Growing and selling marijuana is lucrative business, but is it worth the risk? Jade Eckardt takes an inside look at Hawai‘i’s illegal cannibis market, and how it has been affected by the legalization of medical marijuana and the ever-changing drug market.
A series of locked doors lead to a room cluttered with small, cloned marijuana plants. A 600-watt grow light hangs over three mother plants that are pruned regularly to create exact replicas of them. A fan whirs, cooling the small plants and moving them gently. These plants haven’t budded yet. They’re under light 24 hours a day to continually grow taller and thicker. The faint scent of marijuana seeps in from a hidden room. Ryan Hunt moves a table and opens a door disguised as a wall. Barely open, a sharp line of yellow light bursts out. Stepping into the grow room is a relief, the air conditioning a break from the 85-degree O‘ahu weather outside.
Two 1,000-watt grow lights hang from the ceiling, their light bouncing off foil-covered walls back onto the plants. Over 100 budding marijuana plants sit in pots receiving light and darkness at 12-hour intervals, a must to enable the plants to bud. Each plant boasts thick buds, the prized smokable part, covered in a shimmering blanket of crystals. The scent radiating from the highly coveted crop is strong, and according to Hunt, it’s “extremely stoney.” This is high-quality cannabis, what growers and smokers call “crip,” and it’s growing in an average looking house in an O‘ahu residential neighborhood.
Growers throughout the islands know it’s more important than ever today to cultivate high-quality marijuana to ensure a sale at a good price in today’s illegal cannabis market. Hawai‘i’s marijuana industry has been booming for nearly half a century, producing weed that contains some of the highest THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), or in layman’s terms, the “stuff that gets you stoned,” in the nation. But over the last five years the market has changed, going from a highly lucrative business with guaranteed sales and high profits, to a market so flooded with cannabis it’s tough to get rid of it. It has become a buyer’s market.
Hawai‘i is one of the top five marijuana producing states in the U.S. For decades, marijuana has been estimated to be Hawai‘i’s single largest cash crop, profiting more than the islands’ top agricultural crops combined. For a long time, marijuana sold for $300 to $350 per ounce on Big Island, roughly equal to $5,000 to $5,400 per pound when bought wholesale directly from growers. Once on O‘ahu, customers paid at least $450 per ounce, and a lot more if it was sold in eighth or quarter ounces. But over the years the market has changed drastically. While growers say the amount of consumers hasn’t decreased, marijuana is available at an all-time high, enabling consumers to be pickier and have more options, causing a substantial decrease in price and sales. “Now an ounce over here goes for $225 tops, if you’re lucky. Pounds max out at $3,400,” says a grower from Big Island who’s been selling wholesale to O‘ahu dealers for 10 years. He acknowledges that people still want to buy, but there’s just more competition these days.
“Everyone is still buying,” says Hunt. “Smokers haven’t quit. There’s such a high quantity available that sales are a lot harder to come by unless you’ve got really good shit.” Hunt grows a relatively small quantity of high-quality marijuana, harvesting two pounds every two months. He’s one of the few growers today that doesn’t have a problem selling his weed quickly, and for top dollar.
“I’ve got two strains in here: These are the ‘blueberry,’” he says gesturing with his right hand, “and these are the ‘white widow.’ The widow is what the general public wants, but the people who know how good the blueberry is want it bad.” The difference is obvious. Each strain radiates a scent sharply unique from the other. “I’m excited to start experimenting with more strains (varieties). I just ordered a bunch of seeds online, and I’m going to expand my options.” With two days remaining until harvest time, Hunt exudes an air of pride and satisfaction over his crop often reserved for parents reading their child’s perfect report card. After the plants are harvested, trimmed, dried and packaged, he expects to get anywhere from $400 to $550 an ounce.
A father of two, Hunt has been growing for 10 years while holding down a day job. He runs a successful (and legal) business, but like many Hawai‘i residents in today’s economy, he needs extra income to make ends meet. Hunt isn’t arrogant about the quality of his crop, just honest. “I grow good pakalolo. But I’m on top of it and work hard. I spend a lot of time in here, spend the money on quality fertilizers, and pay attention to detail. When I see plants in need of something or I need to get rid of bugs, I do it right,” he explains.
