Oscar has a saying about the business he’s in: “Set the stage and in come the actors.” Although Oscar loves drama, his business isn’t the theater. The actors he’s talking about are smugglers, drug dealers, narcotics officers, rip-off artists, IRS agents, armed robbers, and petty thieves. It makes no difference at all that Oscar is middle-class, with a wife and child and a fine home in a respectable neighborhood. That’s just one of several costumes. If he sets the stage, the actors will show up at his door.
If you ask Oscar what he does for a living, he’ll tell you he’s a pirate. If you don’t go for that, he’ll figure you don’t have a sense of humor, and he’ll tell you he’s a warehouse distributor—he buys goods at wholesale and sells them at retail. If you say you want to buy something, he’ll tell you the next shipment won’t be due until December, and besides, he only sells to the trade.
If you think Oscar is a drug dealer, don’t tell him that. “I grow pot! I don’t want to hear about drugs. Sometimes people call me up and ask for Quaaludes or something. I’m not a drug dealer; I’m a legitimate businessman! The only difference between me and any other businessman is that I could be dead tomorrow. ” And Oscar’s words pour forth as if he knows he’ll be dead tomorrow, as if he’s trying to say everything in five minutes that he may ever want to say. Trying to listen to him is a little bit frightening. It's like hooking 220 volts to a 12-volt circuit. The result is a dazzling display of smoke and sparks, frazzled wire, and the lingering smell of something burnt. He’s both disciplined and slightly erratic, careful and sloppy, sensitive and cold.
Oscar has been in the business for about fifteen years (“Has it really been that long?” he asks himself). During that time he has visited the great marijuana-producing regions of the world, and has tasted their products, on site, with his own nose and palate. Pot growers, he notes, whether they’re from Hawaii, Mexico, Thailand, Afghanistan, Colombia, or California, are very much like wine makers—they insist their product is the best in the world. Perhaps because of this, Oscar moderates his own pride when he says that the strip of land from La Jolla to Oceanside, and inland to El Cajon, Escondido, and Fallbrook, only produces the best pot in the United States, not in the whole wide world.
The reasons this area is so good for growing cannabis are basically the same reasons it’s so good for growing flowers. Marijuana buds are flowers. There’s a growing season here that lasts from January to December; there’s a near certainty that there will be no freezing nights; there’s plenty of water; and unlike Hawaii, there are almost no bug or mold problems. In addition, along the coast there are cool, wet nights and hot, dry days in which the ground temperature sometimes approaches 140 degrees. When you put all these conditions together, they stimulate the plant into producing beyond what its potential would be anywhere else in the United States. “If somebody doesn’t believe that this place grows the best marijuana around, let them try it,” Oscar says, and he’s always quick to pull a free sample from his pocket, like any other businessman might show his card. “Even if you don’t smoke it, just taste it.”
The local product, which is sometimes called “red hair,” or “Fallbrook Red,” sells for somewhere between $1000 and $2400 per pound, depending on the quality, the local supply, and the quantity purchased. Given those prices, almost anybody with a green thumb and a big back yard could make simple gardening very profitable. One reason for the high price of this marijuana is that there’s an increasing demand for high-quality buds grown in the style known as “sinsemilla,” or seedless. The days of the four-finger, ten-dollar lids are over, and both dealers and narcotics agents say they haven’t seen a kilo come out of Mexico in months. The Paraquat scare is partly responsible for that, but the main reason is that the demand for marijuana of superior quality has dealt the Mexicans right out of the market.
Part of that demand is being satisfied by back-yard growers with just a plant or two for themselves and their friends. That kind of operation has become so popular that San Diego’s Narcotics Task Force is ready to throw its hands in the air when it comes to enforcing marijuana cqltivation and possession laws. “The judges and the prosecutors have become callous when it comes to marijuana cases,” a spokesman for the NTF said. “Everyone’s tired of hearing about it. There isn’t as much emphasis put into a marijuana case as a drunk driving beef. Without public support, marijuana cases can’t be prosecuted.”
