The Other Farmers Market
It's 9 o'clock in the morning when "Ace" begins his regular "wake and bake" routine of brushing his teeth, brewing a pot of coffee and rolling a joint.
Today he has a job to do, and he won't have to leave his home to do it. In a spare bedroom in his northeast Dallas duplex, 35 fully mature marijuana plants are in bloom, their buds ready to be picked and hung out to dry. Harvesting them will take all day, and by the time all of the buds have been trimmed, cured, weighed and bagged a week from now, Ace will be ready to introduce his latest "boutique" strain of marijuana to his faithful clientele. Two weeks later, he'll sanitize his grow room, plant a new crop and begin the process again. On average, he manages four or five good crops a year, each earning him more than $10,000, not to mention all the weed he can smoke.
Sure beats waiting in traffic to go sit in a cubicle--if you don't mind committing a felony.
Ace has been at it for nearly 20 years, starting with a single plant he kept in a 5-gallon plastic pickle bucket in his backyard. He soon discovered an indoor method of cultivation known as hydroponics (see sidebar), which was initially perfected for marijuana by a handful of farmers in Northern California. Hydro farmers use high-intensity lights attached to timers to illuminate their crops. Instead of soil, their plants grow in rock or other media and are fed by nutrients dissolved in water. The result is a cleaner and healthier specimen.
When hydroponically grown marijuana first hit the streets, the word was that the technique produced a higher concentration of THC, the chemical in pot that gets you high. Growers later realized that it wasn't the process but the plant's genetics that made the difference. This led to a fixation on cross-pollinating specific strains of "designer" marijuana and ultimately resulted in the creation of a radical restructuring of prices.
Back in the day, weed was cheap. These days good marijuana costs more than Prada perfume.
Ace is a professional musician by trade, but he has growing marijuana indoors down to a science. Getting there wasn't easy.
"Oh, I was an idiot when I first started doing this," he says. "I can't tell you how many times I screwed it all up by going out of town to do band gigs and leaving it all unattended, by letting my dogs knock over the plants or by letting bugs get into my grow room. After a while, you kind of have to say to yourself, 'Are you going to get serious about this or not?'"
Like many, Ace started growing for his own use, but when he figured out he could make five times more money growing grass than by playing in a band, well...
"It really wasn't a hard choice to make," he says.
A simple starter kit for rookie farmers is available for around $500 from head shops or at landscape suppliers like Texas Hydroponics in Deep Ellum. This includes the light and timer, nutrients and growing bins. For an additional $400 or so, you can purchase a fan and exhaust system that reconditions the air. A roomful of flowering pot plants puts out a pungent, easily recognizable scent--a sort of olfactory 911 call that careful growers would just as soon avoid.
You can learn all you need to know about hydroponics by visiting one of countless Web sites that offer information on everything from the best places to buy marijuana seeds--illegally, via mail from Canada or Europe mostly--to how to cross-breed strains, manicure the buds and tell the sex of your plants, since only females produce buds. The site overgrow.com even offers advice on how to deal with bouts of raging paranoia.
And you thought the Internet was just the world's largest pornography network.
A typical grow room is usually about the size of a walk-in closet, bathroom or bedroom. More brazen growers will rent homes to use specifically as pot farms, with two or three bedrooms each hosting a different strain.
Ace isn't the only member of the Dallas local music scene with a thriving grow room. The cultivation and sale of high-grade marijuana seems to be driving a shadow economy that supports many local musicians while they wait for the Big Break.
"Gene" is the bassist in a high-profile heavy metal band working on their third album. Much of the cost of making their first two records was funded by the proceeds from his pot farm. In fact, marijuana is as valuable as cash within our local agora.
"Studio owners love it when you pay cash. So many of them get stuck with hot checks or bands who can't or won't pay...bands who walk in and say, 'We're gonna be big, just let us record here and we'll make you an executive producer on our album,' or some shit," Gene says. "Man, fuck all that. Having a pocketful of 'Heinous' handy has opened more doors for me than anything. We've actually worked with studio owners who would rather get paid in weed than money."
"Paul" is a club DJ and record producer. He has been farming for more than 10 years, but he has his operation scaled down for the time being because so many other people in town have jumped on the bandwagon. "I started out just doing it for myself, never really aspired to do it for a living. I had a really good job at the time, so I wasn't hard up for cash, but my friends would all come over to the house every day just so they could smoke my pot...and that got to be kind of a beating. So I figured, as long as everybody is gonna keep coming over here, I might as well just grow enough to start selling the shit to them."
