How Green Is Your Pot?

A new collective is trying to sell sustainable, organically grown marijuana, but patients are hooked on indoor weed that wastes energy and pollutes the planet.

The defiant, distorted twang of Steppenwolf’s 1968 hit “Born To Be Wild” blares from the truck belonging to marijuana grower “Kim.” His radio is tuned to 91.1-FM KMUD in southern Humboldt County, as he drives past steep gorges and through dark groves of redwoods. Like a true nature child/We were born/Born to be wild

Five hours north of San Francisco, up Highway 101, nature truly rules. Geology has reduced the mighty six-lane freeway to a two-lane, landslide-prone country road. Off the highway and off the grid, miles and miles up country roads whose names cannot be disclosed, mountain lion and female deer run through Kim’s front yard.

We have climbed so high/I never wanna die/Bornnnnnn to be wiiiiiiiiild …

“Hey!” yells Kim, spying a couple of big, healthy does.

The deer linger in the shade of a large tree. Next to it is Kim’s three-room bachelor shack.

His truck rumbles past some solar panels and he parks next to what looks like a cell-tower receiver nailed to a tree. The radio array provides Internet access, he says, as he hops out of the truck, leaving it unlocked. He ascends the steep hillside in big strides. The deer crest the ridge ahead of him. “I wouldn’t be surprised if their lips are covered with strawberry juice,” he laughs.

Further up the hill, in the blazing, eighty-degree sun, an acre-sized patch of artichokes, flowers, berries, and tomatoes contains some interesting guests — about thirty pot plants. They stretch skyward, leaves fanned wide in the bright heat. Each deep-green, seven-pointed leaf is its own solar panel, and it’s fueling the production of medical-grade Granddaddy Durkle, Purple Chiesel, and something called Sour Tsunami. “You’ll run across that name in a few years,” Kim assures.

Rooted in big holes in the ground or in soil boxes, Kim’s plants stand waist-high on this June day, but come harvest in late September, they’ll be taller than he is and will spread up to ten feet in diameter. Each plant yields anywhere from one to fifteen pounds of high-grade marijuana, with the average being two and a half. Each pound goes for upwards of $2,000.

Deer will eat marijuana, Kim says, not necessarily to get high, but because in the fall, it’s among the only watered, leafy green vegetation around. Uphill, a year-round spring provides drinking water, sanitation, irrigation, and a bit of hydroelectric power. “See the ash tree up there,” Kim points to the horizon of the verdant wilderness. “An ash tree that size means water year-round for at least the last twenty years.”

Kim’s kids are all grown up, and he’s been in the hills for nine years now. The grandson of an Idaho farmer, he kneels down in his dusty blue jeans and work boots and investigates the base of a plant for bite marks. He thumbs the leaves, looking for signs of malnutrition, mice, voles, gophers. He digs his fingers into the soil and checks its moisture, fills his hands with dirt and brings it into the light. The clay clods crumble through his caked fingers. “You aren’t going to get any better dirt,” he says.

Up here, the only sounds are birdsong and the wind rustling through the grass. Noticing the breeze, Kim fetches some long, thin sticks and drives them into the soil at an angle. The sticks help the plants support themselves in the wind. Later, Kim’ll stake the outlying branches down, quadrupling the final width of the plant.

Set against the priceless backdrop of the Humboldt hills, this serene garden tended by an aging hippie seems like an iconic, timeless scene — one that many people might imagine is what typical pot-growing looks like. But the reality couldn’t be more different.

Northern California’s highly advanced medical marijuana market is dominated not by hippie-grown, outdoor, sustainable marijuana, but by fossil-fueled and nuke-powered indoor weed. The medical stuff is just a small fraction of the recreational market, but, in total, indoor pot consumes an estimated 8 percent of all electricity generated in California and 1 percent of all electricity generated in America. Its greenhouse emissions equal that of six million cars. Growing just one joint indoors emits two pounds of CO2.

Indeed, marijuana, once synonymous with all that is green, has become anything but in the region that gave birth to the environmental movement. Residents in the liberal Bay Area routinely elbow past each other to buy cage-free eggs, free-range beef, and organic strawberries, and yet their weed habit costs a Fukushima’s-worth of power every year.

Why? Because medical cannabis users seem to prefer the high they get from indoor-grown pot, not to mention the way it looks, smells, and tastes — even if it’s helping to destroy the planet.