“Every other house in North County has a little plastic greenhouse,” groaned Sam Bove, a sheriff’s investigator familiar with the popularity of marijuana cultivation in north San Diego County. He complained that he knew of a large plot of marijuana being grown in the county, but because of certain legal complications, there wasn’t anything he could do about it. Those “complications” require that he first observe the plants legally (without violating the individual’s privacy), then obtain a search warrant and return to the site the next day, hoping the plants haven’t been torn out of the ground. It isn’t surprising, then, that the sheriffs have found a way to bypass all the red tape: many back-yard growers these days are coming home to find their plants gone and in their place a sheriff’s card with a note on the back asking them to stop by the office if there are any questions.
It is true that helicopters have been used to spot marijuana plots, but only in a haphazard way. For example, an unusual-looking garden in Del Mar was spotted by the sheriffs’ helicopter last summer. It extended out of the back yard and a good ways up the adjacent hillside. That seemed odd to the pilot—why would anybody plant a garden up a hillside?— and upon closer inspection it turned out to be marijuana. By their own admission, however, the sheriffs don’t find very much pot that way. In fact, a back-yard grower has to be more wary of neighborhood kids than of law enforcement agents, because, as a disgruntled grower put it, “Every fourteen-year-old kid in the county knows exactly what’s being grown in his neighborhood. Stealing pot is sporting to them. It’s like stealing watermelons used to be.”
The more industrious back-yard growers soon discover that a good-sized plant will yield one pound of buds, and that if he grows only five plants, he could easily turn his hobby into payments on a house or a piece of land. If he grows only five pounds, he’s making somewhere between $5000 and $12,000. It’s almost impossible to estimate how many people are engaging in that level of activity; the Narcotics Task Force won’t even venture a guess. But Oscar will. He thinks there are maybe 300 to 500 growers in North County who grow more than five pounds per year, and perhaps one hundred growers who produce between twenty-five and one hundred pounds per year. Oscar doesn’t want to say exactly how much he grows in a year or how much he sells it for, but he will say this: “Any grower who knows what he’s doing could easily make $125,000 to $400,000 a year. That’s tax-free nut money for next year.” At that point, a gardener has obviously become a commercial grower, regardless of how innocently his enterprise may have begun; and he may find, like Oscar, that there will be actors appearing at his door.
The last time the actors appeared at Oscar’s door they didn’t even bother to knock. He was watching television with his brother-in-law when three men with nylon stockings over their heads barged into his living room. Given Oscar’s volatile personality, he might have told them simply to get the hell out, but he didn’t. They were pointing shotguns at him. This didn’t really surprise Oscar, however, because he understands the rules of the pirate’s trade. Still, he admits he was scared. The men, who spoke with Mexican accents, told him and his brother-in-law to lie on the floor face down. Then they went about robbing Oscar of all the cash and marijuana in the house. This happened just after the harvest season, and although Oscar doesn’t like to talk about how much he lost, it was at least $10,000 in cash and several pounds of the valuable weed. The men wouldn’t take jewelry, gemstones, or anything else that might be identifiable later.
“Armed robbery is the name of the game in this racket,” Oscar insists. “It’s the exact rules of piracy. If I raise my skull and crossbones, I can be hit from all sides. I know other people in the business who’ve been robbed at gunpoint and they always ask for the same things. ‘Where’s the drugs? Where’s the guns? Where’s the money?’ They call marijuana a victimless crime, but that’s a joke. The victims are the people growing it. ” For these reasons, camouflage is everything to Oscar. He thinks of what he does as a kind of guerrilla warfare, and this attitude is reflected most when he’s in his fields.
Not long ago, between the January rains, we went out to take a look at his operation. It’s located at the end of a dirt road in North County. The hillsides were beginning to turn green from the rain, but the mesquite and sage somehow still looked dry, as if they were totally indifferent to weeks of moisture. It’s the kind of country that looks dull from a car window, but becomes immediately attractive, even beautiful, when you enter it on foot.
Oscar told me we had to walk more than a mile to get to the site. He picked up a thick stick to use as a club against the dogs that sometimes roam the hills. “We’re in the war zone now,” he said in absolute seriousness. “I have to think of it in that way just to survive. And you’re putting yourself in danger, too, by being here.”