The money Paul made allowed him to buy huge stacks of top-of-the-line recording gear and DJ equipment. Now that he spends almost every night spinning records in clubs, he doesn't really have the time needed to nurture a large garden. "I'm back to just growing one or two plants every couple of months for my own consumption. I did it on a much larger scale for long enough that I was able to put some money away to live on for a while. Of course, I've still got all of my grow gear. If times ever get tough, it's nice to know that I have something I can fall back on."
He has a theory--pot smokers and growers are filled with theories--about how the demand for high-grade marijuana may be a holdover from the days of the late '80s cocaine era.
"Most of my customers, and I really don't have--or need--many to do my thing, are people who are settling down into a sort of middle-aged comfort zone. Those who didn't die or end up in rehab have made it through the drinking every night...They've got families and businesses and all of that responsibility that they were initially avoiding by doing coke, but even years later they still have a little of that subversive spirit left in them. So, naturally, they've turned to the drug that least upsets the balance of their everyday lives."
But not just any old drug. Successful middle-class dopers who have the cash are often willing to spend more to get a better quality product and scoff at lower-grade "dirt weed" imported from Mexico, which can sell for as little as a fourth of the price of locally grown. Call them weed snobs.
"I do see a lot of what you're talking about: people asking for specific strains, asking me if I'll take two different kinds of seeds that they've brought back from Amsterdam and then cross-pollinate them so they'll have their own personal type of weed," Gene says. "God knows why. I mean, it all gets you high. Do you really need your own kind of weed? It's like when 'Willie Weed' first made the scene a few years back. Everyone thought they were smoking pot from Willie Nelson's personal stash. Its like, 'Come on...dream on. He didn't grow it himself,' you know?"
When it's available--and that's not all the time--you can find an ounce of Mexican "dirt weed" for around $120 or less, while a quarter of an ounce of high-grade pot grown here in town goes for $120, sometimes more. With names like "Blueberry," "Northern Lights," "Red Haze," "Kush" and "Bubblegum," name-brand marijuana has become the latest fixation for baby boomers who have plenty of disposable income.
For all the smokers' pickiness, though, the prices they pay are not out of line with the rest of the nation. High Times magazine, the bible of pot smokers, tracks the going price of various grades of weed nationwide in its "Trans-High Market Quotations." Prices of $400 and up per ounce are common for high-quality domestic bud.
One possible difference between Texas and the rest of the United States is that the state is something of a bargain hunter's paradise for smokers willing to toke low-grade hecho en México weed--mainly because Mexico is close by.
Mexican marijuana is "very prevalent in Texas, so you might see that divide a little bit more so than you'd see in other places in the country, where you wouldn't have that option of cheap Mexican versus expensive homegrown," says High Times Editor Steve Bloom. "Marijuana's so cheap down in Texas because of the Mexican influence, so sometimes it's hard not to spend $50 for an ounce when otherwise you go spend $400 for a quality ounce...Texas always has some of the lowest prices in the country."
Of course, this is Dallas, where who you are is often defined by what you spend, where we crave to be like Manhattan, even if that means paying NYC prices. Offering a weed snob a baggie of cheap Mexican schwag is like ordering a bottle of Texas wine in a Manhattan restaurant.
It's just not done.
These days, marijuana growers have become purveyors of taste and enablers of style. They exist in a world similar to the one associated with wine tasting, Cuban cigars and fashion and--whether it was their intention or not--a shamelessly elitist connoisseur mentality. Paying top dollar for "White Widow," "Mirage" or--get this--"The Shit That Killed Elvis" is just as much an exercise in ego-gratification as, say, dropping 200 bucks on a flacon of top-shelf perfume or a bottle of Cabernet at the Wine Therapist. These stoners wear their expensive pot habit like a badge of honor within their circle of friends.
"It's funny, when you think about it," Ace says. "They all drive SUVs and had heart attacks when they saw gasoline hit $3 a gallon. But throw down 125 bucks for a quarter of an ounce, for some shit that I grew in my closet? No problem. I love it."
Still, these growers seem to share a common aspiration to develop a signature strain of the cannabis plant that they can one day call their own.
Gene likens the process to the marketing of America's other favorite intoxicant, beer. "Every year, they roll out some new variation on the theme. First it was malt liquor. Then it was light beer. Then 'dry' beer, or now 'ice.' It's all the same stuff, but changing the name of it every year or so keeps it fresh as a product. And it speaks directly to that spender demographic who always has to have the newest and best of everything. 'You're not still kickin' last year's played-out shit, are ya?' Companies use this same strategy to sell cars, clothes, videogames, whatever. "
It's ego gratification, says "Peter," a former bartender who now grows pot full time. "I've noticed that a lot of these middle-aged people aren't real educated when it comes to marijuana, but they love to think of themselves quite differently," he says. "For instance, I could put three buds of three different strains right here on the table in front of you, give them goofy names, and the typical middle-aged yuppie pot snob wouldn't be able to tell one from the other in a blindfold test. But as soon as they walk out that door, they're bragging to their friends that they've found an exclusive strain that no one else in town has access to. It's hilarious, actually."
