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From The LA Times.
Reporting from Arcata, Calif. —
About the time the wholesale price of pot hit $4,000 a pound, Tony Sasso bought a bulldozer and an excavator and dug a massive hole on his ranch in eastern Mendocino County.
Then he bought four metal shipping containers and buried them in the hole. Inside the containers, Sasso installed 32 1,000-watt lights, a ventilation system and plumbing – all of it powered by a 60-kilowatt generator. His subterranean plantation produced 60 pounds of pot every 56 days, the time it took to turn a crop. They were popular strains, with names like Blueberry, Herojuana, White Widow and Big Red.
He’d begun growing pot as a teenager in the mid-1980s, when police helicopters forced growers to hide their plants indoors. Going underground was the next logical step, to shield the lights from the infrared sensors of law enforcement.
“I grew up believing that the only way to make money was to grow marijuana, and I was good at it,” said Sasso, now 42 and serving a 14-year sentence at the federal penitentiary in Atwater.
His career as a pot entrepreneur, drawn from interviews with Sasso and from court records, mirrors the arc of the marijuana business in California.
Today, indoor-grown pot is king. A weed that grows naturally in the sun has been tamed into an industrial product that is branded like soda pop and as subject to fashion as women’s shoes. Pot raised indoors or underground commands up to $3,000 a wholesale pound, twice the price of outdoor varieties.
A Nov. 2 ballot measure to legalize limited cultivation and use of marijuana is the talk of Northern California’s “Emerald Triangle,” where indoor pot is an economic mainstay. The effect that legalization would have on the marijuana market is unclear. Much would depend on the policies enacted by cities and counties, which would have power to regulate and tax production and sales. Oakland is making plans to allow cultivation in warehouses, which could affect prices.
What is clear is that consumers now harbor a powerful fetish for indoor weed. A potent bud is no longer enough. Like connoisseurs of wine or coffee, pot smokers want cachet: an exotic look, a distinctive smell of cheese or lemon. This requires growing indoors, where plants can be coddled, protected from the elements and blasted with nutrients.
The spread of medical marijuana dispensaries has contributed to demand for indoor varieties. The dispensaries need a year-round flow of identical product that only indoor grows can produce.
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In addition to picking a new governor, Californians next month will also decide if their state will be the first to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Even if Proposition 19 passes, the federal government almost certainly will challenge it.
Oakland’s Oaksterdam University is all about one thing: marijuana. For students learning the finer points of pot production and cultivation, the timing couldn’t be better.
“I have high aspirations for this industry and where it’s going to go,” says student Pete Dimopoulos.
Proposition 19 would allow adults 21 and older to grow marijuana at home and possess up to an ounce for personal use. Individual cities would be free to regulate and tax sales.
“We have a whole new economy that can flourish here in California around cannabis,” says Dale Sky Jones, executive chancellor of Oaksterdam University.
That’s a major reason why one of the state’s largest unions has endorsed legalization. The California chapter of the NAACP is behind it too, along with at least two former big city police chiefs.
Former San Jose police chief Joseph McNamara says, “It diverts the police from their primary duties to protect life and property. People are not terrified about pot smoking in their neighborhood.”
California has long been on the cutting edge when it comes to pot. Fourteen years ago, voters approved the use of medical marijuana and recently, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger relaxed penalties for pot possession.
Even though he famously inhaled as a body builder, Schwarzenegger says Proposition 19 would turn the state into a laughingstock.
Believe it or not, the measure has sparked high anxiety at some medical marijuana shops.
“We are not sure what our business will look like post-Prop 19,” says Daniel Bornstein from Medithrive Medical Marijuana Provider.
For employers, the law could create a giant headache. Employees couldn’t be fired for smoking pot unless employers prove that the drug impaired job performance.
“So it does open the door for the ability of employees to smoke pot at work,” says Denise Davis of the California Chamber of Commerce.
Even if it passes, pot would still be illegal under federal drug laws, so it’s likely Prop 19 will be challenged in court. That means the whole controversial issue could just go up in smoke.