It was difficult walking through the brush without getting wet. Every now and then a plane would fly overhead and Oscar would stop to look up at it suspiciously before going on. Finally he stopped, took a fat joint from his shirt pocket, lit it, and smoked it by himself while we talked. His mood seemed to brighten, and it seemed as if his imagination inflated with each puff. “I love it when I’m out here. It’s a whole drama. It’s the only time I feel one hundred percent alive.”
We came to a plastic water pipe, which he told me was the main line to an agricultural field not far away. It came from the grower’s well. He showed me where he’d tied into it by making a cut and inserting his own smaller plastic pipe, then putting it back together with glue. From there he had a network of pipes and hoses which fed into perhaps fifty smaller drip-feed sprinklers all over the hillside. “Nobody can see it, nobody can hear it, nobody has to know it’s there,” he said.
Linder a scrub oak there was a matted straw hat and flannel shirt, both of them wet and moldy, practically dissolving into the earth. “That was my uniform,” he said, nearly giggling with glee. “When I come out here in the summer, I wear a straw hat, pants with bright checks, and a red shirt. When the helicopters fly overhead I wave my hat at them so they’ll know I’m just an illegal alien and not a pot grower. ”
The winter rainy season is the only time Oscar doesn’t have a crop in the ground; at any other period he wouldn’t dare bring a stranger out here. But as we walked around from site to site it was easy to see how successful his last crop must have been. In small patches where the ground had been watered, fertilized, and protected by chicken wire, there were stalks as big around as a thumb. Oscar said some of them were more than eight feet high.
As we inspected the different sites, Oscar explained the horticultural process to me. For every five plants planted, only one will reach maturity. Half of the plants are male and must be uprooted to keep the female plants from being pollinated. This is what causes the plants to grow long, potent buds. “Of the plants left after the males have been eliminated,” Oscar said, “you’ll lose most of them to rabbits, deer, possums, and wetbacks. The wetbacks are your biggest danger because they live out here all the time.”
Oscar tends his plants three times a week, in season. With his watering system he can irrigate the entire hillside in ten minutes, but he spends a lot more time carrying buckets of fertilizer down the slope, and in weeding and caring for each plant’s particular needs. In the fall, when the Santa Anas blow, he wraps string around the plants, like lights around a Christmas tree. This keeps them from being ripped to shreds in the canyon winds. He pinches the tips of the buds once or twice to make them sprout out. “But if you do that too much you get a nice-looking bush and not much yield.”
In June Oscar picks the big “water leaves," but only after they turn brown and wither. “If you pick them too soon, like a lot of people do, you rob the plant of its vitality; you interfere with the photosynthesis.
“As far as insects, there aren’t a lot of insect problems in the bush, but the plants will mildew if you plant them on the north side of a slope. It’s best to plant on the south side for the maximum sunlight and maximum yield,” he explained.
It’s important for Oscar that he understand the entire ecology of the countryside. Once his plants were ravaged practically overnight by rabbits, and he couldn’t understand why until he discovered that a nearby tomato field had been recently harvested and the rabbits were out looking for another free meal. “Animals love my marijuana in the heat of the summer because it’s the only green thing to eat. I think even coyotes eat it,” he said. “You always have to be looking for animal signs to see what the animals are doing. One thing I don’t ever do is poison the countryside. It’s bad PR and it doesn’t work anyway. If I have animal problems I go to the zoo and get some lion shit and spread it around. Animals really shy away from that stuff.”
These are all Oscar’s techniques, but he’s willing to admit that every grower has his own way of doing things. He respects another grower’s methods, except when it comes to greenhouse growers. He thinks of greenhouse pot with the disdain a quality wine maker must think of Ripple. “All that controlled light and controlled heating,” he says with disgust. “Do they really think that General Electric can replace what it took mother nature millions of years to evolve? Without real sunlight you don’t have pot; you have rope!”
In the fall, the cool nights begin to turn the buds of the plants red and purple, giving the marijuana its distinctive look and name—“red hair.” This doesn’t really improve the quality of the pot, as some people believe; it just gives it its trademark. After the crop has been harvested there’s a manicuring process, which involves trimming the buds into a more cosmetically pleasing product. It’s a semiskilled job that demands good pay. According to Oscar, one man working with scissors requires about eight hours to manicure one pound of buds. The finished product is a bag full of green sticky buds, each of which is about the size of a thumb. To the untrained, they smell like any crushed weed; but if you’re a connoisseur, they smell like fragrant crushed flowers.
