Pubdate: Thu, 12 Sep 2013
Source: Orange County Weekly (CA)
Copyright: 2013 Village Voice Media
Author: Nick Schou
Note: Adapted from Nick Schou's new book, The Weed Runners, now 
available at


It might be a stretch to say the history of America's underground 
marijuana trade is encapsulated in the story of Donald Hoxter.

Not by much, though.

Few people can say they've smuggled as much as 10 tons of marijuana 
across both the Mexican and Canadian borders per year. Or that they 
were one of the first hippies in the Pacific Northwest to pioneer 
America's homegrown crop in the early 1980s, some 15 years before 
marijuana became legal--first in California, then in more than a 
dozen other states--for medical purposes.

And it's certainly true that few have won or lost as much as Hoxter 
in this business.

His story, which ends before the tales contained in my recently 
released book begin, is therefore a perfect place to start.

At the moment, Hoxter is sitting at an outdoor table at a coffee shop 
in Long Beach, at a busy intersection, kitty-corner from an 
elementary school where kids are loudly enjoying their afternoon recess.

He's a tall, lanky man in his early 60s with whitening red hair and 
freckles. His fair skin is mottled red and white, permanently 
scorched by 41 straight months in the too-sunny recreation yard of a 
federal prison.

A fresh cigarette dangles from his lips. He has almost lit the thing 
several times over the past hour or so, but instead absent-mindedly 
twirls the lighter with his left hand.

Hoxter is too busy talking to smoke.

The memories, some of which are still a jumble in his mind since he 
hasn't spoken publicly about much of his life until now, overflow.

It all started in the early 1960s, he says, when he was a kid in El 
Cajon, a gritty, working-class town just east of San Diego. Then as 
now, El Cajon was a bastion of the Hells Angels, and several members 
of the outlaw motorcycle gang happened to live on the street where 
Hoxter grew up. "They lived on the same block, much to my mother's 
chagrin," remembers Hoxter. "I got my first joint from the Hells 
Angels. They cost about four for a dollar back then. And, of course, 
they came from Mexico. Mexico is where everything came from in the beginning."

Hoxter hung out with older kids and young adults who tended to drive 
down to Tijuana each weekend. He didn't realize it right away, but a 
lot of them weren't just crossing the border to get drunk in the 
cantinas of the infamous Zona Norte. "A friend of mine came back one 
time and was laughing and joking and opened up the trunk of his 
Chevrolet," he recalls.

The friend lifted up some unfolded newspapers and proudly showed 
Hoxter several bricks of cheap Mexican grass. Even before Hoxter was 
old enough to drive, he was going along for the ride, and by the time 
he had his license, he was a smuggler. "It was nothing. You just 
drove down and drove back," he recalls. "Going into Mexico, there was 
no police presence, and coming back, you just played it like you had 
gotten drunk because that's what people did."

Typically, Hoxter and his friends would find a back-alley dealer, 
pool their money and purchase about 2 pounds of pot that had been 
packed into tight bundles, or bricks.

Each one cost $60 or $70. Then they'd sell each pound for $300, 
dividing the amount into 30 lids, or $10 quantities, which were 
measured by a finger's width of a Prince Albert can of tobacco.

By the late 1960s, he and his buddies were handling much larger 
loads, 30 or 40 pounds at a time, which they'd typically stash in the 
bottom of a boat, and then attach to their legs with rope before 
swimming ashore.

Meanwhile, they'd formed their own commune in San Diego called "the 
Family" and had hooked up with the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, a 
group of hippies and surfers living in cheap houses in Laguna Beach 
who were smuggling untold quantities of hashish from Afghanistan and 
transporting massive quantities of Mexican weed across the border.

Smuggling and selling hash and marijuana became a way for the Family, 
the Brotherhood and legions of other hippies to finance their 
alternative lifestyles. As more young people started tuning in, 
turning on and dropping out, the demand for Mexican buds grew even 
higher, and Hoxter was often handling shipments of 1,000 or 1,500 
pounds at a time. Because of the volume they handled, the various 
drug networks operating at the time soon had no use for Tijuana 
middlemen and had hooked up directly with individual villages in the 
Mexican states of Sinaloa, Jalisco or Michoacan, where growing 
marijuana had long been a way of life. The Family patronized one 
particular hamlet high up in the hills of Michoacan, an hour or so 
south of Morelia. After a decade of cross-border enterprise, the 
jungle township had doubled in size and enjoyed electricity, plumbing 
and paved roads.

