Pubdate: Fri, 15 Oct 2010
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Page: Front Page, top of page, continued on page A16
Copyright: 2010 Los Angeles Times
Author: Sam Quinones, Reporting from Arcata, Calif.
Bookmark: (Cannabis - California)

Column One


They're Indoors, Upscale and With Values Their Parents Shunned

About the time the wholesale price of pot hit $4,000 a pound, Tony 
Sasso bought a bulldozer and an excavator and dug a massive hole on 
his ranch in eastern Mendocino County.

Then he bought four metal shipping containers and buried them in the 
hole. Inside the containers, Sasso installed 32 1,000-watt lights, a 
ventilation system and plumbing all of it powered by a 60-kilowatt 
generator. His subterranean plantation produced 60 pounds of pot 
every 56 days, the time it took to turn a crop. They were popular 
strains, with names like Blueberry, Herojuana, White Widow and Big Red.

He'd begun growing pot as a teenager in the mid-1980s, when police 
helicopters forced growers to hide their plants indoors. Going 
underground was the next logical step, to shield the lights from the 
infrared sensors of law enforcement.

His harvests paid for expensive trucks, skydiving in Maui, 
boogie-boarding in Chile and a five-bedroom home with a four-car 
garage. He eventually owned five ranches, including two in Oregon, 
and says he took in as much as $11 million a year.

"I grew up believing that the only way to make money was to grow 
marijuana, and I was good at it," said Sasso, now 42 and serving a 
14-year sentence at the federal penitentiary in Atwater.

His career as a pot entrepreneur, drawn from interviews with Sasso 
and from court records, mirrors the arc of the marijuana business in 

Today, indoor-grown pot is king. A weed that grows naturally in the 
sun has been tamed into an industrial product that is branded like 
soda pop and as subject to fashion as women's shoes. Pot raised 
indoors or underground commands up to $3,000 a wholesale pound, twice 
the price of outdoor varieties.

A Nov. 2 ballot measure to legalize limited cultivation and use of 
marijuana is the talk of Northern California's "Emerald Triangle," 
where indoor pot is an economic mainstay. The effect that 
legalization would have on the marijuana market is unclear. Much 
would depend on the policies enacted by cities and counties, which 
would have power to regulate and tax production and sales. Oakland is 
making plans to allow cultivation in warehouses, which could affect prices.

What is clear is that consumers now harbor a powerful fetish for 
indoor weed. A potent bud is no longer enough. Like connoisseurs of 
wine or coffee, pot smokers want cachet: an exotic look, a 
distinctive smell of cheese or lemon. This requires growing indoors, 
where plants can be coddled, protected from the elements and blasted 
with nutrients.

The spread of medical marijuana dispensaries has contributed to 
demand for indoor varieties. The dispensaries need a year-round flow 
of identical product that only indoor grows can produce.

Magazines and websites have helped promote a cult of indoor pot. High 
Times magazine glamorizes indoor strains with photo spreads of lush 
marijuana plants, their branches dripping with resins that hold the 
psychoactive chemical THC.

Nowhere is the ascendancy of indoor pot more evident than in the 
rugged hills of the Emerald Triangle: Mendocino, Trinity and Humboldt 
counties, where some of the most potent weed in America is grown.

In the city of Arcata in Humboldt County, several hundred houses are 
partly or entirely devoted to growing marijuana, said Police Chief 
Tom Chapman. This has led to more residential fires, a consequence of 
overburdened wiring.

In half of the city's 50 or so structure fires each year, 
firefighters come upon "grow" rooms, said Arcata Fire Chief John McFarland.

Money from indoor pot has led to an increase in home-invasion 
robberies and fostered a taste for massive trucks, designer jeans and 
plastic surgery.

In urban parts of Humboldt County, electrical use per household has 
leaped 50% since 1996, when voters approved the state's 
medical-marijuana initiative, according to a study by the Schatz 
Energy Research Center at Humboldt State University.

In Arcata and unincorporated areas of the county, average electrical 
use rose 60% during that time -- while California's overall use 
remained virtually flat.

