North country pot grower says legalization is long overdue
As the political winds created by the legalization of marijuana swirl around him, a north country resident who has been growing pot on the down-low for decades watches with interest.
It’s the last week of January, the heart of winter. And on this frigid afternoon the mercury barely breaks zero.
Inside, next to a well-stoked wood stove and over a cup of coffee, “John” mulls potential planting locations for the upcoming season.
“Lots of people are looking at their seed catalogs, wondering what kind of tomatoes they’re going to plant,” he said. “It’s the same with me, except I’m thinking about planting dope.”
He also reminisces about last year’s crop.
“I had a plant last year that was nine feet tall and nine feet across,” he said. “A huge (expletive) square bush. The buds were so big, the branches spread out until they almost touched the ground. I got 17 ounces. A freaking pound.”
He said the marijuana plant next to that one yielded 12 ounces of buds.
“And last year wasn’t even a good growing season,” he said with a laugh.
He agreed to an interview on the condition of anonymity.
John — not his real name — has been growing marijuana as a commodity in the north country for nearly 40 years, and as he prepares to turn 60, his body carries the scars of his trade.
He has arthritis in both hands, his knee joints need replacing and his back and shoulder have been thrown out so many times he lives in chronic pain. John also suffers from Lyme disease, brought on by too many tick bites to count over the years.
The physical ailments, he says, are the result of decades of hauling the equipment, plants and supplies needed into some of the most remote backwoods areas the region has, in order to grow pot on an annual basis. Stealth and wariness are more than just preferred talents, but are key to remaining undetected by authorities. For that reason, John has purposely sought out the most remote, rugged and nearly inaccessible areas of the north country to plant and harvest his crop over the years.
It’s a lifestyle best suited to those with youth and vigor, he explains, not someone like him who is past his physical prime.
And he’s not alone. John says there are scores of independent growers like himself who have nurtured pot as a cash crop across the region for decades.
Across the nation, a wave of pot-friendly states has emerged. According to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, 30 states and territories have legalized the use of marijuana for medical treatments. Eight states have legalized recreational use of marijuana as well, leaving fewer than 15 states where possession of all forms of marijuana is completely banned.
In his budget address in January, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced the state will form a study group to investigate the positive and negative impacts of making recreational use fully legal. (Right now in New York state, possession of small amounts of pot are judged to be an offense rather than a crime.)
On Thursday, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand joined in a bill sponsored by New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker that would remove marijuana from the list of class one drugs and legalize it nationally.
The Marijuana Justice Act also provides incentives for states to revise their marijuana laws and expunge convictions based on use or possession of the substance.
“I’ve planted in some ridiculous places,” John said. “Nobody wants to go where I go. If there’s a patch of woods nobody in their right mind would crawl over stumps to get to — that’s where I try to plant.”
But even off the beaten path, John seldom plants in the same location more than a season, or two at most. His method involves sowing just a few plants in one spot, scattering his beds around a large geographic region and visiting each site as few times as possible between sowing and harvest in late October or early November.
John says he visits each planting location once during sowing, once at mid-season and one final time when it’s time to harvest.
“I don’t check on my pot except to see if it’s there. You leave tracks every time you go,” he said. “Even if you don’t think you do, you do. The woods ain’t the same once somebody’s been there. All it takes is for the right person to see that trail and you’re busted.”
John says he started growing pot during his late teens, mostly for himself. Later, he began farming weed to make a living. He claims he has never been caught by police.
“I’ve run into landowners, other growers, but not cops,” he said.
And if he does encounter another person, John said he always has a plausible excuse for being in the woods.
“Fishing, hiking, taking pictures, just picking mushrooms, man,” he said.
While the modus operandi for any pot grower worth his or her salt is to remain undetected and stay out of jail, the other key component of the trade is learning to grow the best quality bud possible, according to John, who says there are dozens of entrepreneurs like himself across the north country.
He says technological and horticultural advances have been coupled with a vast amount of easily accessible growing information on the internet to make it easier to grow high-quality pot in small clusters.
“When I started out, nobody knew how, but now pot is almost domesticated,” he said. “People get their seeds from seed banks up in Canada through the mail, or they grow from clones.”