But the Tea House Collective, a group of growers including Kim and about two dozen other hippies and their families in southern Humboldt County, is trying to reconnect the medical pot world to the green movement. With offices in Berkeley, the collective has embarked on a farm-to-door delivery service throughout Northern California. The angle: nurture a niche for sustainably farmed, solar-powered, organically grown, high-potency, outdoor medical cannabis.

The only question is whether they’ll succeed in marketing and selling off-the-grid marijuana, grown the way it used to be.

“It’s not rocket science,” says Kim, twisting up a fatty. “But we do have really good weed.”

Whirrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr … The roar of the air conditioning and fans inside this pitch-black, Marin County grow room is constant — 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Even though it’s a baking-hot, dry, 85-degree day outside, the air inside the growop is comfortably warm and slightly humid.

The aroma of ripening, high-potency cannabis saturates the entire air supply. Matthew Witemyre — chief of staff for the Bay Area collective Medi-Cone — turns on a handheld, green LED light, illuminating two spooky rows of about a dozen flowering medical marijuana plants. Behind a locked door on a property guarded by a retired cop, the green light reveals pregnant, white buds in the breezy darkness.

The lights must stay off because the finishing buds are on a timed cycle of light and darkness that makes them flower. This late in development, each fist-sized cola is sticky, dense, and hard, and glows an alien green in the LED light.

Medi-Cone is finishing off about a dozen huge plants of Trainwreck, Candy Kush, and others in three grow rooms. The small collective grows, grinds, rolls, and distributes pre-rolled joints to Bay Area dispensaries. In just a year, Medi-Cone has grown from serving twelve dispensaries to forty, and the vertically integrated collective strains to keep up with demand.

But that’s not its only problem, said Witemyre. There’s also the electricity bill. All these fans and air conditioners and lights consume thousands of dollars of juice per cycle. The PG&E bills have surprised the growing company, and it can’t get a commercial power rate.

But that doesn’t surprise Evan Mills, an energy analyst employed by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California. Working independently this spring, the Ph.D revealed some startling statistics about indoor cannabis and the huge amounts of electricity it sucks up. Indoor pot cultivation generates about $5 billion in electricity bills per year in the United States, he estimated, and most of that energy is wasted because growing indoors is 75 percent inefficient.

Mills calculated the carbon footprint of indoor pot and published it in an incendiary independent paper titled Energy Up In Smoke: The Carbon Footprint of Indoor Cannabis Production. A member of the International Panel on Climate Change, Mills cares about energy efficiency. He’s worked on everything from data centers to homes, to kerosene used for lighting in the developing world.

“I began noticing the hydroponic and indoor gardening stores popping up all over the place and discovered that the shelves were more densely packed with fans, lights, and dehumidifiers than soils and fertilizers,” he wrote in an e-mail. “As a long-time energy analyst, I naturally began doing the math on how much energy was being used.”

According to federal drug statistics, the annual production of cannabis nationwide is an estimated 17,000 metric tons — with one-third of it being grown indoors. So Mills then modeled what an “average” ten-by-ten foot indoor growing module would produce (.7 kilograms per cycle) and need in terms of power (2,698 kilowatt-hours per cycle). At an average of 12 cents per kilowatt-hour in Northern California, growing four indoor plants to harvest costs about $323 in electricity approximately every ninety days.

California’s indoor marijuana crop alone would fill 600,000 such grow modules — 1.7 million for the nation, Mills estimated. With our current power supply mix, one Medi-Cone joint equals about two pounds of CO2 emissions. It’s like running a 100-watt light bulb for seventeen hours.

The April paper exploded online, with dozens of blogs and newspapers, including The New York Times, mentioning Mills and the study. Mills says that some of the data he published has been misconstrued. “The media has really missed the story and misrepresented the analysis in many cases,” he said. “Nine out of ten reports focused on who to blame rather than what to do about it. The blame often was placed on producers rather than consumers, which is always a dubious thing to do.”

Compared to other energy uses, indoor pot farming isn’t that bad, indoor cannabis defenders argue. Indoor pot only uses one-sixth as much electricity as household refrigerators, they contend.

But Mills responds: “I don’t have sympathy for cannabis advocates who say that the energy use is too small to worry about — it’s not.”

The most humorous reaction came from certain conservative climate-change deniers, he said. They were “stumbling over themselves to inadvertently acknowledge the fact of climate change so that they could then blame [pot-smoking] ‘liberals’ for the [climate] problem and claim that the oil companies should be let off the hook.”

