The Weed Runners: Travels With the Outlaw Capitalists of America's Medical-Marijuana Trade
Illustration: Jared Boggess | Design: Dustin Ames
It might be a stretch to say the history of America's underground marijuana trade is encapsulated in the story of Donald Hoxter.
Not by much, though.
Few people can say they've smuggled as much as 10 tons of marijuana across both the Mexican and Canadian borders per year. Or that they were one of the first hippies in the Pacific Northwest to pioneer America's homegrown crop in the early 1980s, some 15 years before marijuana became legal—first in California, then in more than a dozen other states—for medical purposes. And it's certainly true that few have won or lost as much as Hoxter in this business. His story, which ends before the tales contained in my recently released book begin, is therefore a perfect place to start.
At the moment, Hoxter is sitting at an outdoor table at a coffee shop in Long Beach, at a busy intersection, kitty-corner from an elementary school where kids are loudly enjoying their afternoon recess. He's a tall, lanky man in his early 60s with whitening red hair and freckles. His fair skin is mottled red and white, permanently scorched by 41 straight months in the too-sunny recreation yard of a federal prison. A fresh cigarette dangles from his lips. He has almost lit the thing several times over the past hour or so, but instead absent-mindedly twirls the lighter with his left hand.
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Hoxter is too busy talking to smoke. The memories, some of which are still a jumble in his mind since he hasn't spoken publicly about much of his life until now, overflow. It all started in the early 1960s, he says, when he was a kid in El Cajon, a gritty, working-class town just east of San Diego. Then as now, El Cajon was a bastion of the Hells Angels, and several members of the outlaw motorcycle gang happened to live on the street where Hoxter grew up. "They lived on the same block, much to my mother's chagrin," remembers Hoxter. "I got my first joint from the Hells Angels. They cost about four for a dollar back then. And, of course, they came from Mexico. Mexico is where everything came from in the beginning."
Hoxter hung out with older kids and young adults who tended to drive down to Tijuana each weekend. He didn't realize it right away, but a lot of them weren't just crossing the border to get drunk in the cantinas of the infamous Zona Norte. "A friend of mine came back one time and was laughing and joking and opened up the trunk of his Chevrolet," he recalls. The friend lifted up some unfolded newspapers and proudly showed Hoxter several bricks of cheap Mexican grass. Even before Hoxter was old enough to drive, he was going along for the ride, and by the time he had his license, he was a smuggler. "It was nothing. You just drove down and drove back," he recalls. "Going into Mexico, there was no police presence, and coming back, you just played it like you had gotten drunk because that's what people did."
Typically, Hoxter and his friends would find a back-alley dealer, pool their money and purchase about 2 pounds of pot that had been packed into tight bundles, or bricks. Each one cost $60 or $70. Then they'd sell each pound for $300, dividing the amount into 30 lids, or $10 quantities, which were measured by a finger's width of a Prince Albert can of tobacco. By the late 1960s, he and his buddies were handling much larger loads, 30 or 40 pounds at a time, which they'd typically stash in the bottom of a boat, and then attach to their legs with rope before swimming ashore. Meanwhile, they'd formed their own commune in San Diego called "the Family" and had hooked up with the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, a group of hippies and surfers living in cheap houses in Laguna Beach who were smuggling untold quantities of hashish from Afghanistan and transporting massive quantities of Mexican weed across the border.
Smuggling and selling hash and marijuana became a way for the Family, the Brotherhood and legions of other hippies to finance their alternative lifestyles. As more young people started tuning in, turning on and dropping out, the demand for Mexican buds grew even higher, and Hoxter was often handling shipments of 1,000 or 1,500 pounds at a time. Because of the volume they handled, the various drug networks operating at the time soon had no use for Tijuana middlemen and had hooked up directly with individual villages in the Mexican states of Sinaloa, Jalisco or Michoacan, where growing marijuana had long been a way of life. The Family patronized one particular hamlet high up in the hills of Michoacan, an hour or so south of Morelia. After a decade of cross-border enterprise, the jungle township had doubled in size and enjoyed electricity, plumbing and paved roads.