John said cloning is the most rapidly expanding form of the illegal growing trade, a procedure that involves taking a small slip from a quality plant, rooting it, and then wintering it indoors until the next growing season when it’s planted again. The cloned plant has the exact characteristics of the adult, meaning once a hearty north country strain is found, it can be replicated over and over.
“I used to grow everything from seed, but about half are clones now,” he said.
Advances in low-energy-consumption grow lights have also enabled more novice and professionals to grow their plants indoors, he said.
In an average year, John says, he grows between $20,000 and $50,000 worth of pot, a large enough amount of money to get by on, and little enough to stay under the radar.
For the five states that have legalized recreational use of marijuana under state license, money is the core reason the laws have changed.
According to a story in Forbes magazine, states that have legalized pot will bring in $559 million in cannabis taxes alone. New Frontier Data, which issued a report on taxes from legalized marijuana, predicts that figure will rise as high as $1.4 billion in the coming years.
In Colorado, which has the oldest recreational marijuana law in the country, receipts of pot taxes have grown dramatically between year one and year two.
“The state collected $119 million in taxes as of January for its year-to-date fiscal year. Compare this to only $38 million collected on alcohol of at least 11 months in 2016,” according to the Forbes story. “The money is being put to good use by the state. For example, Colorado was able to put $16 million towards Affordable Housing Grants and Loans in 2016 from cannabis tax collections.”
Typically, John’s handcrafted strains of weed (he claims to have created 100 unique breeds) sell for a couple of hundred dollars an ounce. However, in recent years the price has slumped substantially. Last year, he was unable to sell all he produced — the first time that has happened.
“It’s easier to grow now, so people are doing it themselves,” he said. “And it’s been decriminalized so more people are comfortable growing a couple of plants here or there and not worrying too much. For somebody that wants to grow their own, they even have mini-clones called auto-bud that start to bud out in three months no matter what.”
John said the recent glut in the north country pot market has also been exacerbated by the fact that after generations of nurturing and tweaking, the weed that is being grown in the region is highly acclimated to the seasons and conditions of Northern New York. Again, he points out, it’s an evolution that makes it easier than ever to grow pot locally, even for the novice.
“The best thing about pot is that it grows anywhere, if you know what you’re doing,” he said. “Trust me. I’ve grown it on rocks, in sand, in acid soil, in loom. I’ve grown it in swamps. It’ll grow almost everywhere, if you know what you’re doing. It’s easier to grow now than ever.”
John has never viewed himself as a criminal, and says he sometimes laughs when he reads or watches the local news regarding the growing number of states where recreational marijuana use is now, or soon will be, legal. He said he always knew the day would come, although he wasn’t sure when.
He points out that a large percentage of his buyers over the years have been college-educated professionals, and that he’s known that sooner or later the political winds surrounding marijuana consumption would shift substantially.
“The younger generations have grown up with it,” he said. “They don’t think it’s a big deal because in their mind it’s not.”
He says decades of the police and government prohibition against growing and selling pot have done nothing to eradicate the plant’s appeal for either recreational use or for medicinal benefits. All it’s done, John points out, is marginalize and criminalize those who grow, sell or use the plant.
In the Northeast, recreational pot use is now becoming legal in Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont. New Jersey and New Hampshire are also on the precipice of legalizing the plant. And north of the border, Canada’s prime minister has said he has plans to legalize recreational marijuana use from coast to coast.
The pot-driven economy of Colorado is booming, and California, a state with an annual gross domestic product of about $2.5 trillion, is quickly following suit.
John said there’s no doubt in his mind that if New York state were to legalize recreational pot use, the north country could benefit by unleashing some of the growing potential and expertise that already exists.
“What have we got plenty of? Empty farm fields and good land. And guys like me,” he said. “All of the money I’ve made over the years was all cash and all spent right here. If I needed a four-wheeler, I’d pay cash. Down payment on a house, cash. I’ve never had a credit card. I’ve put a lot of money into the economy over the years. Just think what I could have done if I didn’t have to hide it.”
And although a legalized pot trade would likely mean that now-illicit growers like John would be out of a job, he says he can’t wait for the day when state officials allow marijuana to be openly bought and used.
“I’m not pissed off at all about it,” he said. “Why would I be? It’s what I’ve always wanted. When I was a kid smoking green shade leaf we’d all joke that someday it would be legal, but that we’d all probably be dead by then. Well, guess what, man — here it comes, and we’re not (expletive) dead yet.”
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