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Never Growing Up – Why Growers Stay Underground

Expanded legalization efforts have made it possible to make a living growing cannabis for profit — provided, that is, that you obtain a license to grow professionally, which subjects you state regulations and can potentially set you back quite a bit of money.  This is a sticking point for some growers, who started their careers growing underground and don’t see any reason to change now. We wondered what it is that makes the threat of prosecution under continued prohibition worth the risk, so we talked to an expert to see what the draw is.

Our source, who we’ll call Kevin (not his real name), has been growing marijuana underground for over 20 years.  “I love marijuana,” he says with an obvious affection in his voice. “Just smoking it … I was always fascinated by it … I was always obsessed with it”  Kevin started in high school by growing marijuana in his parents’ backyard, without their knowledge. He then began growing indoors when he moved into his first house at age 24.  

What began in a garage moved to warehouses, then to entire buildings devoted to his grow op.  He moved his product, but things really took off when Prop 215 passed in California and dispensaries began to open underground.  It was those first dispensaries that helped Kevin’s career take flight.

Kevin has considered himself a legitimate grower since he started selling his product to those original dispensaries and realized they liked what he was growing.  “When they started purchasing my product and would call me for more, that’s when I felt like I was legit, like I’m doing something right, like I could take it to the next level.”  Kevin had achieved consistency in his product, and people were taking notice. He’s maintained that consistency, and to great success, too: “The lifestyle is great,” he admits, and he looks like he means it.

Perhaps this sense of accomplishment is part of the reason Kevin hasn’t felt a need to go “legit” in the eyes of the law.  He’s knows his work is good, he trusts his methods, and he doesn’t feel that the drawbacks of getting his grower’s license are worth that extra layer of “legitimacy.”  The fact is, he’s already making a living doing this, and getting a grower’s license doesn’t offer him any tangible benefit, at least not the way he sees it.

Pride is certainly not the deciding factor; Kevin has plenty of reasons why he believes that getting a grower’s license would actually hurt his business.  “With the license, you’re under somebody else’s umbrella,” he says, “and you’re always going to be watched. And I feel that you’re not going to be able to make the maximum profit that you can, and should, for what you do.”  This statement reflects the independent (if sometimes defiant) spirit that’s so characteristic of the cannabis community, as well as Kevin’s own suspicion of legal authorities’ ability to regulate effectively.  

It’s that suspicion (shared by plenty of people in Kevin’s position) that is the biggest sticking point.  “They’re not ready. They don’t know what they’re doing … It’s just – pardon my language – a shitshow,” he says, and he’s got a point; with prohibition still being effective at the federal level, states where cannabis has been legalized face a number of challenges, and laws are often confusing, with their applications unclear until their eventual interpretations by the courts (and it’s anyone’s guess when that could happen).

Kevin’s also kept his ear to the ground, and he’s not keen on the stories he’s heard from growers who are trying to go the legal route.  “There’s so many loops through it, and most people that have their licenses and are trying to do do it right are losing money.”  He has a grim prediction for many of those growers:  “I guarantee they’ll be out of the business soon,” he says soberly.

It sounds like Kevin is dead-set against getting a grower’s license right now, and he is.  However, he acknowledges he may not feel that way forever. To him, the issue isn’t the regulatory laws themselves, it’s the integration of those laws with the business of growing cannabis in a way that benefits both entities.  “I feel they just don’t know how to do it quite yet,” he says, adding, “They’ll have it figured out in the next five years.” When that happens, he’ll reevaluate his position on a grower’s license. “At that time, I would see myself in that type of industry,” he says, “but until then, I would be doing this.”

Ask Kevin about the harder things he’s faced, and he’ll tell you about not just problems with law enforcement, but from his colleagues.  There were “a lot of scares, a lot of threats,” made by law enforcement toward Kevin’s landlords and property owners when he was growing in rental property, but fortunately he’s never had a personal run-in with the law for cannabis.  “It felt like a get-out-of-jail-free card,” he says.

When it comes to professional relationships in his line of work, Kevin has been burned before.  “Criminal side is always there. There’s always a risk of getting robbed, which has happened to me,” he says.  “A lot of snakes out there, a lot of liars, a lot of cheats.” It’s clear from his tone that he’s met encountered quite a few of them over the course of his career.  “You need to have the right people and not bullshitters,” he says. I ask him what percentage of people he believes are bullshitters, and he’s candid: “I would say maybe 10% are legit and the others are all bullshitters.”  He pauses, then qualifies himself by adding, “In my experience.”

It might sound like Kevin is soured on people, but ask him what the biggest attribute of his success in the industry is and he’ll tell you immediately, “The team that’s been built, the people around me.”  He keeps his internal network small, presumably in part to minimize the bullshitters, and it seems to work for him.

Kevin believes you need to surround yourself with good people in order to achieve and maintain success.  In fact, his only real business regret was a business associate (a “fucking idiot, who blew probably the biggest deal ever,” according to Kevin) losing a phone number that could have facilitated a deal so huge that, “I’d be retired by now.”  

Kevin relishes the fact that his work allows him to be a “family man,” giving him the ability to pick his kids up from school, drop them off in the mornings, and “always be there.”  There’s a tenderness in his voice when he says it; it’s clear that this is one of the biggest benefits of the flexible nature of Kevin’s work.

Talking to Kevin, I admit I can see why he faces the potential dangers he does.  It’s clear he loves his family and the life he’s built, he loves his work, and he doesn’t want to compromise any of that with a license.  Until he’s absolutely sure it’s the best thing for his business, he’ll continue his underground way of life. I ask him if it’s all worth it, the secrecy and caution and the threat of getting arrested or robbed.  He replies without hesitation: “100 percent,” he says.

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