When Southern California got too crowded—and too hot—Hoxter and the Family moved to rural Montana, and Hoxter began a new life smuggling Mexican loads across the border into Canada. His first crossing was insanely risky: he drove through a one-man border-control checkpoint with his Canuck girlfriend, posing as newlyweds. "My chances were probably 80 to 20 that I'd get caught," Hoxter estimates. "But I told her to look at this guy and melt him. 'I want him to think if I wasn't sitting here, he'd had a shot with you.'"
Hoxter's girlfriend was a stunner, and the happy couple was soon in Vancouver unloading 400 pounds of pot, which is how Hoxter met a friend of a friend nicknamed Art Nouveau, who became his partner in crime for the next 25 years. Thanks to his connections in Vancouver, a group of hippies who were the biggest pot dealers in British Columbia, Hoxter was never short of work when it came to smuggling weed. He spent most of the 1970s living off the grid at the Family's commune in Montana, raising chickens and pigs and running pot across the border, 1,000 pounds at a time. Every month, a truck would come from Southern California, full of marijuana from Mexico. Hoxter had a collection of U.S. Forest Service topographical maps and knew all the unused service roads that led to the Canadian border.
"On the maps, the roads ended at the border, but you knew they didn't really end but went straight into Canada," he explains. "All you had to do was choose one that would dump you out close to a paved road because once you were on the pavement, you could be anybody, even if you did have Montana plates, which was okay." While driving through people's farms on the way to the main road, Hoxter says, nobody seemed to mind as long as he remembered to shut their gates so their cows wouldn't wander off. Often, Hoxter would drive close enough to a farmhouse to actually see a farmer and his wife sitting at their dinner table, making eye contact with him in that subtle country manner. Not once did he forget to close a gate, nor did he ever cross paths with the Canadian border patrol.
A growing stack of bills from each successful sojourn, stashed in a hole in the ground under one of the houses, funded the Family's hardscrabble existence. If someone needed money to travel somewhere or buy groceries or supplies, Hoxter, who was known among members of the commune as "Controller," would simply disburse the cash on a case-by-case basis, using larger amounts to finance ever-larger marijuana shipments that were always being orchestrated either via the Brotherhood or directly from Mexico. The biggest Mexican load Hoxter ever handled was a seaborne haul, 3 tons of a 5-ton deal, put together with his friends in the Brotherhood, who provided a yacht to transport the weed from Mexico. But the pot almost never reached its destination because the yacht broke down.
"The price for losing that load was our lives," Hoxter recalls, his voice suddenly catching in his throat. "The Mexicans would have killed us if we lost it." In fact, one of the crew members did lose his life, but that was before the boat broke its driveline. "One of the San Diego kids fell overboard on the trip north," Hoxter says. "I don't know how it happened. You're out there in the deep blue; it was nighttime. The captain said, 'We're not turning around. Sorry, but your friend is gone.'"
Hoxter had no choice but to fly back north, inform his friend's parents their son had died in a sailing accident, and then raise $33,000 to buy the spare parts for the boat, which sat useless in a Pacific Ocean port. Finally, he had to convince his girlfriend to let him strap her down with the cash, which he carefully wrapped around her torso after instructing her to look everyone in the eye and, when necessary, to flirt. Then he purchased airline tickets to fly her and her husband—yes, his girlfriend had a husband; this was the early 1970s after all—down to Mexico. The couple posed as newlyweds on honeymoon. Once they arrived in Mexico City, Hoxter's contacts delivered the money to the port where the boat was waiting. After the cash arrived, the parts were purchased, and the load miraculously arrived a few weeks later at an isolated beach on the U.S. Marine Corps base in Camp Pendleton. The spot was accessible by a dirt road and guarded only by a chain-link gate secured with a padlock. Hoxter and his cohorts used inflatable, motorized rafts to run the bundles of marijuana off the yacht and onto the beach; the haul filled up two Winnebago motor homes that Hoxter purchased, cash down, just to transport the goods.
