One of the best travel jobs these days is clipping weed in places like California – if you can put up with all astrology talk that goes along with it.
[Please DO NOT write to Road Junky or Tom Thumb about finding work clipping marijuana. We don’t live in California and have no contacts!]
Given the frothing nature of America’s war on drugs– conducted with righteous fervour by every president since Ronald Reagan, it was, all in all, a strange move for California to sanction the use of marijuana for medical reasons back in 1994. In a country where being caught in the wrong state with a couple of grams of weed can get you a longer sentence than a murderer, it seemed unlikely that you’d ever be able to walk into a store with a prescription and buy some of the best marijuana in the world.
Despite the fundamentalist agenda of the DEA, the medical association couldn’t entirely deny forever some of the beneficial effects of getting stoned and if it was going to happen anywhere, it was going to be California. Of course the marijuana had to come from somewhere and a whole new market opened up. Not that growing weed is anything new in the US. Despite the media frenzy and DEA propaganda, marijuana is still by far and away the most consumed illegal drug in the US. It’s contraband status of course affords huge mark ups and the majority of the country’s marijuana has long been grown in the middle of the country, often where the laws are also the most stringent.
It’s not that white, bible bashing farmers have suddenly developed a taste for the herb but rather that no one could ignore these kinds of profits for long. It’s estimated that revenue from marijuana at least equals and maybe exceeds that of America’s biggest cash crops, soy and corn. In fact the corn makes a perfect hiding place for outdoor cultivation as passing helicopters have no chance of spotting the marijuana plants amid the taller corn stalks.
The quality of this weed is pretty low though and only fetches about $1000-2000 a kilo. The west coast of California, on the other hand, has long attracted the connoisseurs and experts of marijuana cultivation, long before the medical association ever created the current boom. The climate is perfect for outdoor production and there are ready, sophisticated markets of stoners from San Diego to Vancouver. The change in the state laws has created a peculiar legal no man’s land and the big question was whether the police would follow the state or the federal stance on marijuana cultivation. A meeting of growers and cannabis enthusiasts was called and also invited were the district attorney of northern California and the local head sheriff. Tents with free pot were set up and whilst the audience got heavily stoned they listened to speakers ranging from from the likes of the 60’s guru, Ram Dass, to doctors testifying once again as to the benefit of mankind of good dope. At the end the district attorney stood up and said something along the lines of:
“I’ve listened with interest and respect today to all the speakers and now I want to make my position clear. Ram Dass has been my guru for more than 30 years and as far as I’m concerned the people I’ve seen today are as good Americans as you’ll find anywhere. Provided no one grows more than 99 plants on their farms, the state has no interest in prosecuting you.”
The the sheriff stood up and added:
“Well, the DA here is my guru. If he’s not going to prosecute then we won’t be busting anyone either as long as they don’t get too greedy.”
That wasn’t quite the end of the story, of course, as the marijuana grown was sanctioned only for those with ‘a genuine medical need’, and not for the millions of weed smokers in search of a good toke. That’s exactly who the the farmers intended to supply of course and so began a tentative dance between the growers and the police to the background groove of the medical marijuana legislation. Stoners of all backgrounds began buying properties in North California and installing 99 plants in each one. They pay trusted friends a monthly allowance to caretake the plants and then hire other runners to drive kilos of the best marijuana in the world down to San Francisco and Los Angeles. Utilising all the latest technology, these growers have harvests every few months and the big crops are all around autumn time. Then reliable hippies (a new oxymoron?) are shipped in to clip the leaves off the plants and manicure the buds so that they can fetch the $8000-10,000 a kilo that their marijuana fetches on the market.
All of which was extremely good news for an opportunist traveler like myself, arriving in San Francisco in October in search of work. These aren’t the kinds of jobs you just walk into, of course and I was lucky enough to have a old friend who knew just about anyone worth knowing in the Bay Area. Had I been a female, she said, she would have got me a job yesterday. As it was it took around ten days before one of her friends agreed to take me on as a favour to her.
