Harvest Time in Marijuana Country

In a legal gray zone on the West Coast, growers bring in the fruits of their labor -- and try to stay out of jail



Ask a local about the great State of Jefferson and he or she will likely designate America's unrecognized 51st state by these geographical contours: the fertile area that stretches up from Humboldt County in Northern California and east through Lake County in Southern Oregon. Lassen Volcano, Crater Lake, and Mount Shasta number among its natural treasures. 

Official flag and Wikipedia page notwithstanding, the State of Jefferson is an imaginary idyll, an unborn neverland, more a statement than a state. Its territory is mostly rural and its population comprises an uneven, sparsely concentrated spread of gun-loving citizen-farmers. According to some Jeffersonians, their state is also a God-graced agricultural empyrean where the best marijuana in the country is grown. Much like their plants, growers flourish in Jefferson, a peculiar area where a streak of libertarianism resists the government regulation of crops.

Mid-November in the State of Jefferson marks the end of the marijuana harvest. At the culmination of the harvest--six weeks' effort of picking buds from their towering stalks and drying them--the process now yields to trimming, a task to last all winter. In the spring, amendments are added and the soil is prepared once again. Over the course of a decade, the harvest has come to resemble a new version of the California grape crush of years past, stimulating the local economy during autumn months and drawing workers in for seasonal jobs. Novices learn the craft. A community builds. A demand is satisfied.

The parallels to wine don't end there. In addition to meticulous cultivation, growers pride themselves on their blends, each strain with a specific taste and potency. The workers are both farmers and connoisseurs. For growers, a corresponding aspiration is that one day it will be legal not only to sell their crop like wine producers do, but to be taxed like wine producers as well.

"Seventy patients times six mature plants," James Bowman says with mischief. "How's your math?" For Bowman, who as a caretaker is permitted to grow 420 plants, this altered state of Jefferson has less to do with the borders of Oregon and California than the borders of federal and local law. These forces constitute the legislative gray zone in which he and other medical marijuana growers live and work. 

Goateed and lanky with placid blue eyes, Bowman carries himself with a half-century's relaxed confidence. Iowa-born, Bowman considers farming to be part of his blood, the work a way of life. Like many here, he sees the world through one lens, often speaking of marijuana sacramentally and likening the struggle to legalize cannabis to anything from the American civil rights movement to the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

His fields, collectively called High Hopes Farm, are a picturesque drive away from the town of Ashland, home to Southern Oregon University, Jefferson Public Radio, and the internationally renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Tucked away among the dairies and fishing streams in the aptly-named Rogue Valley, the farm services medical marijuana patients legally according to Oregon law but in defiance of federal law. Oregon employs a caregiver system, which allows growers to cultivate six mature plants per card-carrying patient. As a precaution, Bowman only grows about half as many plants as the law allows.

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Adam Chandler is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers global news.

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