In the late 1990s, soon after California became the first state in the nation to legalize medical marijuana, Matt Cohen moved to Oakland and began growing pot for a local dispensary. He ran a large buyers’ club for a while, got involved in a lawsuit that arose out of a federal raid and eventually made his way north to the so-called Emerald Triangle, the lush marijuana-growing haven that includes Mendocino, Trinity and Humboldt counties. These days, he lives deep in the ultra-private hills northeast of the town of Ukiah, doing what he loves best: cultivating organically grown cannabis with boutique names like Malawi Epic Blend, Purple Legend and Purple Urkle.
Cohen, 33, has a long ponytail and wears jeans, patterned shirts and pointy leather boots. He lives with his fiancée and their dog in a sprawling ranch house that has an aquamarine-tiled pool and a porch with a barbecue resting atop wooden planks. Potted sunflowers add a splash of yellow. Off to the side flies a large American flag. But for all these laid-back trappings, Cohen doesn’t really have a hippie vibe. Rather, he seems to style himself, first and foremost, as an entrepreneur. His property is surrounded by $10,000 worth of state-of-the-art security sensors, protection for ninety-nine enormous cannabis plants capable of producing perhaps $1 million worth of pot in a good season. The crop, licensed and regulated by Mendocino County, is grown for Northstone Organics, a medical marijuana co-op that serves more than 800 patients in Northern California. Northstone is a paid-up member of the local Chamber of Commerce; along with fifteen other licensed pot-growing sites in the county, it is increasingly considered a pillar of the local business community.
Under the gorgeous night sky of the remote countryside, Cohen, carrying a long flashlight, offers me a tour of his site. There are rows of Super Silver Haze—a prize winner at the High Times Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam, he mentions. KC Jones plants soar up to fourteen feet in the air. Maui Wowie. Kush. LA Confidential. An English clone improbably named Blue Cheese. I can’t decide if they’re beautiful or intimidating. There’s something primeval about them, something Triffid-like.
Cohen talks about Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, nature’s ways of luring admirers in via gorgeous aromas and other aesthetically pleasing adornments. Rub the ripening buds between your fingers and smell the sticky resin, he suggests, stroking his goatee as he talks. There are lemon smells, orange, sickly sweet air puffs and gentle, almost menthol-like timbres. In Cohen’s freezer, in a shed off to the side of the grow area, are an array of edibles, from brownies to peanut butter cookies to cooking oils, some vacuum-sealed, some in simple plastic containers, all with the requisite warning labels. The future of marijuana distribution, he has concluded, lies in packaging: seal the goods well, and you can store them for months, enough to tide a user over from one harvest to the next.
"We want Mendocino to be the Napa of cannabis," Cohen explains in a soft but authoritative basso voice. "Tasting rooms, cannabiseries—like a winery. You have a huge tourism industry in Amsterdam—and there the coffee shops aren’t legal; they’re just tolerated. And growing is underground. Tourism in Mendocino could be bigger than pot tourism in Amsterdam. Sustainable cannabis production, lots of beautiful smells in the air." One day, he imagines, there could be "bud ‘n’ breakfast" inns and boutique mom-and-pop marijuana farms.