Because the trip had taken a few months longer than projected, Hoxter ended up owing the Brotherhood some money, and to pay them off, he had no choice but to make a 1,000-pound run to Canada. Usually, that was no problem. However, now it was the dead of winter, and 14 feet of snow blanketed the border between Montana and Canada. The Forest Service had also blown up some of the decrepit bridges Hoxter had been using to run drugs and had even constructed giant earthen berms along the roads to prevent all but the foolhardiest four-wheel-drivers from attempting passage. Hoxter's solution, hitching trailers loaded with pot to a pair of snowmobiles, seemed to work until halfway up the mountain, when one of them busted a fan belt from the strain of carrying the heavy load.
He and his friend were able to weave the belt back together with some spare wire before they froze to death, but the mission was over. The next night, Hoxter waited until long after sunset and walked up to a border checkpoint that was only open during the daytime. He yelled and cursed at the top of his lungs and smashed a couple of bottles of tequila on the road. "Nobody came out," he says. "So the next night, I went up to the gate and cut the lock with bolt cutters at 3 a.m." On cue, Hoxter's friend, behind the wheel of a truck with the pot, roared through the checkpoint. An hour later, they unloaded the weed and were back through the border before anyone knew the gate's lock had been broken.
* * *
In the early 1980s—Hoxter can't remember the exact year—the Family commune in Montana began to fall apart under the strain of cabin fever and rapidly approaching middle age, and he and his wife moved to Lebanon, Oregon. There, they raised three daughters on a 2,500-acre property. They lived in a small trailer, but not because the property lacked proper shelter. In fact, Hoxter had purchased the land because it featured a large barn, which he had every intention of using for growing marijuana. Inside the barn, Hoxter wired together several 1,000-watt metal-halide lamps, hanging them from the beams, and reflected the heat with Mylar sheeting in a 10-foot-by-12-foot enclosure. When the female plants reached a certain height, he moved them to various locations he'd scouted in nearby national forest land, where, if he could keep the herb stalks hidden long enough, he could harvest his cannabis crop before the feds ripped them from the soil.
This being the dawn of the homegrown American marijuana-farming industry, Hoxter was hardly the only hippie in rural Oregon who had his own pot farm. There wasn't much else to do. The logging industry had been on the wane for years, and unemployment ran high in the small towns. "All I wanted to do was grow, although Canada was always my ace in the hole," Hoxter says. "I knew that I could always make a lot of money smuggling a load. At first, I was the only person I knew growing indoor with lights. But then a friend of mine started growing, and he used sodium-vapor lights, which turned out to have a better light spectrum for growing, and this kind of information would get spread like that." There was even a local magazine for growers, Sinsemilla Tips, that contained word-of-mouth horticultural advice. "People were learning," Hoxter says. "There were still no names for the product yet, none of the strains had been branded, and botanists were just starting to figure out how to crossbreed hybrids. It was all still just marijuana."
Every night, the local television station would broadcast reports on how many plants the feds had spotted with their planes and seized in the forests that day. But Hoxter never was caught, and everything went just as he'd hoped, until his wife became ill and died in 1987. Thus began a downward spiral for Hoxter. Or rather, thus ended a downward spiral that had already begun well before his wife died, one that had been amplified by the highly illegal nature of everything he'd been doing for the past few decades. His career ended with him becoming mentally and physically isolated, alone with three daughters, unable to cope, strung out on heroin and dealing harder drugs to support his habit. Just when it seemed things couldn't get any worse, the feds raided his farm.
After a stint in federal prison, Hoxter relocated to Southern California, where he went straight back into the marijuana business. But a cop in Laguna Beach who knew of his background as a smuggler got wind of his presence there and raided his house six times in 10 months until he caught Hoxter with a couple of pounds of weed, enough to charge him with possession with the intent to sell. Hoxter served the next 41 months in federal lockup and came out determined to put his criminal escapades behind him, although he reserved the right to smoke marijuana.
