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The New Dealers

Family, kids, minivan—and drug dealing. How the recession has driven average Americans into the game.

For some time, I'd been hearing stories from my sources in the interstate marijuana racket about law-abiding "civilians" turning to the game because of the recession, and so, armed with introductions, I hit the road to meet some of these unlikely criminals face to face. That's how, on a hot evening in June, I found myself in Dan's Northern California kitchen.

Dan isn't his real name. Nor are any of the names in this story, for obvious reasons. But his situation is a familiar, harsh reality for many Americans, as I learned while doing research for my recent novel on this subject. Dan is in his early 40s, a slim, soft-spoken former short-haul trucker who once owned all the toys: a used Mercedes, snowmobiles, Jet Skis. When they were both employed, he and his wife—a retail manager—easily cleared $100,000 a year. "We ate out breakfast, lunch, and dinner," Dan, now a minimum-wage laborer, tells me with folded arms. "That's the way life was for 17 years."

Today, Dan's toys are gone, sold to support an underwater mortgage. His wife, who kept her job, left him three years ago, driving away in the Mercedes. "She didn't like the fact that I sat at home and she was going to work," he tells me. "There were no jobs. I filled out a thing for the city, and 400 people were there for one opening—a garbage truck driver."

"There were no jobs. I filled out a thing for the city, and 400 people were there for one opening—a garbage truck driver."

Keeping the house has been Dan's only real goal since 2008, when he was laid off. It's a simple three-bedroom, two-bath in a prefab, working-class subdivision off the I-5 corridor. "I wanted my kid to grow up in a safe community," he explains. "I have always made my house payment, and I've always made it on time." But he fretted over things like gas prices. "My daughter would say, 'Can I take your truck to the store?' That's 1.2 miles, which makes it 2.4 miles round-trip. If she went there once, I would not make it to work the next day. That's how my money was. I've fought for it the past three years working two and three jobs. I've even changed my morals."

From his window, I can see the jagged outline of the Klamath range far off to the northwest. Surrounding those mountains is the Emerald Triangle: Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity counties—the heart of large-scale pot cultivation in California. In 2010, state voters rejected a proposal to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Nevertheless, in the 15 years since they passed Proposition 215—the state's vague and permissive medical-marijuana law—growing the drug has become more socially acceptable, local dispensaries have proliferated, and associated businesses have flourished like pilot fish on a shark. Mom-and-pop shops sell high-tech gardening gear and starter plants called clones. Pot "colleges" like Oakland's Oaksterdam University offer "quality training for the cannabis industry." An inexhaustible array of websites tout everything from fertilizer to legal advice and grow-room insurance.

Pot prices have plummeted in California, in part because so many of the state's estimated 1.2 million medical-pot users now grow their own. But with a bargain-basement $1,500 pound of "Cali outdoor" fetching $5,000 or more in Eastern states, there are fortunes to be made in interstate commerce. "Between the recession and the large amount of money you can make, there is just too much money involved not to do it," Sgt. Barry Powell, head of the Shasta County Sheriff's Marijuana Eradication Team, tells me. "In Shasta County, medical-marijuana growers have tripled over the last three years. Just off our aerial flights, what we're seeing in people's backyards is unreal."

About a year and a half ago at a wedding, an acquaintance approached Dan with a solution to his financial woes. "They wanted to do some indoor stuff, and no one had a place for it to go," he explains. "I had a place for it to go." The acquaintance was a veteran grower, part of a loosely knit criminal network supplying major distributors as far away as Indiana.

"I've never smoked," Dan swears, raising his right hand. "I don't even drink. Even now, I will work wherever, whenever. It was a decision I made to try and catch up."

"Do you know how many people try to 'black mask' it and get as many buds as they can? It's a fucking war zone."

He agonized for six months. Within days of his assent, a grow room was under construction in his garage. "The first time I got nervous was when they brought the lumber to my house," Dan tells me. "They broke out tape measures, started cutting two-by-fours, throwing up drywall, insulation, plastic." There were 10 lights, two AC units, fans, a carbon dioxide generator, and more than 130 plants. "It was way bigger than I wanted," he says. "That I felt pressured into a little bit. I felt bullied."

