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The New Marijuana Middle Class

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Marijuana brings an estimated $14 billion a year to California. That number is enough to inspire awe, drool even, when thinking of the slice that could be devoured by the state's hungry coffers. Add to that number the money saved on enforcing prohibition. In this context, Prop 19, California's initiative to tax and regulate marijuana for recreational use, sounds like a no-brainer. However, if it passes, the RAND Drug Policy Research Center projects an 80% price drop. In that case, projected tax revenues will be pipe dreams, and only those who produce mass quantities will be able to stay in business. Most of the cannabis small business owners I talked to at the recent Hemp Con in San Jose are just that, small business owners of the sort who are supposed to be rebuilding our economy.

Kelly Shaeffer wears a gleaming white hoodie embroidered with nugs; if not for that, you might mistake her for a soccer mom. She and her brother own Plant Providers Plus, a delivery service based in San Jose. "I had a business in landscape design for ten years which fell out with the economy, so I turned his hobby into a business and we're doing very well. We're helping a lot of people, a lot of patients. It's very rewarding." When asked what she thinks about Prop 19, she says, "The drop in prices--that would affect my business greatly. Letting the big guys come in, the pharmaceutical companies. They would take over our industry."

California's unemployment rate has been in the double digits since January of 2009. The Cannabusiness is one of the only segments of the world's eighth largest economy to see explosive growth. This has been cause for alarm in places like Los Angeles, where over 400 dispensaries were recently shut down. It's also been seen as an opportunity for government price gouging, as in the case of Oakland's recent ruling to charge $211,000 for a permit to cultivate in an industrial setting. David Holmes, founder of a website called Cannagen, says of Prop 19, "If Oakland's the model, then I'm against it."

It's not by accident that marijuana has become a socio-economic superstar. Underground cultivators have been altering genetics and adapting technologies to turn Mary Jane into the powerhouse she is today. It's not unreasonable to think of a large ag, pharma, or tobacco company attempting to patent a version of Train Wreck or Purple Urkel, strains that have been developed not just for money, but for love.

I ask a gent wearing a shirt printed with buds and leaves, "Have you ever worn an aspirin shirt?" He looks bewildered.

"Aspirin shirt?"

"Or like an Excedrin shirt?"

"No."

"What is it about this medicine that makes you feel like not only taking it, but also..."

"...Celebrating it? This is actually a hemp shirt, not necessarily cannabis medicine. I'm a glaucoma patient so I appreciate the 25% reduction in eye pressure. It's helped me sleep, it's relived my asthma. It makes Twinkies taste like creme brulee. I like--" He corrects himself: "I love the herb."

Pot educator Jason Browne says, "Cannabis is pure Americana, in the deepest sense. The founders of the country, who were rebels, all grew it or used it or supported it and understood its benefits to society and a free country." He adds, "Is cannabis the key to unlocking America's true subconscious? Is cannabis the key to reminding us what our roots are? And that it's okay to step away from some of this crap that we've been investing in for so long, and to rethink everything? Maybe the answer is yes."

No matter what happens with Prop 19 this November, pot is here to stay. Humans and cannabis have been coevolving for thousands of years, and not even the war on drugs could convince weed to throw up the white flag. In fact, with adversity, it's grown stronger--in both potency and number of users. The question now, it seems to me, is will the marijuana middle class continue to grow? Or will cannabis become another corporate commodity; an industry with impenetrable barriers to entry? Is there a middle path?