Despite what anti-drug warriors might say, these home-growers aren't out pushing their product on the weak-willed. Too bad you can't say the same about other intoxicant peddlers.
Paul doesn't drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes, but his job as a DJ means he's exposed to them every night. He says watching cigarette and alcohol companies market their products in nightclubs is "like watching the Discovery Channel. These little 'street teams' usually consisting of three hot women in sexy little costumes literally prey on the single men who are mingling in the crowd.
"The other night, and I swear this is a true story, [a] guy is shooting a game of pool, drinking a bottle of water, and this hot chick walks up and literally puts a beer in his hand," Paul says. "He tells her he hasn't had an alcoholic beverage in over 13 years, but he'll drink it just because she's so nice. And just like that, this guy falls off the wagon. Boom. Thirteen years. It's fuckin' evil when you think about it."
"I don't know of any grower who ever went out and solicited new customers," Ace says. "All of my clients are people who I know closely; either friends, close friends of friends, co-workers, whatever. There is no way in the world I would go out and engage a total stranger to buy my marijuana. I don't need to."
If anything, the product Ace and others sell seems to be a soft landing for middle- aged folks who plowed through alcohol and/or every drug imaginable when they were younger, and aren't quite ready to commit to sobriety.
"Vinnie" is a 53-year-old Dallas-based writer and photographer. He's been smoking marijuana on and off for almost 35 years. While he grew up smoking cheap Mexican weed, he transitioned to the more potent hydroponic strain after he discovered it had a different effect. "The old weed basically served one purpose: to numb your feelings...You smoked it and then just passed out on the couch. With hydro, it's a little different in the respect that it actually inspires me and gives me a roundabout perspective creatively. You have a straight and logical thought process when you're sober, then you can smoke this stuff and look at the same thing, whether it's a film you're watching, a book you're reading or something you're creating yourself, in a totally different way."
"Christine," who makes her living as a muralist, set designer and art director for many of the lavish social events around town, sees real value in designer marijuana. "It really influences my creativity, and I mean that in a good way," she says. "I'm more open to experimenting with color and texture. And the overall effect of the smoking experience is more like a trip. Music sounds better, and I really notice other sounds or smells or tastes that I would just normally take for granted otherwise."
Christine grew up in a small town near Lake Texoma and had always smoked the cheap stuff before she made the move to Dallas. "It was quite an eye-opening experience discovering hydro...Smoking dirt weed is pretty much the same thing every time: It smells rank, gives me a headache or puts me in a stupor. It's not at all productive."
The public perception of marijuana use has changed dramatically over the last 10 years. While the Bush Administration still considers marijuana a dangerous "gateway" drug that leads to harder stuff, the popular culture has embraced pot as an acceptable prop in the entertainment industry.
The industry's depictions of pot smokers also has shifted since the days of '70s comedy duo Cheech and Chong, who may have done tokers a huge disservice by reinforcing the stereotype that typical dope smokers were hapless idiots.
After Cheech and Chong went their separate ways, the public profile of marijuana temporarily went back under the radar. The focus of the late-'80s "War on Drugs" shifted to an epidemic of freebase cocaine for the haves and crack cocaine for the have-nots. Gangster rap artists like NWA and Ice T spoke explicitly and often alluringly about the lifestyle associated with drug dealing in urban neighborhoods. But when the multi-platinum rap group Cypress Hill appeared on the scene in 1991, marijuana was, more often than not, the predominant subject matter in their lyrics. High Times magazine immediately embraced Cypress Hill as the new mascot for their agenda. A year later, Dr. Dre's first solo album, The Chronic (a slang word for high-grade marijuana), introduced the world to a young smokestack named Snoop Doggy Dogg.
You know who I'm talking about, right? The tall, skinny guy in the car commercial with Lee Iacocca? That's how far we've come now. Mainstream corporations are using dopers to sell their products.
The everyday depiction of marijuana use is par for the course in many of HBO's original programs, most notably on Entourage, Six Feet Under and Da Ali G Show. Showtime has a criminally boring new weekly comedy called Weeds, about a Republican soccer mom who makes ends meet by selling pot to her high school-aged kids' friends. Cult films like Garden State and Half Baked have explored the daily use of the drug. The common thread here is in the representation. Before, we had Cheech and Chong bumbling through ridiculous situations like a couple of brain-damaged idiots. Now the characters in these programs smoke marijuana with the same casual aplomb of a Starbucks latte junkie.