When the product is ready to sell, Oscar begins looking around for a buyer. “Right now it’s a seller’s market,” Oscar says. “When people call me up, the first thing I do is find out how much money they have. Then I tell them what I’ve got and how much it’s going for.” He’s sold his product to dentists, attorneys, advertising people. Once he sold five pounds to a famous rock group. People have come to him from Oregon, Boston, Texas, Chicago. The first and fifteenth of the month are always good for business, because those are paydays; and not surprisingly, payday at Camp Pendleton is good, too, but Oscar won’t sell directly to Marines. He thinks they’re dangerous. Why? “Because they’re trained to be dangerous. ”
The reason the market currently favors sellers is because there’s a shortage of pot. This has developed, in part, as a result of the Mexican and Colombian governments having destroyed part of their countries’ crops this year, according to Oscar. “People think the crop is being held back to raise prices, ” he says. ‘ ‘The truth is, the crop was wiped out. ” The effect, though, is that marijuana prices have gone up; and with less of it coming from other countries, the demand for locally grown pot has increased—to the benefit of San Diego growers. Sometimes a grower will buy from another grower because he knows he can get a higher price still from his own buyer. There’s an elaborate jockeying process involved, much like any other wholesale business. But the danger is this: It’s impossible for the grower, any grower, to market his product without raising his skull and crossbones. He must identify himself as someone who deals in illicit goods, and at that point he is no longer a farmer; he’s a pirate, in a game where pirate’s rules apply.
“People who deal dope are easy marks,” sheriff’s investigator Bove explains. "They ’re vulnerable to rip-offs and robbery, and a lot of times they ’re afraid to say anything, because they know they were doing something wrong in the first place. They don’t understand that it’s our job to catch the guys who do these things, regardless of who their victims are.” Oscar, however, thinks of the cops as something akin to his guardian angels, and puts an astonishing amount of trust in them. “It’s their job to protect who we are,” he says. He’s particularly trusting of Sam Bove. “The guy’s honest, straight, hard-working. I feel badly that he doesn’t get paid enough.”
Oscar has tried to stay on the nonviolent side of the business. He doesn’t use a gun when he goes to bargain with a potential buyer. “There’s no forced-buy system here like there is in Texas. In Texas, if you show your product to a buyer, he’s bought it.” Nor does he use a gun to protect his fields. “A lot of growers say they use guns to protect their fields. Most don’t. They use barbed wire, booby traps, trained guard dogs, bells, electric fences. In Mexico, they have men with shotguns who march back and forth across the fields. It isn’t like that here yet, but it will be.” Oscar’s decision not to use a gun,*in spite of repeated rip-offs, is a logical one. “If I’m caught with marijuana, I can buy my way out legally. It’ll take me a while and I may get thirty days in Lompoc, but I'll beat it. If I use a gun. I’m going to be convicted of a felony.”
But apparently not all of those who deal in drugs are as nonviolent as Oscar. According to Bove, dealers are organizing among themselves to retaliate against those who have robbed them or plundered their fields. In one instance a group of growers found the man who’d robbed them. They raped his wife in front of him and pulled all his teeth out. Another time, when some growers found the person who had stolen ten pounds of hashish, they stuck him in a Jacuzzi all night and then shaved off his hair. “It isn’t a game,” Bove warns. “It’s a very real thing.” Oscar is particularly paranoid about illegal aliens, because he says it was Mexicans who robbed him in the past. He thinks the aliens are manipulated by the local “Mexican thugs” who prey on people like him. “They know if they ever get poor enough, they can always rob the growers. Growers are usually white middle-class punks; they aren’t hardened criminals. You won’t need a gun when you sell a lid •to your surfer buddies on the beach. But if you ’re an illegale who has made it as far as Fallbrook, when everyone in the county is out to rob you, kill you, or throw you in jail, then you’re a trained soldier.”
Sam Bove denied that there was any such racial warfare going on, but he, too, felt that “a lot of illegal aliens are out-and-out street crooks from south of the border. Eighteen-year-old kids are thirty years old in street experience. They strike me as being very hardened.”
