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Bringing Humboldt's shadow economy into the light


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Among them were strains with names like Blueberry, Amazing Haze and Armageddon. But Grant was most excited about a new twist on one called Super Silver Haze.

"We've been working on it for nine years," he said, reaching to pull down a bud that glistened with silvery resin. I took a deep whiff, and my head filled with the plant's breathy, arresting allure.

Grant saw my eyes widen.

"Yeah," he laughed. "That's ... that just rocks."

Breeding marijuana is its own kind of magic. Grant talked about the elusive quest to balance a body high with a head high; to blend the perfect combination of looks, aroma, flavor and THC; and to encourage resistance to mold, an incessant problem with the coastal fog. Breeding and growing styles can border on the occult. One breeder meticulously tracks each plant's parentage in his quest to produce super-potent "stupid dope." Others drive nails through the plants' stalks, on the theory that torture will produce more THC. And one group of ritualists grows weed that's beyond hand-crafted, observing elaborate precautions to avoid touching the buds during harvest - the better to preserve their sanctity.

Grant's pot patch reflected the evolving state of the Northern California marijuana business. His cannabis was contracted to a medical marijuana dispensary in Sacramento. In the middle of the garden, angled toward the sky, was a white board painted with a red cross. An attached bundle of paperwork noted his compliance with the state's medical marijuana law.

"That's for the helicopters," Grant said. He had little fear of a raid. The helicopters appeared once earlier in the summer and then stayed away. And now it seemed the entire industry was poised to come further out of the shadows.

In 2009, with the California budget going up in smoke, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger - no dummy about his constituents' yen for dope - began to consider legalizing recreational use of marijuana, and then taxing it, as a way to stem the state's looming fiscal crisis. The state tax office estimated that a $50-an-ounce levy on marijuana could, when coupled with increased sales-tax revenue, generate $1.4 billion for state coffers. The legalize-and-tax mantra was subsequently taken up by Oakland entrepreneur Richard Lee, who created Oaksterdam, a sort of vo-tech school for aspiring pot growers, and almost single-handedly turned the city into a medical-marijuana mecca.

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