"I was on parole and had 18 dirty tests in a row," he explains. "My parole officer could have sent me back to prison, but she didn't because I was working full-time and, for some reason, she liked me.
"'Fifty years ago, you could go to prison for drinking beer, and now you can do that legally,'" Hoxter told her. "'So was it wrong then?'"
"I'm not going to argue with you," the parole officer responded. "But it's against the law, and you don't seem to get it."
Except marijuana wasn't illegal anymore.
Not exactly, that is.
* * *
Just weeks after the last time Hoxter was busted for marijuana, in November 1996, California voters overwhelmingly voted in favor of Proposition 215, which legalized marijuana for medical purposes under state law for the first time in American history. The law was written by a group of marijuana-legalization activists in the Bay Area, most notably a San Francisco resident named Dennis Peron, whose partner had used cannabis to treat the symptoms of AIDS before he passed away from the disease. According to the new law, which became known as the Compassionate Use Act, if a doctor wrote a recommendation—not a prescription, since it remained illegal for doctors to prescribe—for marijuana, a patient could grow, possess and smoke the substance with no fear of the law.
Flash forward 15 years to the summer of 2011, which is starting to look a lot like the historical watermark of the medical-marijuana movement, although few realized it at the time. Besides California, 15 other states—Arizona, Alaska, Montana, Colorado and Nevada among them—as well as the District of Columbia have passed laws legalizing medical marijuana. Cannabis is California's biggest cash crop, with an annual harvest valued at about $14 billion. With an estimated annual yield of 8.6 million pounds, it represents by far the largest share of the national cannabis crop, which itself is valued at $35 billion.
It's estimated that as much as $1.4 billion worth of cannabis is sold each year in California. Because state law views medical marijuana as a medicine, some dispensaries have gone to court to avoid paying sales tax, arguing that cannabis should be exempt from it like any other prescribed medicine. However, as of 2011, the California State Board of Equalization estimated that it was taking in between $58 million and $105 million per year in taxes on cannabis sales. In 2010, the city of Oakland, with its four mega-dispensaries, including the world-famous Oaksterdam University—founded by the wheelchair-bound, bespectacled ex-roadie Richard Lee and which has its own nursery and has provided cultivation classes to thousands of activists—and Stephen DeAngelo's Harborside Health Center—the subject of the Discovery Channel reality show Weed Wars, which aired in 2011—collected $1 million in tax revenue.
Starting in the mid-2000s, hundreds of medical-cannabis dispensaries had opened up throughout the state, mostly in densely populated urban neighborhoods of cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, spreading from there to the suburbs. For as little as $50, a California resident could drop by a doctor's office—some of them conveniently located next-door to dispensaries—and obtain a written recommendation for marijuana. With that in hand, you could walk into your dispensary of choice and, after signing membership paperwork, select your "medicine" from row upon row of various strains of cannabis indica and sativa with sometimes exotic but more often recreational-sounding names such as Hindu Kush, Chem Dog, Luke Skywalker, Sweet Tooth and Sour Diesel.
Meanwhile, local prosecutors in states that have legalized marijuana for medical use now refuse to file charges against anyone with a doctor's note as long as they aren't transporting or cultivating more weed than what is allowed under state law—usually half a dozen fully grown plants or up to 8 ounces of dry marijuana. Knowing this, assuming the person has a valid doctor's note, it's likely the police won't even confiscate the cannabis in question. It's now just an infraction—the legal equivalent of a parking ticket—to possess an ounce or less of the stuff—and that's assuming you're the rare recreational pot smoker who's too lazy to get a doctor's note. Oaksterdam's Lee even paid $1.5 million to sponsor a law, Proposition 19, that would have legalized the recreational use of marijuana for adults, but it failed at the polls in November 2010.