When Southern California got too crowded--and too hot--Hoxter and the 
Family moved to rural Montana, and Hoxter began a new life smuggling 
Mexican loads across the border into Canada. His first crossing was 
insanely risky: he drove through a one-man border-control checkpoint 
with his Canuck girlfriend, posing as newlyweds. "My chances were 
probably 80 to 20 that I'd get caught," Hoxter estimates. "But I told 
her to look at this guy and melt him. 'I want him to think if I 
wasn't sitting here, he'd had a shot with you.'"

Hoxter's girlfriend was a stunner, and the happy couple was soon in 
Vancouver unloading 400 pounds of pot, which is how Hoxter met a 
friend of a friend nicknamed Art Nouveau, who became his partner in 
crime for the next 25 years.

Thanks to his connections in Vancouver, a group of hippies who were 
the biggest pot dealers in British Columbia, Hoxter was never short 
of work when it came to smuggling weed. He spent most of the 1970s 
living off the grid at the Family's commune in Montana, raising 
chickens and pigs and running pot across the border, 1,000 pounds at 
a time. Every month, a truck would come from Southern California, 
full of marijuana from Mexico. Hoxter had a collection of U.S. Forest 
Service topographical maps and knew all the unused service roads that 
led to the Canadian border.

"On the maps, the roads ended at the border, but you knew they didn't 
really end but went straight into Canada," he explains. "All you had 
to do was choose one that would dump you out close to a paved road 
because once you were on the pavement, you could be anybody, even if 
you did have Montana plates, which was okay." While driving through 
people's farms on the way to the main road, Hoxter says, nobody 
seemed to mind as long as he remembered to shut their gates so their 
cows wouldn't wander off. Often, Hoxter would drive close enough to a 
farmhouse to actually see a farmer and his wife sitting at their 
dinner table, making eye contact with him in that subtle country manner.

Not once did he forget to close a gate, nor did he ever cross paths 
with the Canadian border patrol.

A growing stack of bills from each successful sojourn, stashed in a 
hole in the ground under one of the houses, funded the Family's 
hardscrabble existence.

If someone needed money to travel somewhere or buy groceries or 
supplies, Hoxter, who was known among members of the commune as 
"Controller," would simply disburse the cash on a case-by-case basis, 
using larger amounts to finance ever-larger marijuana shipments that 
were always being orchestrated either via the Brotherhood or directly 
from Mexico. The biggest Mexican load Hoxter ever handled was a 
seaborne haul, 3 tons of a 5-ton deal, put together with his friends 
in the Brotherhood, who provided a yacht to transport the weed from 
Mexico. But the pot almost never reached its destination because the 
yacht broke down.

"The price for losing that load was our lives," Hoxter recalls, his 
voice suddenly catching in his throat. "The Mexicans would have 
killed us if we lost it." In fact, one of the crew members did lose 
his life, but that was before the boat broke its driveline. "One of 
the San Diego kids fell overboard on the trip north," Hoxter says. "I 
don't know how it happened.

You're out there in the deep blue; it was nighttime.

The captain said, 'We're not turning around.

Sorry, but your friend is gone.'"

Hoxter had no choice but to fly back north, inform his friend's 
parents their son had died in a sailing accident, and then raise 
$33,000 to buy the spare parts for the boat, which sat useless in a 
Pacific Ocean port. Finally, he had to convince his girlfriend to let 
him strap her down with the cash, which he carefully wrapped around 
her torso after instructing her to look everyone in the eye and, when 
necessary, to flirt.

Then he purchased airline tickets to fly her and her husband--yes, 
his girlfriend had a husband; this was the early 1970s after 
all--down to Mexico. The couple posed as newlyweds on honeymoon.

Once they arrived in Mexico City, Hoxter's contacts delivered the 
money to the port where the boat was waiting.

After the cash arrived, the parts were purchased, and the load 
miraculously arrived a few weeks later at an isolated beach on the 
U.S. Marine Corps base in Camp Pendleton. The spot was accessible by 
a dirt road and guarded only by a chain-link gate secured with a 
padlock. Hoxter and his cohorts used inflatable, motorized rafts to 
run the bundles of marijuana off the yacht and onto the beach; the 
haul filled up two Winnebago motor homes that Hoxter purchased, cash 
down, just to transport the goods.

Because the trip had taken a few months longer than projected, Hoxter 
ended up owing the Brotherhood some money, and to pay them off, he 
had no choice but to make a 1,000-pound run to Canada. Usually, that 
was no problem.

However, now it was the dead of winter, and 14 feet of snow blanketed 
the border between Montana and Canada. The Forest Service had also 
blown up some of the decrepit bridges Hoxter had been using to run 
drugs and had even constructed giant earthen berms along the roads to 
prevent all but the foolhardiest four-wheel-drivers from attempting 
passage. Hoxter's solution, hitching trailers loaded with pot to a 
pair of snowmobiles, seemed to work until halfway up the mountain, 
when one of them busted a fan belt from the strain of carrying the heavy load.

He and his friend were able to weave the belt back together with some 
spare wire before they froze to death, but the mission was over. The 
next night, Hoxter waited until long after sunset and walked up to a 
border checkpoint that was only open during the daytime.

He yelled and cursed at the top of his lungs and smashed a couple of 
bottles of tequila on the road. "Nobody came out," he says. "So the 
next night, I went up to the gate and cut the lock with bolt cutters 
at 3 a.m." On cue, Hoxter's friend, behind the wheel of a truck with 
the pot, roared through the checkpoint. An hour later, they unloaded 
the weed and were back through the border before anyone knew the 
gate's lock had been broken.

*  *  *

In the early 1980s--Hoxter can't remember the exact year--the Family 
commune in Montana began to fall apart under the strain of cabin 
fever and rapidly approaching middle age, and he and his wife moved 
to Lebanon, Oregon. There, they raised three daughters on a 
2,500-acre property.

They lived in a small trailer, but not because the property lacked 
proper shelter.

In fact, Hoxter had purchased the land because it featured a large 
barn, which he had every intention of using for growing marijuana.

Inside the barn, Hoxter wired together several 1,000-watt 
metal-halide lamps, hanging them from the beams, and reflected the 
heat with Mylar sheeting in a 10-foot-by-12-foot enclosure.

When the female plants reached a certain height, he moved them to 
various locations he'd scouted in nearby national forest land, where, 
if he could keep the herb stalks hidden long enough, he could harvest 
his cannabis crop before the feds ripped them from the soil.

This being the dawn of the homegrown American marijuana-farming 
industry, Hoxter was hardly the only hippie in rural Oregon who had 
his own pot farm. There wasn't much else to do. The logging industry 
had been on the wane for years, and unemployment ran high in the 
small towns. "All I wanted to do was grow, although Canada was always 
my ace in the hole," Hoxter says. "I knew that I could always make a 
lot of money smuggling a load. At first, I was the only person I knew 
growing indoor with lights.

But then a friend of mine started growing, and he used sodium-vapor 
lights, which turned out to have a better light spectrum for growing, 
and this kind of information would get spread like that." There was 
even a local magazine for growers, Sinsemilla Tips, that contained 
word-of-mouth horticultural advice. "People were learning," Hoxter 
says. "There were still no names for the product yet, none of the 
strains had been branded, and botanists were just starting to figure 
out how to crossbreed hybrids.

It was all still just marijuana."

Every night, the local television station would broadcast reports on 
how many plants the feds had spotted with their planes and seized in 
the forests that day. But Hoxter never was caught, and everything 
went just as he'd hoped, until his wife became ill and died in 1987. 
Thus began a downward spiral for Hoxter. Or rather, thus ended a 
downward spiral that had already begun well before his wife died, one 
that had been amplified by the highly illegal nature of everything 
he'd been doing for the past few decades.

His career ended with him becoming mentally and physically isolated, 
alone with three daughters, unable to cope, strung out on heroin and 
dealing harder drugs to support his habit.

Just when it seemed things couldn't get any worse, the feds raided his farm.

After a stint in federal prison, Hoxter relocated to Southern 
California, where he went straight back into the marijuana business.