______ THE TRIMMER
“My mom got me trimming when I was 14,” says Ann, a college graduate who doesn’t smoke marijuana. As long as marijuana is grown and sold there will be a place for trimmers like Ann. She makes $15 per ounce, or $240 a pound. “I’m fast so if the buds are good I make $15 to $45 an hour. Trimmers are lucky because when the price of pot goes down the growers don’t adjust the trimming pay. “You gotta have good scissors, razors for scraping hash off the blades, good lighting, and rubbing alcohol to clean the scissors,” she says. “It’s an awesome supplemental income. I went to California to trim a couple seasons ago and I made four grand in eight days.”
“I started dealing at Punahou when I was 16. I’d break ounces down as small as one-eighth of an ounce for $20 and sell it like crazy to the kids at school,” says Matt, a recent UH Mānoa Ph.D. graduate. He’s under 30 and remembers the year he made $45,000 in two semesters dealing at a prestigious California college he attended. “I get pounds for $4,000 shipped over from California via a middle man making a big profit. I turn each one into $7,500. I’ve got a variety of weed I sell for different prices and weights. I try to keep something for everyone.”
Looking around his workroom, it’s apparent he takes his job seriously. It resembles a mad scientist’s lab. A slew of clones, only inches tall, sit in saran-wrapped bins waiting to root, and an array of organic fertilizers clutter the shelves. A homemade “bubbler,” a device that oxygenates his water and removes chlorine to bring the plants to their healthiest, stands nearby. “I’m really lucky it’s this good and I’ve got people with connections I trust to sell it for me. They get me top dollar. If your weed isn’t super good looking, smelling, and stoney, it can be months before it sells,” he says. “The market’s changed. It’s a hell of a lot tougher to sell weed these days.”
There was a time when selling marijuana in Hawai‘i was a grower’s market. “Five years ago everything would move,” remembers the Big Island grower. “O‘ahu guys would fly over all the time, pick it up and cash us out up front. It’s different now. They all want me to front it to them because they don’t know how long it’ll take to move.”
Marijuana travels the same way people and their belongings do, by commercial planes and boats. “It was a lot easier pre 9/11,” recalls the Big Islander. “You’d just stuff a few pounds in a carry-on and run it through the X-ray, or strap one or two under a sweatshirt and hop on a plane. But security’s higher at every angle now, in the post office, airport, at the boat ports. We’ve got a be a lot more crafty and sly.”
Growers and dealers both agree three main elements have changed Hawai‘i’s cannabis industry: legalizing medical marijuana (In 2000, Hawai‘i became the first state to pass a medical marijuana law. Under Hawai‘i law, users with a medical marijuana permit can cultivate up to seven plants and carry three ounces of the dried smokable form.), low-priced pot imported from California, and what Hunt calls, “cash croppers growing what’s usually sub-standard weed in bulk. They don’t smoke, and they don’t strive for quality. They don’t appreciate good weed. They’re in it for the money.”
Steven Marks is a cash cropper. He has two grow houses, 12 lights in one, and 18 in another aptly nicknamed, “The Factory.” Hundreds of plants fill several rooms, the hum of numerous A/C units serve as background music in an otherwise quiet house. The living room is empty, except for a single bed and couch. Take-out boxes are piled up, and a heap of clothes leans against the wall. Marks doesn’t live here, and none of his grow houses have ever doubled as residences. His partner lives here, a younger guy with no girlfriend, kids or day job. He’s the perfect person to disappear for two months at a time, rarely leaving in return for a significant cut of the profits.
Marks doesn’t look like the stereotypical pot grower. He’s clean cut, well-spoken, middle age, and doesn’t smoke marijuana. “Pot doesn’t work for me. I used to smoke, but I’ve moved on,” he says as he inspects his plants. Marks has been growing for about 15 years, only the latter half of which he’s been producing at the level he is now. “It’s a somewhat gradual progression,” he says as he removes a few yellowing leaves. “You don’t just one day decide to go stick 20 or 30 lights in a house, figure out how to ship it off island to sell. It just doesn’t work like that.”