"The housing inventory in California is continuing to get more 
efficient. Yet our per-capita use is increasing," said Peter Lehman, 
director of the Schatz Center. "Indoor grows have got to be part of 
it. How much? Nobody knows."

In areas without electrical service, the diesel generators that power 
indoor grow operations foul the air, and spills of diesel fuel have 
polluted streams.

Home and garden stores have become grow shops whose aisles are piled 
high with 1,000-watt light bulbs, tubes for watering and nutrient 
potions with names like Bud Ignitor and Bud XL. Along Highway 101, 
logging trucks have been replaced by big rigs stacked with bags of 
potting soil.

Key to indoor's rise is that it channeled the energies of a new group 
of growers native to the Emerald Triangle: rural kids who saw a 
chance to make more money from a weed than they, or their parents, 
ever thought possible.

Tony Sasso was one of them.

In the Triangle, he said, "indoor allowed the kids of hippies and 
rednecks to get rich."

All this would have been unthinkable 40 years ago when hippies, 
runaways and Vietnam veterans headed to the Northern California 
outback in one of America's last pioneer movements, called Back to the Land.

They bought homesteads for $100 an acre from ranchers and timber 
companies. They lived in tents. The names they gave their children 
embodied their values: Canyon, Ocean, Greenleaf, Sunny Day on the Mattole.

At first, they grew marijuana for their own use. Then they began to 
sell it. As logging and fishing faded, marijuana filled the void.

Across rural America, farm towns became ghost towns. But in the 
Triangle, pot supported communities of small farms, locally owned 
businesses and young people. "Marijuana saved the family farm," said 
Gerald Myers, former chief of the Briceland Volunteer Fire Department 
in southern Humboldt.

Grower money funded clinics, hospices, pre-schools and volunteer fire 
departments, residents say.

Then in 1983 the state began its Campaign Against Marijuana Planting 
(CAMP), using helicopters to spot pot fields. Each summer, narcotics 
agents uprooted tens of thousands of plants. By the mid-1990s, the 
crackdown helped push the wholesale price of premium pot as high as 
$5,000 per pound.

Growers went indoors. Beyond simply hiding from police, they could 
now grow year-round.

By the late 1990s, growers could meet anonymously on Internet sites 
to trade indoor tips and techniques. In 1983, Jorge Cervantes, a 
columnist for High Times magazine, published his "Indoor Marijuana 
Horticulture - The Indoor Bible." It's now in its fifth edition. 
Rappers such as Snoop Dogg and the Three 6 Mafia glorified specific 
strains, many of them grown indoors.

In the last decade, indoor pot's success sparked a "Green Rush" of 
youths from Pennsylvania, New York, Idaho and Wyoming to the 
Triangle, eager to try their hand. But the pioneers were the 
Triangle's native sons and daughters.

Sasso grew up a "redneck, cowboy kid" in Mendocino County and married 
the daughter of hippies.

He began smoking weed as a child and was growing marijuana outdoors 
by his early teens. He moved indoors in response to CAMP. When he 
decided to go underground and had shipping containers delivered to 
his ranch, no one seemed to notice.

"If you're continually hiring people and keeping society running, 
people just look the other way," he said.

He and his three workers entered their underground operation via a 
trap door. The generator burned through seven to nine gallons of 
diesel fuel per hour, 24 hours a day.

As he bought other ranches, he hired more workers, including more 
than a dozen women some single mothers, some retirees - who trimmed 
his buds as they were harvested.

Every pound of marijuana grown this way required about 180 gallons of 
diesel fuel - enough to take a big rig from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City.

Sasso installed a 10,000-gallon fuel tank, refilled by a diesel-fuel 
company whose drivers he tipped handsomely. "Fuel truck drivers know 
the game, and like everyone else in the Mendo, they just get rich off 
the game," Sasso wrote in an e-mail from prison.

He bought eight swamp coolers to ventilate the grow room and a large 
water tank, with lines running to the buried containers. The plants 
needed 440 gallons of water a day about what a typical family of five 
uses. Sasso took it from a nearby spring.