Dallas-based musician and filmmaker Michael Henning has been working on a documentary film called Hempsters--Plant the Seed, which is narrated by longtime advocate and actor Woody Harrelson, and features Willie Nelson and Ralph Nader, among other decriminalization cheerleaders. He sees the current infatuation with ganja as an extension of the cultural influence of the entertainment industry.
"One of the first high-profile entertainers who really leveraged marijuana as something other than just a recreational drug was Bob Marley," Henning says. "Marley introduced the American mainstream to Rastafarian culture and how the followers of his religion used the cannabis sativa plant as a sort of sacrament to God. It was different; people really started to see marijuana in a different light. These days, the highest-profile celebrity spokesperson for the legalization movement is Woody, who has been on the case now for over 10 years. He has really reached out to the Hollywood people on one hand, and I think Willie and Merle [Haggard] have focused on Middle America on the other."
WFAA-Channel 8 news anchor Gloria Campos looked as though she could barely keep from breaking out in laughter last week when she reported on a call for a ban by Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, parents and school administrators of a new candy called "Stoner Pops," a hemp-derivative marijuana-flavored lollipop. The tone of the story was certainly meant to be serious, but it was buried at the end of the program, and Campos looked as if she might have been enjoying a little "Stoner Pop" herself. You have to imagine that if this were, say, a heroin or cocaine-flavored lollipop, she probably would have wiped that grin off her face.
If a professional doper like Snoop Dogg is now being paid to appear alongside a well-respected former CEO as a spokesperson for an American automobile manufacturer, is the general public really that afraid of marijuana smokers? Apparently not.
Are Gene, Ace, Paul or Peter at all worried about going to jail? Of course they are. But you might be surprised to hear their opinions of drug laws. As we sit around a table in our favorite Greenville Avenue coffee shop, they take turns talking about State Authority vs. Personal Freedom.
"I'd actually like to thank the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] for refusing to decriminalize marijuana," says one of the growers. "They're making me rich. As soon as they decriminalize it--which they almost certainly will do while ultimately dealing with the potential cost and logistics of prosecuting, convicting and incarcerating all of the truly violent and dangerous criminals that we have running around out there--then the price of marijuana is going to go down and I'll have to look for another way to make money. So, yeah, keep it illegal. Fuck it."
Ace has had versions of this conversation before. "A couple of my customers are actually trial lawyers, and we have this discussion all the time. The motivation behind making anything illegal is to provide a deterrent from people disrupting a peaceful society. Pot laws aren't keeping anybody from smoking pot. They don't work. If anything, they just distract the police from dealing with the people who really are disrupting our society," he says.
Despite the fact that each of these guys consumes an ungodly amount of their product, they're all incredibly long-winded and have reasonably educated--and varied--opinions on everything from international politics to quantum physics. I'm doing my best to keep them all focused while we finish our veggie burgers.
Ace still isn't finished offering his opinion on the law. "What anyone does in the privacy of their own home should be nobody's business but their own. Why should the government care if I want to sit around and watch TV all day? The government here will never seem to grasp the fact the laws aren't at all a deterrent. If anything, they provide a phony allure to reel in the curiosity seekers, the bored yuppies and desperate housewives who are looking for any measure of excitement they can find. Hell, all of my customers are over the age of 35, all of them are employed and none of them are turning around and giving the marijuana to kids. So, you tell me: How are they really a threat to anyone other than themselves?"
Detective Monty Moncibais, the drug prevention and community relations officer for the Dallas Police Department's Narcotics Division, says that hydroponic marijuana grown locally rarely registers on their radar downtown--at least not specifically as hydroponic.
"We average 40 narcotic complaints a day in our office by phone, and we have another five to 10 complaints that are faxed in," Moncibais says. "The problem in trying to put a handle on how much hydroponic is being reported is that the person who usually calls in or files the complaint doesn't know what they're transacting. They'll say suspicious activity hand-to-hand, heavy foot traffic, heavy vehicle traffic. We only average probably one complaint per day that even specifically names marijuana, and the hydroponic style is even more rare. I think that in the last year we've had maybe three complaints where someone actually said these people are growing marijuana on sponges or it's hydroponic. But I'm not saying it's not out there."
Moncibais says that every morning he sees the reports from narcotics division officers of every person arrested in Dallas. "In the last six months, I only saw one where the narcotics officer said they arrested this person with hydroponic marijuana. It's either just being labeled marijuana or it's just plain marijuana, not the super-duper stuff."