The two houses pump out around 25 to 30 pounds of buds every two months and Marks admits it’s “pretty good but not the best.” “When you’re pumping out this much product, it’s hard to make it 100 percent, top of the line.” Marks says he sells it for a bit lower than other growers. “I’m a wholesaler running a business, and I need to move it.” The tradesmen-turned-grower says he sells a pound for as low as $2,800 on the Big Island, and up to $3,500 on O‘ahu. Marks makes anywhere from $70,000 to $80,000 a harvest.
He acknowledges his factory-like approach to growing makes it tougher on other growers. “I know it makes it harder for the guys pulling off three or four pounds every crop. Their sales are going to change. There have been some competitive moments. There are people bringing loads in – and I mean loads – from California and have staked their claim to parts of O‘ahu. They go to California, find what they want, and ship hundreds of pounds home. They’ve been doing it for a long time. Dealers get territorial, and they don’t like competition. But we all have to pay our bills, right?” Marks levels.
Northern California’s medical marijuana laws currently allow people with prescriptions to grow up to six mature or 12 immature plants and possess 8 ounces of processed marijuana legally (except where local guidelines specify more). According to Nancy Black who’s been growing in Humboldt County for three years: “Everyone’s growing here. It’s just what you do. Humboldt’s producing thousands of pounds all year long, and right now it’s evolved into a codependent relationship with Hawai‘i.” Humboldt County guidelines allow patients to grow up to 99 plants legally.
Hawai‘i’s been an outlet for California-grown marijuana for years. A pound can be bought for as low as $1,800 in Humboldt or Mendocino County, leaving plenty of room for price markup in the islands. It’s not just on the selling end. Each harvest season, Northern California sees an influx of trimmers from Hawai‘i spending several months prepping the pot for sale. Rose Thomas is an O‘ahu resident who will be heading over for her fourth consecutive season this October. “I usually just quit my job at home when Cali time comes and head over for a few months. I make more money in two months there than I make at home in a year. I’d say about 30 girls I know from Hawai‘i go over each season, and that’s just people I know.”
Black says it’s not only medical laws, but the method of growing that enables Californians to cultivate such large amounts of cannabis. “In Hawai‘i most people are growing indoor with clones that get only about two to three feet tall. If you’re lucky you get an ounce per plant. Here, everyone’s got a hundred plants or more that are six to eight feet tall and yielding four pounds each.”
Marks and Hunt are pleasant people. They’re friendly. They’re family men. Neither exude the menacing personality stereotyping drug dealers, and the healthy green plants don’t invoke a sense of danger. It’s easy to forget that in Hawai‘i, growers in Marks’ league face up to 20 years in prison for cultivation of 100 plants or more, and the same sentence for selling five pounds or more. Even people like Hunt, who grow on a much smaller scale face five years in jail for cultivating up to 50 plants, and ten years for selling one to five pounds.
Making a living as a grower may be more lucrative than the average 9-to-5 job, but growers risk everything, family, freedom, and all they’ve worked for. Trust is a grower’s biggest asset. Marks knows the risks, but he’s an optimist. “I know it could all be gone in a second. But you do what you can to be legit in every other area in life. Keep your name clean, have a cover business. I believe you get what you give, so I’m always fair in life and business. All the people I know who’ve been busted, it’s always someone ratting them out. It’s about trust, and most importantly I never put a crop in my own home,” he says.
Hunt, who has a crop in his home, agrees it’s about trust and laying low. “I try not to deal with anyone new, not trimmers, dealers, nobody. I’ve got my tried and true people to work with me and sell it, and keep their mouths shut. I’ve got to be modest too. It’s not a good idea to be flashing wads of cash, or have too many big toys.”
As Hawai‘i’s marijuana market and laws continue to change, growers concur that one thing seems to be certain: The demand for weed isn’t disappearing. “The market’s flooded and prices are lower, but people still want their pot,” says Hunt. “Even in a slow economy, people make sure they get stoned. And we’re not just dealing with one type of person or demographic. Teachers, parents, professors, tourists at high end hotels, even the occasional movie or sports celebrity – everyone smokes weed.”
“Who knows what the future holds for us,” says Marks. “Medical marijuana has changed a lot, a multitude of people are growing their own, and it’s easy to get clones and lights. Eventually, maybe everyone will be legally growing their own marijuana, and growers won’t be needed. I might have to find a new job, but I don’t think consumption will ever decrease. People love their weed.”
*All names have been changed to protect the identities of the sources.