Mendocino County "is not part of the United States in so many ways," 
he said. "There are no rules."

Many aspiring growers were young and couldn't show much legitimate 
income. Subprime loans allowed them to buy property, further fueling 
the indoor boom, say real estate agents in the Triangle.

Grow shops - legitimate businesses that sell everything a pot farmer 
needs except the seeds - spread across the region. The Mendocino 
County Sheriff's Department has counted 22 grow stores - one for 
about every 4,500 residents. Arcata has twice as many such stores as 

Their shelves are crammed with plant nutrients. The shops are also 
steeped in euphemism. Redwood Garden Supply in Myers Flat boasts in 
advertisements that it sells everything needed for "maximum yield" 
and that its "secure and private location" has "large vehicle 
turn-around space" for "quick in & outs."

Years ago, hippies complained that logging companies kept their 
profits while foisting environmental costs on the public. Indoor 
marijuana growers have done much the same thing on a smaller scale.

At indoor grow sites, Humboldt County environmental officials report 
finding tubs of used anti-freeze, leaking fuel lines, pesticide 
containers and nutrient-laden potting soil that runs off into streams 
during rains, feeding algae blooms that suffocate fish.

In May 2008, a generator in the southern Humboldt mountains was left 
untended, and as much as 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel spilled into a 
creek that feeds the Eel River.

"In the last three years, I've seen more diesel spills than I have in 
my previous 28 years" in law enforcement, said Mendocino County 
Sheriff Thomas Allman.

The year-round stream of cash from indoor cultivation spawned a 
consumerism of the kind the original hippies were trying to escape. 
Locals called young men like Sasso "The Knights of Toyota" for their 
expensive new trucks. At their homes high in the hills, they 
installed massive stereos, wide-screen televisions and satellite 
dishes mostly powered by diesel generators.

As indoor fever took hold, Sasso's operation churned out $480,000 
worth of weed every 56 days. It all ended in 2002, when he was busted 
based on an informant's tip, charged with conspiracy and pot 
manufacturing. He pleaded guilty.

According to the federal indictment, Sasso and his workers turned 
$1.3 million in pot receipts into dozens of $10,000 cashier's checks. 
Sasso said he used them for down payments on other ranches in 
Mendocino and in Oregon. His wife and several workers were also 
charged and convicted, but only Sasso remains in prison.

He's heard that shipping containers have since fallen out of favor. 
Growers now prefer multi-plated culverts structures used to channel 
streams under highways because they are easy to assemble, don't 
arouse much suspicion when trucked in and are built to be buried.

That's not the only way the pot business has changed. Now, so many 
people are growing that wholesale prices have dropped.

"The days of making $300,000 to $600,000 a year are basically over," 
said Tim Blake, co-owner of Area 101, a Mendocino marijuana 
collective and social center. "If people would say $60,000 to 
$100,000 a year is a great wage, then they'll be fine. Problem is, a 
lot of them can't say that. They're used to something else."

Many indoor growers now oppose legalization of marijuana, believing 
it would further depress prices. Others, including some conservative 
retirees in the Emerald Triangle, yearn for legalization, hoping it 
would end indoor cultivation.

A cultural backlash against indoor is forming. In a recent Humboldt 
County Craigslist personal ad, a woman seeking a man insisted on "No 
indoor growers. Yuck." An unsigned ad in the weekly North Coast 
Journal noted indoor's carbon footprint and urged farmers to "Put 'Em 
in the Sun ... as nature intended."

Still, economic interests have grown up around indoor pot: grow 
shops, nutrient manufacturers, urban dispensaries.

"All these are all about indoor, exclusively," said Charlie Custer, a 
board member of the Humboldt Medical Marijuana Advisory Panel, formed 
recently to discuss the county's future if pot is legalized.

Tony Sasso is scheduled to be released from prison in 2015. He 
expects pot to be legal in California by then. If not, he won't 
return to Mendocino.

"There's only one thing to do there. It would be entirely too easy to 
get back in the game," he said. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake