High-wattage lights shine on indoor-grown plants. In Northern California’s Humboldt County, electricity consumption has surged 50% to 60% since 1996, when voters approved a medical marijuana initiative. (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times / October 14, 2010)

By Sam Quinones, Los Angeles Times
October 15, 2010

Reporting from Arcata, Calif. —
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 California.

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 supermarkets.

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.

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