After being kept around for a day or two waiting for the call to come, I was finally picked up and driven a couple of hours north and told that my first day’s work involved unloading the removal truck. The grower, a Jewish guy named Avi, had just bought a new property to farm his plants and I had to unload hosepipes, canisters of carbon dioxide (increases yield by up to 50%), bags of plant feed and around 50 troughs of soil.
“Get all the grow stuff into the shed fast,” he told me, “We don’t want the neighbours to catch on.”
With good reason. Careful not to provoke any paranoia by asking too many questions, I still learned pretty fast that Avi was recovering from a recent raid on one of his properties. It wasn’t the police who descended him, though but a gang of armed thieves in balaclavas who stripped the house of all the plants, TV and stereo. As Avi didn’t have enough prescriptions to realistically cover all the plants he was growing, he could hardly appeal for legal retribution.
I kept quiet and spent the day unloading all the agricultural stuff at 20 bucks an hour but drew the line at stripping the walls in the grow room. In any case, that kind of thing was beyond my level of competence and I left it to the other two guys who also thought they were only here to clip marijuana. Whilst we all bitched about being brought up here on false pretexts, Avi marched back and forth speaking on his headset cell phone, cutting deals up and down the country for the sale of weed that would make him a millionaire inside a year or two. He spent far more time talking on the phone than talking to anyone in person, except when he paused to give impromptu lectures to his assistant on the dangers of spider mites and mold.
For all his obstreporous personality traits, Avi was undeniably on the case; it was he who explained to me why everyone in the marijuana business had a dog – some obscure legal ground made it harder for the police to authorise a search of your vehicle when there was an animal in your car. He could also reel off in detail all the symptoms you needed to repeat to your doctor to get your prescription – he collected them and reimbursed his ‘patients’ with an ounce of weed each harvest.
We finally got to clip the next day and were driven to another property where the current batch was ready to be cut. The house was tucked away at the end of a secluded lane, not too far from where Tom Waits lives and no one could have known that ten kilos of top quality marijuana were about to be harvested here. A crew of six of us were seated at a table, handed industrial strength clippers and a trough of plants was brought up to us. The trick was to cut away the outer leafs, separate the buds and then go in for the fine manicure, disposing of all the leafage possible to leave the buds looking worth top dollar.
“Make them pretty as Christmas trees.” We were told.
It being close to Thanksgiving, we were given turkey bags to store our cut buds. As we were being paid by weight, $250 a pound (454 grams), a frenzy of clipping ensued for the next four days. We manicured the marijuana for around ten hours a day and every time we took a break we soon returned to the table with the fear of falling behind. The blades of our scissors grew so sticky with THC resin that you could collect a gram of oily charas a day from them. Each time I tried though I lost my ball when the leaves were swept off the table into bags that were taken off for the production of hashish. Each night when I returned to Avi’s house to sleep, all I could see behind my eyelids were fractal marijuana buds inviting the attention of my scissor blades.
Most of the clippers were from the Burning Man scene, the annual festival of freakish art installations, breakbeat music and utter freedom held in the desert every August. Much of the peace and love seemed to go up in smoke once self interest entered the scene though. The problem with being paid by weight was that the buds varied enormously in size. There were branches of big, fat marijuana buds which were easy to clip and which swelled your bag by ten grams a time. There were also strands of popcorn buds though that took forever and weighed next to nothing. That would have been okay had they been doled out equally but instead there was often a subtle rush for the basket each time new plants were brought up and a couple of the clippers took to heading down to the grow room to bring plants up themselves – they brought big buds for everyone but more for themselves.
Avi thought it was all enormous fun.
“If anyone takes all the big buds you should gang up on them and rob them later.” He laughed, “That’s what I would do.”
As a good example of an intolerant misanthrope, it was hard work for me to sit at the table with five other clippers for so long. Even without the aggravation of bud greed some of the personalities were on the flaky side and it was all I could do not to break a window at times. This was California, after all, and the hippies lived up to their reputation, talking about astrology all day and comparing signs. When they’d exhausted the possibilities of the Western zodiac, they’d move on to the Chinese signs and finally, Mayan astrology.