Since the first anti-cannabis law was enacted by the Massachusetts state legislature on April 29, 1911, pot smokers have blossomed from a handful of jazz musicians to tens of millions of people. Some 20 million Americans have been arrested on marijuana charges so far, and 40,000 people remain behind bars for marijuana-related crimes. And just as marijuana seemed poised to become completely legal in California, thus providing possible impetus to a nationwide campaign of decriminalization, everything changed. In October 2011, the federal government began a massive crackdown on California's medical-marijuana industry, raiding dispensaries up and down the coast, seizing property from landlords who were renting to people growing or distributing pot, and hitting DeAngelo's Harborside—the nation's largest dispensary with more than 90,000 members—with a $2.4 million tax bill, while also pressuring the dispensary's landlord to evict. Oaksterdam was next. On April 2, 2012, federal drug agents backed by local police raided the university in downtown Oakland, as well as Lee's house, and seized his entire nursery; Lee announced a few days later that he was giving up the medical-marijuana business.
The raids continued throughout 2012, with particular intensity in places where local officials had grown fed up with large numbers of dispensaries, such as Los Angeles, Orange County and especially Long Beach, which as my book reveals, engaged in a mercurial experiment with medical marijuana that will likely remain unrivaled in its hypocrisy in the annals of drug policy. Within the space of two years, the city invited cannabis clubs to pay tens of thousands of dollars to apply to win city approval, wrote an elaborate city ordinance mandating the cultivation of marijuana within city limits, engaged in a suspicious and sloppy lottery process to award clubs that had met the criteria, and then refused to provide any club with a permit. Meanwhile, the city frequently raided the clubs that had smartly avoided the lottery fiasco. Lawsuits by cannabis patients and dispensaries against the city were filed as a result; taken together, they could bankrupt Long Beach.
By the eve of the U.S. presidential election in November 2012, it seemed official: The medical-marijuana movement had reached its apex, and it had failed. The industry that had boomed in the past three years was doomed to decline. And then on Election Day, voters in Washington and Colorado passed state laws legalizing marijuana for recreational use, something that had been attempted more than once in California, most recently in 2009, but which had never won at the polls. A cover story in Newsweek magazine just weeks before the Colorado measure passed shed light on the corporate backers of the legalization measure, dubbing them America's new "pot barons." Just as the federal government's successful takedown of California's dispensaries showed the abject failure of medical marijuana to protect both the crop and the people growing it, American democracy had stepped in and provided new hope for stoners.
My book is about a relatively brief but amazing period in American social history—an incredibly dynamic three years from 2009 to 2012 during which something unprecedented happened—marijuana left the underground world of illegality and blossomed into a mainstream industry, becoming the fastest-growing economic engine in California before the feds swooped in and put pot back in its "proper" place.
The weed runners who inhabit the book are pioneers of the future American pot economy, whatever form it ultimately takes. Some of them are martyrs who paved the way for the explosion of medical marijuana. They lost their liberty by trying to accomplish too much too soon. Others followed in their footsteps, some more cautiously than others, risking everything including their own freedom to push the limits of this grand experiment.
As the book reveals, some weed runners have better intentions than others, and the well-intentioned ironically have tended to suffer worse fates at the hands of the law for their efforts. Some are smarter or just luckier than others, too. Generally speaking, these outlaw capitalists are the weed runners who have decidedly remained in the underground pot economy—or at least kept part of their portfolio firmly rooted in America's illicit pot trade. They view themselves as the next Jamesons and Johnnie Walkers. They are modern-day bootleggers who have helped lay the nationwide foundation for the brand-name marijuana of today and tomorrow.
For them, the medical-marijuana industry—and the war to curtail it—is just a sideshow. They know that until full legalization occurs, the real profits from pot will come from one source: smuggling weed across the country the good old-fashioned way. Regardless of the debate over medical marijuana, and certainly without regard for the law, they will be meeting America's incessant demand for weed one high-risk shipment at a time.
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