Mitch Hagney inspects a plant inside a hydroponic marijuana grow operation in South Texas. Photo by Scott Ball.

“I’m excited to be able to tell my story and show what I do,” he told Scott and me as we rode in his car, blindfolded on the way to the grow operation. While details about him can’t be published, he’s a South Texas native who has a large family but no high school diploma. He’s been growing marijuana for 10 years.

I met this man while researching marijuana in Texas and agreed to convene at a shopping center parking lot in San Antonio on a blustery February afternoon. Photographer Scott Ball courageously agreed to join me with just a few scant details, handing over his cell phone and blindfolding himself without hesitation. From the tone of their voices, it was apparent there was a lot of excitement at the sharing of secrets.

“I’ll admit, I smoke a lot of weed, but I do real work. I wake up at 6 a.m. every morning to get all my work done even though I don’t have a boss. If I make a mistake and my plants suffer, that’s money lost. Luckily, since I’ve been able to grow steadily for the last couple years, it keeps supporting my family. I provide for my kids, my wife, and my mom with the money I get from growing.

“I started with one light and 16 plants, and that turned into two lights and thirty-six plants. That turned into a grow operation. Now, I’m maxed out in terms of production that’s safe to keep growing with.”

Inside a hydroponic marijuana grow operation in South Texas. Photo by Scott Ball.
Inside a hydroponic marijuana grow operation in South Texas. Photo by Scott Ball.

For those 10 years, he’s been growing the same strain (or genetic variety) of cannabis. “It’s just never lost its kick. If you can take care of the plants you’re taking cuttings from, you can keep a constant stream of new plants coming in.”

While the plants haven’t changed much, the market has.

“Ten years ago, you could sell a pound of good stuff for $8,000. Now it’ll go for $3,500 or as low as $1,500,” he said.

Colorado is barely a state away, and California has been growing legal medicinal cannabis for almost 20 years.

While the legal markets are constrained by state borders to steer clear of the federal government’s jurisdiction, more illegal weed flows across state lines than ever, flooding the market and dropping the price.

“Even though there are lots of small growers like me, we’re not even growing half of the weed we smoke in Texas. Most of it still comes from other states,” he said.

While the other states legalize independently, the national price will keep dropping, while the harsh penalties in Texas stay the same.

In 2010 more than 78,000 people in Texas were arrested for cannabis, with each lockup costing between $10,000 and $28,000 annually. The operation that Scott and I visited, if discovered, could net our host between five and 10 years in prison.

Those growers who can handle the risk and the lowered prices will be able to transition to a lucrative industry once Texas legalizes, but they’ll have to endure in the meantime.

When asked about security, he said, “I don’t think the chances we’ll get caught are very high. We’re a needle in a haystack. My electricity bill isn’t much higher than the average house especially since I started using LEDs, and we have ways to kill the smell now. If you can keep secrets, you can do this without getting caught. Still, random door knocks from girl scouts or Jehovah’s Witnesses are scary.”

Growers won’t have to wait forever, though. Cannabis legalization even in Texas is inevitable. It’s just a question of when.

Last week Alaska and Washington D.C. fully legalized. In December, state Rep. Joe Moody (D-El Paso) proposed a $100 fine for possession of small amounts. Last Monday, state Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview) filed a bill to end prohibition altogether arguing that, “Everything that God made is good, even marijuana.”

While both these bills will surely fail, many political spectators are predicting Texas legalization by 2019. The campaign is making strange political bedfellows already, uniting staunch free-market Republicans like Simpson with strong social liberals.

A sizable poll conducted last year by the University of Texas and Texas Tribune, found only 23% of registered voters in Texas said marijuana should be illegal in all cases. About 28% would legalize it for medical use only and 49% would legalize small quantities for any purpose.

Still, a simple public opinion majority won’t change much alone. Most Texas Republicans still publicly oppose legalization and even if a bill passed the legislature it would have to escape a veto from Gov. Greg Abbot.

Eventually, however, the public and lawmakers will agree that marijuana should be legalized. For many growers, that is a powerful thing.

“It’s an amazing feeling. I’ve always been looking for something else, some other career that weed was funding me to try, but they never ended up working out. I think it’s because this is what I am,” said the man as we toured his indoor farm.

Small marijuana plants take root at a hydroponic marijuana grow operation in South Texas. Photo by Scott Ball.
Small marijuana plants take root at a hydroponic marijuana grow operation in South Texas. Photo by Scott Ball.

“I’m a grower. I put everything into this, honing my craft. No matter what else I’ve done, I’ve always come back to this. I love my job. I love being in there with the plants, with a whole little world I can control.”

Marijuana has changed the relationship between the states and the federal government almost as much as it’s changed the relationship between teenage boys and brownies. At a lecture last month, Trinity University Professor Keesha Middlemass, who specializes in the political landscape of drugs, observed that cannabis is creating strange contradictions in federal and state law.

One example is finance, where federal banks still can’t process drug money, so states are creating their own credit unions to move and store the cash. Turns out, there’s a lot of it.

In the first year since legalization, Colorado brought in $50 million from stoned taxpayers last year alone, plus the savings in drug enforcement, never mind revenue from actual businesses.

According to our grower, “When Texas legalization finally does come, both Colorado folks and locals will open stuff down here. The longer Texas waits, the more time Colorado teams have to prepare to come down here and succeed.”

In the meantime, Colorado’s risk-free market is too tempting for many growers to pass up. Our grower says, “I’m reaching out to Colorado to try to move there. I can build resources by going, and I would be foolish to want to stay here and risk getting caught, even if it’s unlikely. If I do go, though, I’ll be back when it legalizes here.”

I tried to rationalize why he would be willing to bring a reporter and photographer into his operation since advertising his product could bring attention to him – at the very end of the interview he revealed that it was his pride.

“It’ll be cool to not worry about getting caught, but the coolest thing will be being able to brag about my work. I’ve been building a business for 10 years, but no one knows. My kids don’t even know what I do. I hope you take some great pictures, because I want everyone to see how good my plants look so when it’s finally time, I’ll send them out and tell everyone: that was me.”

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Mitch Hagney

Mitch Hagney is a writer and hydroponic farmer in downtown San Antonio. Hagney is CEO of LocalSprout and president of the Food Policy Council of San Antonio.