If a grower is wily enough to market his crop successfully, he is then faced with another problem. What does he do with his money? If he stashes it at home, like some kind of buried treasure, he’s vulnerable to the pirates. If he spends it, the IRS will be on him faster than Blackbeard on a gold doubloon. The wise thing would be to launder the money the way other illegal businesses do, and some growers are able to do that. But others, such as Oscar, show a surprising lack of expertise in this area. “I haven’t filed taxes since I was eighteen,” he says, slightly bewildered. “Maybe I could go to the tracks and pick up a bunch of stubs and file as a gambler. What do you call that form? A 1040? Oh. . . . Someday I’m going to learn all about that. I truly am.”
Oscar laughs when he tells about the time his son was looking through a dresser drawer for fifty cents lunch money. There was $5000 in bills in the drawer, and his son kept rummaging through the pile of cash trying to find two quarters at the bottom. He never found them.
A friend of Oscar’s made some money in the business and went to South America to enjoy his profits. He came home with a shipment of 400 leather suitcases because he didn’t know what else to do with his money.
Oscar relates the story of another grower, who used to drive around with $60,000 in the trunk of his car. One day he got in an argument with his girlfriend and she jumped in the car and drove to Ensenada. The next thing he knew, she was calling him up on the phone saying the car had been stolen. The money and the car were never recovered.
“People look at you differently when you have that kind of money,” Oscar claims. “When I walk into a place with, say, $5000 in my pocket, people somehow know—women know. If I’m not allowed to pay for everything, I feel insulted. I somehow want to be the source of everything. I want everything to flow for me. ... It’s all very macho. That’s why there aren’t any women in the business. They last about six months until some guy fleeces them. ”
Oscar donates some of his money to a school in Darjeeling, India, because he feels that’s better than giving it to the pirates. He doesn’t want to say just how much he donates. “It doesn’t matter. The point is that I’ve committed myself to helping them.” He keeps a letter of gratitude from the school close at hand, almost as if it were a lucky charm.
In 1974 Oscar made enough money so that in 1975 he could travel around the world—flying anyplace he liked, doing anything he wanted, spending as much money as he wished. He came back with photos of an entire valley of marijuana in Afghanistan, of a “Thai stick” factory in Thailand, of people in Lebanon molding hashish in their hands, of a hashish bandit’s hideaway in the Himalayas with 500 pounds of hash piled in front. “Every place I went, I somehow found the people who grow pot. I guess they were the only people I knew how to talk to.”
Before Oscar left for his travels around the world, his relatives began to discover that he was involved in certain illicit activities. They were concerned, of course, and advised him not to waste his life on such things. Ironically, he recalls that “they had all been working straight jobs and telling me how much they hated it for fifteen years. ” But when Oscar left on his trip, they apparently became envious. They knew Oscar was a fool, but they realized if he could make that kind of money, they could, too. According to Oscar, they began smuggling marijuana, using Oscar’s connections behind his back. When he returned from his travels, he found that the entire family had been arrested. “Needless to say, they’re back to straight jobs now.”
Lately Oscar has been a little disillusioned with the business, though. “If things work out, people applaud you; you’re a success; you get to have all the things successful people have. If things don’t work out, you’re hanged. The short-term gains in this business really look good, but the long-term gains—for anybody with any potential—suck. It’s a shabby existence, really. Eventually you go legal or you get out.” Oscar says he’s getting out, not only because of the increasing violence, but because he thinks marijuana may soon be legal. “It’s like prohibition right now—it’s not legal and it’s not illegal. That’s the worst way. Nobody knows what to do, and since there aren’t any rules, the police and the dealers go to war.”
Not long ago Oscar was visited by one of his old partners, a man who made his wad years ago in the marijuana business and has now bought himself a legitimate life. When they met again they talked about how the business has changed over the years, from the ten-dollar lid of Mexican bunk to the demand for high quality buds. They decided that the real money these days was in Colombian pot, but smugglers deal in such huge quantities now that if you haven’t got a forklift you can’t play that game. His friend told him that the anxiety of the business showed on Oscar’s face, and he kidded Oscar a little about the fact that after fifteen years, out of their entire circle of business associates, Oscar was the only one who hadn’t made his money and retired. Oscar didn’t deny it. He just shrugged his shoulders and said, “I guess I learn slowly.”