The first place your legal pot comes from is officially a mystery.
When Washington State issued licenses to grow recreational marijuana, a license given to 90 applicants so far, it included a clever "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Within the first 15 days after getting a permit, growers could source their plants anywhere, including illegal sources. After all, what other kinds of sources were there? There were no such things as legal plants yet.
So growers went to quasi-legal medical-pot gardens and black-market growers, wherever they could to find the first starts. As long as the plants were not flowering, the state liquor control board had granted amnesty.
Not that it solved all the problems. "It takes eight weeks to harvest, minimum," says Gecko Growers co-owner Kevin Dietz, who notes it takes two additional weeks after harvest for drying and trimming. Given that he didn't get his license until early May, Dietz says, "I can't get product to you until July 28. The state should have waited. Instead of rushing to get retail up and running on time, they should have rushed to get growers licensed sooner."
So if you're wondering where all the legal pot you've heard so much about is, the answer is: It's still growing.
Under the blistering sun of the Yakima Valley, where it was 107 degrees last week, bushy plants are growing in outdoor fields adjacent to orchards and horses. In the Wenatchee Valley, hundreds of plants are already being harvested inside warehouses as large as airplane hangars.
Marijuana is the state's second-largest cash crop at $1.03 billion a year, not far behind apples ($1.15 billion a year), according to a study by researcher Jon Gettman. And while the state has licensed only a fraction of the canopy required to meet the demand thus far, the largest farms are booming at 21,000 square feet—which is tiny compared to, say, tobacco, but massive compared to the typical gardens.
For decades, most of the pot in this state has been grown in small basement operations, typically suburban houses, and midsize outdoor gardens surreptitiously folded in among the brush and trees of Eastern Washington. What do the new models look like? Photographer Kelly O and I went to Eastern Washington to find out.
Cole Hurst has grown pot before—medical marijuana—but he's never done it on the scale he's undertaking now as the head grower at Monkey Grass Farms. The all-indoor facility next to the Wenatchee River is registered as a tier-three recreational marijuana producer, the largest type licensed by the state. At 21,000 square feet, the warehouse has a footprint roughly the size of five basketball courts.
The day we visit, an inventory sheet torn from a yellow legal pad shows that they have exactly 5,467 plants growing under 250 lights.
AN INDOOR FARM Monkey Grass Farms estimates their electricity bill will be $4,000
"This is a quarter of a million watts," Hurst says. Suspended by a wood framework, the lights shine brighter than street lamps onto grassy-smelling young cannabis plants. "My medical garden was 23,000 watts—one-tenth of this size," he says. This operation is so large, Hurst explains, "We can't run all these lights at once." He unbuttons a wall of black Visqueen to reveal another giant room in the dark. "It's night in here," he says.
Eastern Washington has some of the lowest electricity rates in the country, but even so, Monkey Grass Farms' co-owner Eric Cooper estimates it will cost $4,000 a month to keep the lights on. Twenty-five full-time employees are required to tend the plants and harvest the crop, which is estimated to be up to 500 pounds a month, while processing an additional 500 pounds a month for other farmers. (Processing is laborious work that entails cutting the plants, drying the flowers, separating the low-potency leaves, trimming the buds, and packaging the dried, trimmed buds into sealed one-gram bags.)
Just those two expenses—electricity and labor—may add up to $1 million a year, particularly striking compared to outdoor operations that use the sun for electricity and automatic watering systems. But Cooper doesn't seem concerned with outdoor growers: "With our power being as cheap as it is, I don't think we will have a problem with competing. I'd be concerned in Seattle, where there are higher power and labor costs."
Even so, the electricity bills will add up when competing with outdoor growers who don't have to pay a penny for sunshine. On the other hand, Monkey Grass Farms and other indoor growers can harvest all year, with the certainty of high-quality pot (a quality that outdoor crops can rarely match) that fetches top dollar.
The best aspect of running an outdoor marijuana farm is also the worst aspect: It lacks a roof. This matters to the farmer here who asks us not to name the whereabouts of his 453 plants—we can only say it's in Benton County. Earlier this month, a man jumped over the fence to steal a handful of early-maturing plants. "He set off the alarm when he opened the greenhouse," says the farmer, pointing to a hut in the corner of his field of pot bushes. "The cops were very happy to help me out. He is in jail now."