“Professionally this has been very exciting,” Mills concluded. “It is rare in this day and age that you come across an energy end use that has never been measured, and then to find that it represents something like 8 percent of California’s residential electricity use.”

Mills’ analysis also turned the stomachs of many die-hard environmentalists in Humboldt County. Because, in a way, they knew they helped create the problem.

Looking for adventure/In whatever comes our way …

Weed cultivation has become something like Humboldt’s version of the legendary golem: once the creative pride of the region, now an unstoppable force that threatens their way of life. Just ask Kym Kemp — author of the southern Humboldt blog “Redheaded Blackbelt,” which covers the growing culture there. A native and a lifer, Kemp’s family has been in the area since the late 1850s.

Pot growing was part of the Sixties and Seventies back-to-the-land movement, she said. Hippie gardeners crossed American native sativas and imported Hindu Kush indicas and got faster growth, earlier flowering, and serious highs.

Local growers became super successful at adapting the plants, and dope became the economic engine of Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity counties, she said. In the Eighties, the federal Campaign Against Marijuana Planting and its famous helicopters only succeeded in driving growers indoors.

Using street lights for sun and media like hydroponic rock wool for soil, indoor weed became perversely stronger. Untethered to any need for soil or sun, the Emerald Triangle’s potent indoor dope growing practices then spread like an invasive species.

And just as “hydro” practices moved south from Humboldt, the state began to see a rolling back of decades of pot prohibition: Proposition 215 in 1996; Assembly Bill 420 in 2004; Attorney General Jerry Brown’s guidelines in 2008; numerous court victories; the Obama administration’s “Ogden” Memo in 2009; and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s signing of a bill to downgrade possession of marijuana to an infraction in 2010 have taken the risk out of the federally illegal weed.

In addition, the Great Recession, coupled with the collapse of the construction industry, has prompted nearly every half-bright pot aficionado to come up with the same idea at the same time: Grow it.

Hydro is a feature in almost every neighborhood in Northern California now. Billboards from San Francisco to Humboldt advertise hydroponic supplies, such as chemical nutrients, plastic hosing, high-intensity discharge lighting, fans, air conditioning, and water tanks.

Perhaps tens of thousands of people — many from the cratered real estate industry — have entered the California business of growing dope. The medical marijuana industry alone in California is now estimated at $1.3 billion per year. Perhaps one out of forty homes in the city of Oakland has an indoor garden, as measured by the number of fire department calls per year featuring the presence of a pot farm.

But the fact that seemingly everyone in California took to indoor growing didn’t cause the rugged Humboldters to retire. They reloaded.

Following the legalization of cultivation for medical purposes in California in 1996, Humboldt County saw a 25 percent rise in per-capita residential electricity use compared to the rest of California, according to data compiled by Humboldt State University.

Perhaps even bigger than Humboldt’s newfound thirst for grid power was its “diesel dope” scene: thousands of plants, grown sometimes in buried shipping containers, fed by diesel-fired generators, the kind used for hospitals in emergencies. Entire creeks buzzed at night, Kemp said, shattering the region’s famed serenity. Some local owls can no longer hunt because the loud generators destroy their ability to stalk their nighttime prey.

But a tipping point came in May 2008, following the now-infamous Hacker Creek diesel spill. Renters on a Humboldt dope-growing property were trying to transfer diesel from a big tank to a smaller tank and spilled about six hundred gallons of diesel fuel into Hacker Creek, killing nearly everything in its path.

Neighbors called the cops, who fined the landlord and ordered a clean-up, Kemp said. It was said to be the third spill in that location. Land that was “the next step away” from pristine had become as toxic as a superfund site. No insects buzzed, and the air reeked of diesel and caused headaches.

“That was the only one I’ve ever personally witnessed, although the stories are that big growers don’t tend to share these things; I mean, neighbors aren’t really excited if they find out you poured diesel in the ground,” Kemp said. Still, “it happens all the time,” she added.

Some indoor farms use so many chemicals on their marijuana that trimmers have gotten blisters on their hands. “They don’t realize what they are doing to the neighbors and themselves; a lot of these guys … spray the bejeezus out of their stuff,” she said.

A group of long-time farmers who had already started the group Put Them In The Sun were furious about Hacker Creek. It added fuel to their campaign, which has become “It’s truly sad; these people are appalled at these practices,” Kemp said. “They could not believe it. They had come up here to escape, after fighting in riots in the Sixties. They thought they were starting a movement to change the Earth and bring man into a more balanced relationship with nature. Instead, it’s destroying nature.”

But is just a tiny voice compared to the giant indoor scene. Each month magazines like High Times, Kush, West Coast Cannabis, and Culture feature “nug porn” — close-ups of crystalline, lab-grown pot that can fetch $60 per eighth of an ounce.

They have brand names like “LA Confidential” and are only available at select stores. Indoor farmers usually grow them from clones. Dispensary operators say these strains have “bag appeal”: the sight of sparkly flower-tops, bursting with rich aromas.

Richard Lee, operator of Coffeeshop Blue Sky in Oakland, said that indoor is simply better: It’s stronger and can be controlled more. And according to Stephen DeAngelo at Oakland’s Harborside Health Center, which has 80,000 patients, four out of five customers prefer indoor to outdoor, even at steep discounts for outdoor. A program to try to sell more outdoor flopped, he said.

Why? Growers at the Tea House Collective say Californians are simply misinformed. “Our idea is — a lot of people have heard the industrial grow propaganda about outdoor and just simply don’t know anything about it all,” said Collective founder Charley Custer. “If they check it out they’ll like it.”

Silence. Birds chirping. The wind in the grass. Dawn at Charley Custer’s fifty-acre farm in Humboldt. The peacefulness feels like a window into heaven.

Custer tells guests to feel free to take a leak in the field, but to go number two in the outhouse. He marches through the fields in a bathrobe and sandals to rotate his solar panels. He’s a Chicago native and former reporter for the Chicago Reader who tired of the city life and headed off the grid.

After first visiting in the mid-Eighties, he settled in the area to help with forest protection. He purchased this huge piece of property miles up several dirt roads with his wife Liz. The Drug Enforcement Administration had raided the prior owner because of a giant diesel-fueled pot grow in the property’s barn. Custer got the land at a discount.

Today, he grows vegetables and about thirty lawful pot plants near the ruins of the old industrial dope scene. That sixty-light grow had been powered by hundreds of gallons of diesel, and a hazmat team from Chico had to be called in to dispose of five fifty-gallon drums of used motor oil, Custer recalls.

Sealed up tight, the barn roof had a triple-layer of insulation to hide the grow’s immense heat from the police department’s thermal imagers. The dank growop’s Sheetrock walls became covered with black mold.

Custer helped found the Humboldt Medical Marijuana Advisory Council, is its secretary, and knows many people in the close-knit community. In a Humboldt version of a barn raising, dozens of neighbors helped him and Liz remove tons of dirt from inside the old industrial grow house. Today, it’s a study with a library and a wall-size map of the Emerald Triangle’s fiercely rugged and unconquerable terrain.

Sitting at his dinner table, looking out over the valley, he says that most of the Tea House Collective members knew each other before its founding. They were like-minded environmentalists and growers who realized that what they had started was escaping from them. “We’re just recognizing that things are changing down there and we aren’t affecting how they’re changing, and if they continue to change that way, they’ll evolve away from us,” he explains.

The Tea House Collective, known among its members as THC, which is also an abbreviation for a psychoactive-ingredient in cannabis, formally started in spring 2010, before planting. The nascent group made sure that all of its gardeners were abiding by the collective’s self-enforced rules, which include growing small-scale (around thirty plants) and outdoors only, without any artificial fertilizers or chemical sprays.

Kim amends the local “tectonic toothpaste” soil with potting soil, green sand, Calphos, bat guano, kelp, peat moss, glacial sand, and green manure like bean stalks.

THC grower Marsha’s personal recipe includes chicken shit, fish emulsion, oyster shell, perlite, and microbial root amendments. “People are doing thousands of plants; I have 29,” she said. “I can enjoy them. I’m in personal touch with every single plant.”

The diet of plants grown by the collective’s farmers differs sharply from indoor growers, who buy plastic tanks of chemical nutrients named “Wet Betty” and “Big Bud” from the hydro stores. They all contain a mix of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, but the chemical binders and supposedly “inert” unlisted ingredients give purists pause. “I don’t know anything about chemicals,” Marsha said. “I only grow organically.”

THC growers must also grow “sustainably,” which loosely means diverting only a small fraction of water from watersheds and avoiding fertilization techniques that affect ground and stream water. The idea has been challenging to implement. “We call it ‘herding hippies,’ and theoretically it’s impossible,” Custer said. “But, in fact, because we were magnetized by common values, the people that came into Tea House came of their own accord.

“We didn’t do any sort of sales job,” he continued. “People had confidence in the values and they knew who Liz and I and my friends like Karen down in the city were. They could trust us. We were all taking a gamble together.”

After last fall’s harvest, THC’s founding growers each donated a pound of their best stuff to the collective. The group came up with a logo, a web site, and marketing materials. They originally hoped to set up shop with their own dispensary in Berkeley, but after learning that it could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, they settled on a home delivery model, with offices in Berkeley. “Initially we planned on getting the word out virally,” Custer said. But it’s proven harder than they thought.

The group currently does home sales visits similar to Tupperware parties, catering to well-off, privacy-minded Bay Area weed aficionados who prefer to buy organic. The collective also recently bought a booth at the Deep Green eco-fest in Richmond on April 23. It netted them plenty of interest and a couple dozen new members. “There are people in their thirties that have never seen an outdoor plant,” Custer said. “They go, ‘Wow, this is really a plant. They’re really beautiful!'”

Top-notch, organically grown pot also smells, tastes, and feels better, purists say. It’s much like the difference between an industrially farmed tomato from Safeway and an organic tomato from the farmers’ market, Kemp said. “Everybody knows a tomato from a farmers’ market — it tastes so wonderful. That’s the difference that I see happening with medical marijuana. Of course there’s good indoor, but as a whole you get healthier plants that are better for your body with outdoor. God, it’s just beautiful.”

A Tea House Collective member in the Bay Area, agrees. The thirty-year-old male, who wished to remain anonymous, vaporizes to manage occasional depression and signed up online after hearing the collective’s pitch at Deep Green. “I primarily was attracted to it because it was grown in the sun and naturally,” he said. “But it tastes and smells like nothing I’ve ever had before. You can seemingly taste the soil, the pine trees, maybe the strawberries it was growing next to, the sun and the salty ocean wind — somehow it’s all in there.”

Yeah, darlin’/gonna make it happen/take the world in a love embrace … Marsha checks the sex of some potted marijuana plants in her Humboldt grow. In the fading afternoon light, she says that these days she’s less worried about a police raid than about the economic future of her community.

Nowadays, the cops usually ignore hippies like her and instead focus on battling the cartels in the national forest. With prices falling back to Eighties levels, pot prohibition is now a perverse form of government Farm Aid. If pot were to become legal, prices could fall further, possibly cratering the Humboldt economy.

When Marsha started growing in 1982, the price for outdoor pot was about $1,600 a pound wholesale, and she thought that was a lot. By the Nineties, wholesale pounds crested at $6,000, she says. Today, the Tea House Collective aims to wholesale pounds at $2,200 to clubs, but it’s a buyers’ market. Many dispensaries in the cities won’t even take outdoor-grown pot. Meanwhile, indoor growers can still fetch $4,000 per pound at clubs.

But what Tea House can do is raise awareness about best practices, gently prodding its neighbors and consumers to raise their standards — much like the organic food movement. Custer points to how environmentalists helped get the term “organic” legally codified for agriculture. Now, major agribusiness has seized upon the practices.

Kemp says she’s already seen the green-pot movement working locally. “I know people who have quit growing indoor. As one guy said, ‘I didn’t want my neighbors hating me anymore.’ We’re all pretty tight. To have your neighbors not think well of you is important.” The collective, in fact, already has a waiting list for local growers who want to join. The challenge remains to expand the consumer base.

But Tea House salesman Zeremy Uptegrove, based in San Francisco, is optimistic. He’s in charge of wholesaling collective product to clubs. Although many buyers still bristle at the collective’s price points (even if they are lower than indoor weed), some are coming around.

“Papadon,” executive director of the Santa Clara County club SCVCS, Inc., said Tea House made a convert out of his five-year-old, 1,000-patient storefront collective this year. He had thought outdoor was generally lower quality than indoor. “Outdoor products usually are cheaper, more airy, not as colorful, they don’t have the smell — everything that the indoor has,” he said. “Well, Tea House has changed my mind on that. Tea House is my top shelf.”

Tea House also retails $35 per eighth, about half the price of some boutique indoor. In fact, Tea House appears to be a better deal for the sick and disabled on fixed incomes who want a better product at a cheaper cost. “Tea House is simply fantastic; it is what they say,” he said.

But for Custer and his THC colleagues, growing outdoor, sustainable weed is about more than just producing high-quality pot for a good price. “We chased different values than the ones we saw destroying the world,” Custer explained. “We say, ‘This is elemental California culture and Californians can’t appreciate it. So let’s start defending it.'”


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