But a cop in Laguna Beach who knew of his background as a smuggler 
got wind of his presence there and raided his house six times in 10 
months until he caught Hoxter with a couple of pounds of weed, enough 
to charge him with possession with the intent to sell. Hoxter served 
the next 41 months in federal lockup and came out determined to put 
his criminal escapades behind him, although he reserved the right to 
smoke marijuana.

"I was on parole and had 18 dirty tests in a row," he explains. "My 
parole officer could have sent me back to prison, but she didn't 
because I was working full-time and, for some reason, she liked me.

"'Fifty years ago, you could go to prison for drinking beer, and now 
you can do that legally,'" Hoxter told her. "'So was it wrong then?'"

"I'm not going to argue with you," the parole officer responded. "But 
it's against the law, and you don't seem to get it."

Except marijuana wasn't illegal anymore.

Not exactly, that is.

*  *  *

Just weeks after the last time Hoxter was busted for marijuana, in 
November 1996, California voters overwhelmingly voted in favor of 
Proposition 215, which legalized marijuana for medical purposes under 
state law for the first time in American history.

The law was written by a group of marijuana-legalization activists in 
the Bay Area, most notably a San Francisco resident named Dennis 
Peron, whose partner had used cannabis to treat the symptoms of AIDS 
before he passed away from the disease.

According to the new law, which became known as the Compassionate Use 
Act, if a doctor wrote a recommendation--not a prescription, since it 
remained illegal for doctors to prescribe--for marijuana, a patient 
could grow, possess and smoke the substance with no fear of the law.

Flash forward 15 years to the summer of 2011, which is starting to 
look a lot like the historical watermark of the medical-marijuana 
movement, although few realized it at the time. Besides California, 
15 other states--Arizona, Alaska, Montana, Colorado and Nevada among 
them--as well as the District of Columbia have passed laws legalizing 
medical marijuana. Cannabis is California's biggest cash crop, with 
an annual harvest valued at about $14 billion. With an estimated 
annual yield of 8.6 million pounds, it represents by far the largest 
share of the national cannabis crop, which itself is valued at $35 billion.

It's estimated that as much as $1.4 billion worth of cannabis is sold 
each year in California. Because state law views medical marijuana as 
a medicine, some dispensaries have gone to court to avoid paying 
sales tax, arguing that cannabis should be exempt from it like any 
other prescribed medicine.

However, as of 2011, the California State Board of Equalization 
estimated that it was taking in between $58 million and $105 million 
per year in taxes on cannabis sales. In 2010, the city of Oakland, 
with its four mega-dispensaries, including the world-famous 
Oaksterdam University--founded by the wheelchair-bound, bespectacled 
ex-roadie Richard Lee and which has its own nursery and has provided 
cultivation classes to thousands of activists--and Stephen DeAngelo's 
Harborside Health Center--the subject of the Discovery Channel 
reality show Weed Wars, which aired in 2011--collected $1 million in 
tax revenue.

Starting in the mid-2000s, hundreds of medical-cannabis dispensaries 
had opened up throughout the state, mostly in densely populated urban 
neighborhoods of cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, 
spreading from there to the suburbs.

For as little as $50, a California resident could drop by a doctor's 
office--some of them conveniently located next-door to 
dispensaries--and obtain a written recommendation for marijuana.

With that in hand, you could walk into your dispensary of choice and, 
after signing membership paperwork, select your "medicine" from row 
upon row of various strains of cannabis indica and sativa with 
sometimes exotic but more often recreational-sounding names such as 
Hindu Kush, Chem Dog, Luke Skywalker, Sweet Tooth and Sour Diesel.

Meanwhile, local prosecutors in states that have legalized marijuana 
for medical use now refuse to file charges against anyone with a 
doctor's note as long as they aren't transporting or cultivating more 
weed than what is allowed under state law--usually half a dozen fully 
grown plants or up to 8 ounces of dry marijuana.

Knowing this, assuming the person has a valid doctor's note, it's 
likely the police won't even confiscate the cannabis in question.

It's now just an infraction--the legal equivalent of a parking 
ticket--to possess an ounce or less of the stuff--and that's assuming 
you're the rare recreational pot smoker who's too lazy to get a 
doctor's note. Oaksterdam's Lee even paid $1.5 million to sponsor a 
law, Proposition 19, that would have legalized the recreational use 
of marijuana for adults, but it failed at the polls in November 2010.