Peter looks at the prospect of getting arrested as nothing more than a potential cost of doing business. "There are lots of really simple, no-brain rules for growing pot and getting away with it. Don't grow where you live; borrow somebody else's car when you go to buy your lights and gear; don't ever show anybody your grow room; don't use your cell phone for anything but emergencies," he says. "But the way that most growers get busted, and I've heard this from a lot of different people, is that their girlfriends turn them in. A guy will go out and cheat on his girlfriend, then she finds out and calls the cops on him. That's one of the reasons I haven't had a girlfriend in a long time."
Yes, Moncibais says, pissed-off estranged girlfriends are a detective's ally.
"I couldn't tell you the number of calls we received from someone who's been jilted or a competitive dope dealer who wants his competition out of the way," he says. "Those things happen continually. But that happens in every crime."
Farmers shouldn't, however, think that sacrificing having a girlfriend will provide a clear path to a successful growing operation. DPD narcotics officers have a few tricks up their sleeve.
"Now, we have made indoor hydro arrests in the past. It's not something that we don't know exists...It is much more expensive than normal marijuana, so you're not going to see your street guy, the street user, really using a lot of that. But we know that it's in parts of town, and we have different investigative techniques--by taking meter readings and different camera shots in the house. But, overall, it's kind of lost in our complaints in the volume of other complaints coming in."
"Beth" is the former wife of a longtime grower. While she never felt compelled to rat out her ex, she was happy to leave the lifestyle. "I had a straight job and always had my own legitimate income. On the other hand, he rarely ever left the house. I just got tired of all the paranoia, always wondering if the cops were watching our apartment or if we were going to get ripped off," she says. "It wasn't worth it for me personally. I don't even smoke pot that much." What started out as a couple of plants in a bedroom closet of their apartment in (ironically enough) Farmers Branch, eventually led to their leasing a three-bedroom house in The Colony that was used exclusively for growing.
"It got to the point where I didn't want to be there, and he never wanted to leave the house unattended, so we never really saw each other," Beth says and laughs in retrospect. "He was more married to growing weed than he was to me."
Finally, one day she just packed her stuff and left, which obviously caused her ex-husband a great deal of concern. "He tore down the grow room and moved out of our house the next day," she said. "And it didn't take long for me to begin to feel like the weight of the world had been lifted from my shoulders."
A friend of mine from high school is in town for an art gallery opening over the weekend, and we're poolside, splayed out in 100-degree heat at a gorgeous Uptown hotel. I've got Paul Wall's "Sittin' Sideways" blowing up my iPod, there's not a cloud in the sky and neither of us brought any sunscreen. We're also somewhat immobilized by the effects of a new variation on the "White Widow" strain, which was grown within walking distance of the hotel.
We're both far too lethargic to protect ourselves from the potentially lethal effects of sunshine. Maybe they ought to outlaw sunlight.
The late comedian Bill Hicks used to have a bit where he addressed the campaign against marijuana. It went something like, "You know, we've been fighting this war on drugs for a few years now...and from what I can tell the people on drugs are winning."
Back at the coffee shop, Ace takes it a step further. "Truth be told, we're not fighting back. We're all on drugs, every single one of us. Whether it's coffee, tobacco, alcohol, prescription drugs, pot, refined sugar or black tar heroin, everybody holding this newspaper relies on something to self-medicate or to feel better than they normally do," he says. "We hear about other people struggling with serious long-term addictions to dangerous drugs like crystal methamphetamine or heroin, but we shouldn't feel compelled to declare 'war' on them as people. They're human beings, our neighbors."
Peter chimes in: "Every other commercial you see is for a new drug that, like he just said, exists for no other reason than to make people feel better. And the tag line is always 'Ask your doctor to prescribe so-and-so,' as if the patient, merely by watching an ad on television, might know a more appropriate remedy for their illness than the doctor himself. If we've reached a point where we can basically prescribe our own medicine, why can't we just grow our own pot?"
On any given day, you can jog down many residential streets in Oak Cliff or northeast Dallas and smell the distinct aroma of marijuana. This subversive farmers market is flourishing because of its connection to that coveted demographic: the image-conscious boomer who always pays with crisp twenties straight from the ATM machine. Now that it's held in the same regard as sports cars, single-malt scotch and exquisite jewelry, we shouldn't expect the infatuation to evaporate any time soon.
This is Dallas, where image has always been everything. Green is the new gold.
Editor's note: The author of this story, for obvious reasons, wished to remain anonymous. Managing Editor Patrick Williams contributed to this report.
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