“Well, I’m a white intergalactic fire phoenix so I can definitely vibe with what you’re saying…” I don’t have any grief with astrology in particular, it’s just when it becomes a crutch or a personality-substitute that I couldn’t stand it. Like when one girl began to attribute her feelings of relationship insecurity to her tenth house being in Mars I finally had to speak up.
“Yeah, that could be it. Or on the other hand it could have something to do with your ability to understand and communicate your own feelings. Or it could have something to do with listening to your fears and understanding the existential complexes and core beliefs that orchestrate your life and your experience of it.” To my surprise, once I began to make my voice heard at the table it got easier to get along with my fellow clippers. They accepted my doubts (Californians accept just about anything) and even found my cynicism entertaining at times.
“Man, you’re even more down on us than the East Coasters.” They laughed. Later in the day when Avi walked in announcing that he had to plant the new marijuana seedlings in the 45 minute window while Taurus was rising, it took only one look at my face to set the room giggling.
As pretty much everyone at the table knew each other I felt like something of an outsider and, as I felt like I was the slowest clipper there, I began to be overwhelmed by feelings of self-pity and failure. My Vidal Sassoon technique made my buds look good but I was falling behind with the weight and it was depressing to work as long as the others and make half the money. Most of it turned out to be in the head though when the final weights were revealed; whilst my bag was significantly lighter than the fastest clippers, I wasn’t the worst and much of the difference came about because of the unequal distribution of buds. The only reason I hadn’t spoken up about it was that I was half-convinced it was my own paranoia until someone else complained about it. I made around $650 in four days of clipping and, now that I had Avi’s trust, he sent me up to work in an area that was actually called Grass Valley. This was working with a new boss who was much easier to get along with and who paid a set $20 an hour.
The pressure was now off and clipping marijuana became more of an endurance activity. At least as far as the conversation went. The new group of clippers were even more Californian than the last and the conversation began to drive me insane. To give you an idea, on an average day ‘d be working with people named Spirit Child, Illumination, Eden and Oceana. All of them seemed to believe in everything, from aliens to telepathic mutants and the lack of an inquiring mind was an anathma to me. Someone would mention that he did Raindrop Therapy, a massage technique with essential oils on the spine to release toxins stored in the vertebrae. And what was everyone’s reaction? Cool. No one ever thought to ask anything like: where does the therapy come from? What toxins and where exacly are they stored? How much time did you spend studying this? And isn’t this just another airhead therapy ego trip?
“Hmmm, I wish I knew where the moon was.” One particularly annoying girl named Pollen kept saying. It was all I could do not to reply: ‘It’s in the fucking sky where it always is’. So instead I turned to Spirit Child and asked him what he did when he wasn’t clipping.
“Oh,” he said, looking me deep in the eyes, “I’m an artist, a performer and a lover.”
The urge to write people like this off as pretentious wankers was overpowering at times. Later on, though, parts of their life story would come out and you’d discover that they’d been force fed Ritalin as kids and come from fairly fucked-up backgrounds. For many the hippie scene in California was a perfect place to camouflage their disturbed past with a new, spiritual identity. So what if they didn’t know what they were talking about? At least they weren’t in an alley somewhere shooting up smack.
It was all too much for me though. I made another $600 bucks in four days and got the hell out of there before I broke anyone’s crystals. As I caught a ride back to San Francisco I said a silent prayer of thanks to the Marijuana Spirit in the sky and distracted myself by staring at all the trees beside the road, visualising which branches I’d trim to reveal the buds.
[We get a lot of emails at Road Junky about how to find work clipping marijuana. The first thing to realise is that it’s kinda grey legally. The second thing to know is that growers are very paranoid and with good reason – it’s not uncommon for gangsters to turn up with guns and rob the whole harvest.
So the key is trust. Which basically means if you want work you need to spend time in the Bay Area or maybe at Burning Man and get connected. It’s as simple and elusive as that.
Please DO NOT write to us for advice, contacts etc we don’t live in California. This article was based on one experience back in 2005.