Since the first anti-cannabis law was enacted by the Massachusetts 
state legislature on April 29, 1911, pot smokers have blossomed from 
a handful of jazz musicians to tens of millions of people. Some 20 
million Americans have been arrested on marijuana charges so far, and 
40,000 people remain behind bars for marijuana-related crimes. And 
just as marijuana seemed poised to become completely legal in 
California, thus providing possible impetus to a nationwide campaign 
of decriminalization, everything changed.

In October 2011, the federal government began a massive crackdown on 
California's medical-marijuana industry, raiding dispensaries up and 
down the coast, seizing property from landlords who were renting to 
people growing or distributing pot, and hitting DeAngelo's 
Harborside--the nation's largest dispensary with more than 90,000 
members--with a $2.4 million tax bill, while also pressuring the 
dispensary's landlord to evict. Oaksterdam was next. On April 2, 
2012, federal drug agents backed by local police raided the 
university in downtown Oakland, as well as Lee's house, and seized 
his entire nursery; Lee announced a few days later that he was giving 
up the medical-marijuana business.

The raids continued throughout 2012, with particular intensity in 
places where local officials had grown fed up with large numbers of 
dispensaries, such as Los Angeles, Orange County and especially Long 
Beach, which as my book reveals, engaged in a mercurial experiment 
with medical marijuana that will likely remain unrivaled in its 
hypocrisy in the annals of drug policy. Within the space of two 
years, the city invited cannabis clubs to pay tens of thousands of 
dollars to apply to win city approval, wrote an elaborate city 
ordinance mandating the cultivation of marijuana within city limits, 
engaged in a suspicious and sloppy lottery process to award clubs 
that had met the criteria, and then refused to provide any club with 
a permit. Meanwhile, the city frequently raided the clubs that had 
smartly avoided the lottery fiasco. Lawsuits by cannabis patients and 
dispensaries against the city were filed as a result; taken together, 
they could bankrupt Long Beach.

By the eve of the U.S. presidential election in November 2012, it 
seemed official: The medical-marijuana movement had reached its apex, 
and it had failed.

The industry that had boomed in the past three years was doomed to 
decline. And then on Election Day, voters in Washington and Colorado 
passed state laws legalizing marijuana for recreational use, 
something that had been attempted more than once in California, most 
recently in 2009, but which had never won at the polls.

A cover story in Newsweek magazine just weeks before the Colorado 
measure passed shed light on the corporate backers of the 
legalization measure, dubbing them America's new "pot barons." Just 
as the federal government's successful takedown of California's 
dispensaries showed the abject failure of medical marijuana to 
protect both the crop and the people growing it, American democracy 
had stepped in and provided new hope for stoners.

My book is about a relatively brief but amazing period in American 
social history--an incredibly dynamic three years from 2009 to 2012 
during which something unprecedented happened--marijuana left the 
underground world of illegality and blossomed into a mainstream 
industry, becoming the fastest-growing economic engine in California 
before the feds swooped in and put pot back in its "proper" place.

The weed runners who inhabit the book are pioneers of the future 
American pot economy, whatever form it ultimately takes.

Some of them are martyrs who paved the way for the explosion of 
medical marijuana.

They lost their liberty by trying to accomplish too much too soon. 
Others followed in their footsteps, some more cautiously than others, 
risking everything including their own freedom to push the limits of 
this grand experiment.

As the book reveals, some weed runners have better intentions than 
others, and the well-intentioned ironically have tended to suffer 
worse fates at the hands of the law for their efforts. Some are 
smarter or just luckier than others, too. Generally speaking, these 
outlaw capitalists are the weed runners who have decidedly remained 
in the underground pot economy--or at least kept part of their 
portfolio firmly rooted in America's illicit pot trade. They view 
themselves as the next Jamesons and Johnnie Walkers. They are 
modern-day bootleggers who have helped lay the nationwide foundation 
for the brand-name marijuana of today and tomorrow.

For them, the medical-marijuana industry--and the war to curtail 
it--is just a sideshow.

They know that until full legalization occurs, the real profits from 
pot will come from one source: smuggling weed across the country the 
good old-fashioned way. Regardless of the debate over medical 
marijuana, and certainly without regard for the law, they will be 
meeting America's incessant demand for weed one high-risk shipment at a time.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom