splurging $50 for an eighth of Afghooey while they're in town, or 10 bucks on a bottle of organic ganja salad dressing. And while the federal government still refuses to acknowledge any medical use of marijuana, and occasionally the DEA raids California's growers and dispensaries, this meddling has become the exception rather than the rule.

So is it hard to get a card?

I venture out on a trip from the farm into town to run errands, including a visit to the local medical-marijuana consultation office. First, we pick up some extra Velcro at a giant hardware store servicing a steady stream of guys in beards, then we grab the weekly food supply at a local co-op (see sidebar) and swing by the library to return some books. Last stop: a semi-discreet little office tucked into a five-store strip mall on the main street of a pretty small town. Inside, three middle-aged women bustle through the collation of forms, while six patients wait on folding chairs--farmer types in worn jeans and scuffed boots, stroking their mustaches. "Hell," one tells another, "if I gotta go to the doctor, this is where I wanna be."

The phones ring constantly. It takes 20 minutes to move from the back of the line to the doctor's inner sanctum. The farm's latest registered patient pays $150, signs a two-page form and describes symptoms of insomnia. The doctor asks a few questions, then writes a recommendation. Done and done. In the end, it's no more difficult than talking a physician into writing your 10-year-old daughter a scrip for prescription speed like Ritalin (methylphenidate) or Adderall (dextroamphetamine).

So who's the drug pusher here?

A generation ago, major pot plantations operated more like military operations than yoga retreats. In fact, many were run by Vietnam veterans who returned to "the world" without the desire--or even the ability--to reintegrate into society. Marijuana farming let you make money without entering the official economy, but it also made you an outlaw, and you had to live the life of one. Today, in California, growing ganja makes you a healer. And despite the fact that the federal government still hasn't caught up to the will of the people, this change of cannabis consciousness will have far-reaching repercussions--and all to the good.

To put it bluntly, and in locally appropriate terms: There's gold in them thar hills. Green gold. Mendo tea. And right now, in this glorious summer, the risk's low enough to attract the young idealists on this farm, who see living a so-called normal life--a.k.a. fiddling while Earth burns--as the greater risk. And so, at a time when the planet needs their healing, an ancient plant will support them as they prepare themselves, and their land, for whatever comes next. Prepare themselves, and do good works in the meantime. In fact, that's what the farm's equivalent of a TPS report is called: the "Book of Good Works."

A lovingly decorated log of hours spent and tasks completed, the good book tells the story of the Namaste Center in the simplest and most positive terms.

"Please record your weekly doings here!" reads the cover. "So we can stay informed of how much amazing stuff we are all doing! And support and acknowledge each other for all we do!"

All decisions here are made by consensus, with lots of talk about "energy" and a walk-on-eggshells approach to the feelings of others. By everyone's admission, all that talk can get tedious at times--but if George W. Bush and Dick Cheney represent the best that the mainstream can offer when it comes to leadership, these latter-day flower children will stick with their silly, peacenik ways.

Not that it's all bliss, all the time. Running an operation this size would present constant problems even to an experienced (and authoritarian) grower, and here we have self-described "kids"--none of whom has ever taken on anything like this in their lives--trying to keep it all together while holding hands and singing "Kumbaya." Nobody gets paid until harvest, which the core staff will divide according to their own consensus, after Gleeful recovers his initial costs. Occasionally somebody fucks up, and they have to deal with it. Some people have already been let go this season, based on poor performance or faulty vibes. Think about that for too long and, just for a moment, things stop being groovy and start being real.

But then you take a walk at sunset, as a cool breeze blows the tall grass like waves on the ocean, and have one last look at all those green, healthy plants before the sky behind the vineyard fades from deep purple to black. You remind yourself that cannabis is one of the hardiest plants on Earth, and that it thrives in all but the most extreme climates. You remind yourself that whether you credit God, Darwin or just the universe, cannabis has evolved on this Earth to heal.

Everyone who smokes weed today, if they really stop to consider, knows that it's medicinal. Sometimes this medicine treats severe illnesses, like multiple sclerosis, glaucoma or cancer in patients undergoing chemotherapy. In fact, the gay community in California was integral to passing Prop. 215 in the first place, after cannabis's well-known propensity for stimulating appetite proved essential to patients with AIDS wasting syndrome--people who otherwise couldn't eat. Pot is also powerful medicine for people suffering from stress, arthritis, premenstrual syndrome, back stiffness, and a host of other everyday ailments that line both pharmacy shelves and the pockets of the pharmaceutical companies that produce those illicit drugs.

So is it such a stretch to think that this same plant might also be medicine for our troubled souls in these troubled times? The planet needs help, and up through the cracks in the endless sidewalk we've made of Mother Earth grows a weed capable of sustaining the eco- minded underground that seeks it out. A real revolution requires a change of consciousness and the money to act on it, and this one plant brings us both--and will for as long as this blissful gray market lasts.

Keep in mind that California has always been America's promised land, even though the terms of that promise have frequently changed, and the promise itself has often gone unfulfilled. In the 1850s, most gold-rushers found that the state had run out of gold before they arrived. In the 1930s, most dust-bowlers found food growing everywhere but not a thing to eat. And in 1967, all the hippies with flowers in their hair quickly discovered that the Summer of Love had run out of love the summer before.

But this might be different. Marijuana represents America's No. 1 cash crop, and yet the corporations can't get a piece of it. The taxman can't get his cut. The annual agriculture bill can't push the little guys out in favor of factory farms. Yes, you could potentially get busted, but whoever sold you that Che T-shirt should have mentioned that being a revolutionary occasionally has steep downsides. In his 1975 novel Ecotopia, Ernest Callenbach described a world in which Northern California, Oregon and Washington break off from the United States after a violent conflict and form an independent republic based on living in harmony with the land. Twenty years later, a journalist from the New York Times-Postbecomes the first official American visitor to Ecotopia since this war of independence. His newspaper columns describe a modern-day paradise in which the ideals and innovations of environmentalists have been put into practice, using modern technology to work with the bounty of nature rather than trying to subdue it, while creating a society based on community rather than consumerism.

So what will life look like at the Namaste Center for Sustainable Ganja Farming in 20 years' time? Will the children of our current cast of characters frolic in the shade of the trees their parents planted? Only time will tell--but in the meantime, being here now feels a hell of a lot better than being stuck in that rush-hour traffic.