One of the builders, a rural wiseguy I'll call Rocky, told me it cost $12,000 to outfit Dan's garage. "Everybody getting 'scrips thinks you can just plant and you'll get money," he says when I visit his surprisingly spare apartment in Redding. "That's not how it works. There's feeding schedules. The whole room is wrapped in plastic—you don't want bugs." With outdoor grows, Rocky adds, they're "picking and shoveling May to October. Then you gotta sleep out there with shotguns. Do you know how many people try to 'black mask' it and get as many buds as they can? You steal the tops off 10 plants, that's six, eight pounds, and they didn't do shit but swing a machete. It's a fucking war zone."

The growers disabled Dan's garage door opener and reversed the lock on the garage's interior door to keep him out. The monthly electric bill, which they covered, shot from $45 to more than $1,000. Dan fretted that this might tip off the cops. The growers insisted that, with all the legal grows, the authorities no longer pay much attention to such things. "The way the prisons are packed, they're not going to throw someone in for growing halfway-legal weed," Rocky says.

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The first harvest arrived about three months later, and Dan was handed $10,000 in cash. "I caught up on all my house stuff, my property taxes," he says flatly, with no hint of a victory grin. "I paid off a family member who helped with an attorney about the divorce."

The work crew is now preparing for a third planting. Dan is no longer in a money ditch, but the stress of hosting a criminal enterprise is wearing him down. "I'm standing here with a sick stomach," he says. "It's nice to be able to give your kids what they want, to be able to spend the time with them that they need, but the partners I have are greedy. They don't want to work. I don't not want to work. All of us have agreed not to tell anybody, but I've found out that there have been people here trimming, people in and out. I've never been in trouble. I hope they'd be lenient, give me probation."

He's right to be worried. Growing or possessing small amounts of pot has been decriminalized or protected by 25 states and the District of Columbia, but the scale of cultivation in Dan's garage remains a felony punishable by up to three years in state prison. And while California police agencies have been hammered by budget cuts, generous federal anti-drug grants have helped fill that gap. Last year, Powell's boss, Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko, told the Wall Street Journal that marijuana eradication (for which his department received almost $720,000 in federal support this past year) is "where the money is."

Two days after leaving Dan's place, I'm riding shotgun in a small car bound south for Sacramento, as the Central Valley blurs past outside my window. The commercial rice fields here are so vast they're fertilized by crop dusters, which buzz alongside the interstate like gigantic, low-flying bees. My driver, Colin, is a well-groomed white guy who lives with his wife and kid near the capital city. He keeps his hands at 10 and 2 on the wheel, stays with the flow of traffic, and glances in the rearview from time to time. I've warned him, just in case we get pulled over, not to tell me whether he's hauling a shipment. In turn, he's asked me not to publish too many details about him or his car.

As we cruise down I-5 doing the speed limit, he fills me in on his livelihood. "One of the hardest things is getting the stuff from point A to point B," he says. "Everyone has the impression that if you're doing this, you're high or have a drug addiction. But if you're driving a trunk full of somebody's product, even have your own money in it, why would you want to be high?"

"When my wife lost her job, it just felt bleak. I would only have ever done this because of the recession."

Colin's no slouch. He has a master's degree and used to teach part-time at local colleges. Two years ago, after his wife was laid off from her job, he was approached by a friend, the husband of one of his former students. "They were always going on trips," Colin recalls. "I was always like, 'What do you do for a living?' He was always vague: 'Real estate, blah, blah, blah.' I'm not a dumb guy. He's like: 'We've known each other a long time. Want to make some money?' I was like, 'Yeah, what is it?'"

The gig was transporting high-grade weed from California to far-flung Eastern states. Colin has since driven "thousands and thousands of miles," he says, and gotten to know everyone from big-time dealers who "roll with guns" down to working-class guys with families trying to make ends meet. "Cobbling together a full load between a bunch of different schools, plus teaching summers, I'd pull in about $20,000 a year," he says in edgy, rapid speech that hints of excessive caffeine, or nerves. "I made double that in a month driving East twice. When my wife lost her job, it just felt bleak. I would only have ever done this because of the recession."

The friend, it turned out, was a major grower and distributor. He taught Colin how to launder his earnings and promised no repercussions if he wanted to quit. "This came my way, and honest to God, at the time it felt like manna from heaven," Colin says. Now he's made enough money to have a stake in the product. "I can make $2,000 a pound taking it across the country."

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