Legalize it, control it and tax it.
Oct 18th 2007 | CHINO HILLS, From The Economist print edition
Forget wine—California’s biggest crop is bright green and funny-smelling
SUBURBS don’t come much tidier than Chino Hills, 30 miles (50 km) east of downtown Los Angeles. Last year, the neighbourhood of coffee-coloured stucco houses and three-car garages boasted an average household income twice that of the nation as a whole. In Vista del Sol, one of its quiet enclaves, every house but one has a neatly-trimmed green lawn. And, until recently, the exception was verdant inside. When the police went in, they found more than 800 marijuana plants—a small part of what is turning out to be an enormous harvest.
Greg Garland, a local narcotics cop, used to discover about a dozen houses a year that had been turned into marijuana factories. So far this year he has raided more than 40. The production boom is not confined to the suburbs. Since April the state’s annual “Campaign against Marijuana Planting” has pulled 2.9m plants worth some $10 billion from back gardens, timber forests and state lands (see chart). Marijuana is now by far California’s most valuable agricultural crop. Assuming, very optimistically, that the cops are finding every other plant, it is worth even more than the state’s famous wine industry.
The illicit crop is grown with a technical sophistication that Napa Valley’s Robert Mondavi might envy. To supply outdoor plantations, rivers are dammed and water piped as far as two miles. Plants are nourished with fertilisers and tended by workers brought to America specifically for the purpose. Ageing hippies are responsible for only a few such operations. Kent Shaw, a state narcotics officer, reckons four-fifths of outdoor marijuana plantations are run by Mexican criminal gangs.
Indoor factories, by contrast, are largely the province of East Asian entrepreneurs. They prefer to buy houses rather than rent them, to avoid the attention of landlords. They tend to go for big ones in good neighbourhoods: the property in Vista del Sol cost more than $600,000. Like good horticulturalists, they propagate strains of the plant that produce a high proportion of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, marijuana’s active ingredient) and speed their growth by means of heat and artificial light.
Why the boom? The National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that the rate of marijuana use in California has barely risen in the past few years, whereas production has hugely increased. Some 11% of the state’s population indulge—just a puff over the national average, and less than every state in New England. (more story at the…uhh…link…man)