An eight-foot-tall chain-link fence masked with a swath of vinyl and topped with security cameras surrounds the plot of land. "I don't want it to look like a prison, but after that guy jumped the fence, I called the fence people to install razor wire," he explains. "That cost another $3,000."
On the upside, the absence of a roof means these plants are fueled by the beating Eastern Washington sun. The lengthy light cycles at this northern latitude help the plants grow larger than pear trees during their long vegetative period. In mid-August, when the light dwindles to about 13 hours a day, the plants will kick into flowering mode.
A single bud on only one branch, the farmer predicts, "will be two feet, as big as my arm. They'll be huge. This plant will do six pounds."
Already the plants are taller than he is, at about seven feet. He borrows an old corn-farmer saying to talk about pot: "They say if they're knee-high by the Fourth of July, you're good. Well, mine were head-high." He predicts they will be about 12 to 14 feet tall by harvest in October.
AN OUTDOOR FARM Nice for now—these plants are roughly seven feet tall—but come winter, this farm won’t be producing anything.
However, this outdoor environment creates a logistical problem: The plants will grow so tall and bushy, the rows of plants will grow into each other, forming a contiguous network of marijuana leaves, stems, and flowers so dense that a farmer will be unable to walk between the plants to water them. He's set up an irrigation system that waters each plant automatically each day. When it's time to harvest, he's got a contract with Monkey Grass Farms to pick and trim the pot. Then, unlike indoor growers, this farm will lie fallow through the icy months until the sun comes back in 2015.
His license allows him to grow the largest plot permitted by state law, but he's capped out at two-thirds the size. "I could have gone for 21,000 square feet, but my wife wouldn't let me take the yard out," he says with a chuckle.
Given the heavy state regulations and risk of burglary, I ask why it's worthwhile to try such an untested system for growing pot. "I'll make a million dollars in the first year, that's why," he says. He hopes to yield 1,000 pounds and sell it at $5 per gram wholesale. "It's all about the money. I went to prison for five years for marijuana back in the 1990s. That will slow you down—that's why you don't do it the black-market way."
Pot plants listening to classic rock. That's what happens when a hippie turns into an insurance executive and then quits to start his dream job. "We play music for them," says Gecko Growers co-owner Kevin Dietz. "They get Judas Priest, Ozzy."
"We are the baby boomers," Dietz says. "Guess what we did? We smoked weed, and then we went to corporate USA to get jobs. I did supplemental insurance for 25 years, and my wife, Connie, was in financial services. Now I can do what I wanted to do as a kid, now that I have the money to do it. Somebody is going to make a lot of money growing pot, so it might as well be us."
They bought a 7.2-acre plot of land and designed the facility with the express purpose of meeting the regulations of the marijuana-legalization initiative passed by voters in 2012. Inside, about 10 small rooms each house marijuana in staggered stages of growth. Every two weeks, another room will be ready to harvest, a predictable schedule that allows a relatively small crew of only six people.
"I probably work 80 hours a week, but it's not like work, and I'll show you why," says Dietz, opening a door to a shaft of Wenatchee sun and a field of little pot bushes behind a massive fence. How many plants are outside? "Two hundred and fifty-nine," he says instantly.
The staggered harvest may disincentivize theft, as it means there will never be too much valuable product on hand at any one time. "We can't carry guns because it's a Schedule 1 drug," Dietz says, citing the federal penalties for mixing firearms and illegal substances. "The state is asking me to grow half a million dollars in weed, but I can't protect it." He may not have a gun, but Dietz's security system is as tight as an airport's: 38 cameras, 15-foot walls, and a secured entry system.
In the end, Gecko may be the perfect model for pot cultivation, simultaneously reaping the benefits of indoor farms and outdoor farms: the huge autumn harvest of an outdoor farm, the wintertime profits of an indoor farm. But this hybrid doesn't come cheap. (By comparison, outdoor fields are easy to come by, and indoor growers can simply rent a warehouse.) Dietz had to custom-build his facility—a combination of a walled outdoor garden and a massive building—which cost $500,000 out of pocket.
Dietz was harvesting his first crop the day we visited, big bushy buds covered in purple and white hair. The name of the strain? Ace of Spades. Just like the Motörhead song.