Pot Town, NY

pot-town-ny
Water pipes for sale at Ithaca's Exscape. (Rachel Philipson)
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You would think that Ithaca, a city of college students, aging radicals and people transitioning from one of those states to the next, would be the sort of place where the locals are happy to discuss pot.

People come here, and stay here, because it’s a city that embraces alternative libraries, alternative schools and alternative lifestyles of all sorts. Tibetan peace flags fly not just in dorm rooms, but on the houses of adults with 30-year mortgages, and white-bearded men in practical sandals dance on the downtown Commons to local musicians, whether they’re playing Irish dance tunes or hip hop.

Plus, it’s a city surrounded by farms, and any people here who don’t buy local produce likely grow it themselves, in admirable back-yard gardens that all summer long produce tomatoes and arugula, asparagus and squash, garlic and, sometimes, small crops of cannabis.

But even though the city’s young mayor, Svante Myrick, has come out in favor of legalization and has ordered the local police force to put its focus elsewhere, even though few Ithacans really believe pot should be illegal, people still don’t like to talk openly about growing or selling it.

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It doesn’t matter whether you’re growing yourself. A friend could be keeping the exact same secret, and you might never know. And if you do know, you keep quiet about it.

“Even if you know someone is growing pot, if they didn’t tell you directly, you don’t mention it,” said one local, who, not so long ago, had maybe a hundred plants growing on his land. “Because it’s illegal, you don’t want to ask people those questions, because it makes them uncomfortable.”

While New York hasn’t moved seriously toward legalizing pot yet, advocates believe a medical-marijuana bill could pass within a couple of years.

So far, Governor Andrew Cuomo has opened up only a tiny loophole in the law, with his limited executive power, proposing a small, hospital-based program which, practically speaking, can only source medical marijuana from one farm in Mississippi.

For regular pot-smokers in New York, this is a non-event. It is also a non-event for anyone interested in making their living in the cannabis industry.

It’s not hard to imagine places like Ithaca profiting fairly handsomely from a future change in the law.

Evan Nison, a co-founder of the N.Y. Cannabis Alliance who has advised Ithaca’s mayor on drug policy, suggested it could be the next big local industry.

“Ithaca has the experienced people in place, the consumer base, and local government that’s supportive,” he said.

If recreational marijuana were made legal, not only could the head shops, the hydroponic shops, the growers and the distributors start talking about the work they do, but, out in the open, they could do more of it.

This region already boasts about its wines. Why not its pot?

Cornell, which is after all a land-grant institution with a thriving agricultural school, could start working on the best ways to grow cannabis and process it into salable products. The Ithaca Farmer’s Market, the most popular spot in town on most Saturday mornings, could probably find room for a vendor or two selling organic, locally grown weed.

In respectable political circles, the conversation about marijuana legalization is stuck on the pretense that it would primarily be a boon for ailing people and, maybe, for ailing tax rolls.

But if pot becomes widely legal, it won’t just be because of its medicinal qualities. It will also be because powerful people see big business opportunities. And the business people who stand to benefit most are not the business people who are benefitting now.

IT IS NOT HARD—AT ALL—TO FIND PEOPLE IN ITHACA WHO ALREADY make at least some of their money growing and selling pot. On the west end of the Ithaca Commons, the downtown pedestrian mall, there’s a classic microeconomic cluster of shops selling glassware—pipes and bongs that, according to the signs in the stores, are to be used in the consumption of tobacco.

(The number of head shops, currently down to five, has been as high as seven; Ithaca’s Glass, which specialized in locally blown products, may re-open after a current Commons reconstruction project finishes up.)

But these shops are just the most obvious evidence of the city’s thriving market for psychoactive cannabis. If you grew up here, you probably know someone who’s made or is making money selling weed or growing some locally, or who’s worked a season, or more, out in California, on a trim crew. You know, at the very least, the people who know the people who can get cheap, quality pot.

Even people who’ve worked in this market can’t necessarily say, exactly, where the preponderance comes from. Probably from out of town, although, one dealer said, his customers “love to hear it’s local.”

Some is actually locally grown, in bathrooms, back porches and basements, or outdoors, snuck between rows of crops or onto someone else’s sprawling property. Many of the jobs up here, especially for younger people, are low-paying, service-economy situations; a small indoor grow operation, of just two 400-watt lights, can be enough to make a substantial contribution, in the range of $20,000 a year, to a family’s income—and plenty of grow ops are much bigger.

But there’s also a strong connection with northern California’s Emerald Triangle.

“Everyone knows kids in California who are trimming pot, and they’re earning impressive amounts of money,” said the former local grower.

A short stint in Mendocino County can earn a trimmer a few thousand dollars—and, given the option of being paid in pot, he or she can bring that bounty back and sell it on the East Coast for at least twice its West Coast value.

“It’s easy to get into ganja and make a lot of money. You’re getting paid for your risk,” said another Ithaca resident, who’s grown pot locally and worked a season out west. “People take that risk because it’s what they want to do.”

Still, said the dealer, “It’s 100 percent a real business. People think it’s a lot of potheads but it’s not like that. It’s a business.”

The risks are certainly real. A couple of the Ithacans I met had been busted, and had suffered personally and financially as a result.

The profits are real, too.

When I started asking around for people who could talk about the local pot economy, I was repeatedly directed toward a white inn, newly renovated, snuggled at the base of one of hills that keeps Ithaca protected from the outside world. Out in Mecklenburg and down in Danby, they might think of Ithaca as the big city, but it’s a small enough place that certain pieces of knowledge make their way around town, and many Ithacans are convinced that there’s some connection between this beautiful building and money made in California’s cannabis industry.