Joanne Clarke, a legal secretary in her late 50s, leads the way down a pale green hallway in her modest Costa Mesa home, past a small guest room on the right and a blue tiled bathroom on the left. At the end of the hall, she opens a door, pushes aside a thick black curtain and ducks inside.
"Isn't this wild?" she says, gesturing to the high-tech marijuana grow room she and her husband recently installed. "This used to be my daughter's bedroom."
Wild is one word for it. Bright is another. Unexpected, yet another. What had been a teenager's tropical-themed room is now a beaming, humming, indoor plant laboratory complete with silver reflective bubble wrap on the walls, blinding grow lights, ventilation ducts hanging from the ceiling and marijuana plants in various stages of development neatly labeled with names such as Platinum Kush, Purple Diesel and Blue Cheese.
"They are like our children," Clarke says, gazing proudly at the elegant fronds that look familiar and exotic all at once. "We talk to them."
Clarke's grow room is legal — in the state of California, anyone with a doctor's recommendation to use marijuana can grow it in limited quantities — yet it still feels clandestine. Although she's open about using pot (crushed and placed in capsules) to help manage the pain of rheumatoid arthritis, she and her husband haven't shown the room to any friends. "Ninety-five percent of the people I know are fine with it," she says, "but it's that 5% that I worry about. I don't want to make anyone uncomfortable."
Just as California has seen a rise in small-scale backyard vegetable gardeners in recent years, marijuana activists and growers cite a similar, if much quieter, rise in medical marijuana patients growing pot for themselves.
The reasons are varied: Buying medical marijuana at a dispensary can be expensive and uncomfortable for those who don't identify with marijuana culture, and now that the city of Los Angeles has declared that just 41 of the remaining 169 dispensaries are eligible to stay open, finding a convenient place to buy marijuana is becoming increasingly difficult, especially for those with a debilitating illness. The organically minded are concerned about chemicals that might be in marijuana they don't grow themselves, and still others worry about where their pot came from. "I don't want to fund terrorism," one home-grower says.
Some gardeners — and many do see this simply as a form of gardening — say they get the same soothing pleasure from tinkering with grow lights, temperature controls, fertilizers and additives as others get from nurturing prized rose bushes or carefully pruning bonsai trees.
"My husband can spend hours a day in our grow room," Clarke says. "For him, it's fantasy land."
The new breed of home marijuana grower comes in all different forms, whether it's a 25-year-old rooftop gardener taking as much pride in his first harvest of okra as in the marijuana that grows alongside it or a 75-year-old retiree cheerfully growing cannabis on her senior-village balcony. Pony-tailed boomers are geeked out on the fact that it's actually legal to grow this stuff, and at least one new grower called up the UC Cooperative Extension Master Gardener help line for Los Angeles County to ask for advice on growing "grass." (The master gardener on duty misunderstood the question and recommended a drought-tolerant grass. When the caller explained he was talking about grass, she told him she couldn't help: Master Gardener policy.)
Otherside Farms, a marijuana information and education center founded by Chadd McKeen in Orange County, teaches medical marijuana patients how to grow their own pot and also helps people install grow rooms at home. McKeen says half the people who take the weekend-long class on growing marijuana, which he teaches twice a month, are older couples.
"My market isn't the 18- to 25-year-olds — they already know everything," he says. "My demographic is 50- to 60-year-olds."
When he first started installing grow rooms in homes, McKeen was constantly worried that each job was a setup.
"I thought everyone was a cop," he says.
But over time he's become accustomed to the embroidered-sweater-wearing, lighthouse-poster-hanging, older pot smoker who makes up the majority of his clientele. "This is what the marijuana user looks like," he says.
The grow rooms that McKeen installs are generally replicas of the rooms he has in his storefront headquarters in Costa Mesa, even down to the bright orange Home Depot utility buckets he puts mature plants in. Most of the rooms he installs are in second bedrooms, which he usually divides in half to create two different environments — a "veg room" where the plants grow and a "bloom room" where a change in lighting and temperature encourages budding. He said the rooms generally cost about $15,000 to set up.
Golden State Greenery, another company in Orange County that helps novices build grow rooms at home, offers the "California 5-by-5 special," a 5-by-5-foot grow tent that can be set up in a living room or garage. The tent is black on the outside to keep light and heat from escaping, and to keep the structure as discreet as possible. But inside, it's lined in reflective silver to maximize the light source. For $2,500, the company says it can have new clients ready to grow their own cannabis within four hours.
All this fancy (and expensive) growing equipment isn't technically necessary. It is possible to grow marijuana outdoors in Southern California. If planted in the spring, a seed or clone will generally produce one harvest in early fall. Many people have had success with simply sticking a plant on a balcony or tucking one among the tomatoes in the backyard.
"Pot is actually easier to grow than tomatoes," said one man in San Diego, who like many people contacted for this article has a doctor's recommendation and is growing legally but still asked to remain anonymous. "There's a reason they call it 'weed.'"
But for many home growers, the best place is inside. An indoor growing system offers environmental controls that would be impossible to get outside — no snails or caterpillars, less chance of powdery mildew. It also offers the possibility of four harvests a year rather than one. Another reason: Marijuana plants, even just a few, are still magnets for trouble even though medicinal pot has been legal since 1996.
"We tell our students it's kind of like before: You don't plant it in your front yard or your front porch, and you don't show it off," says Jeff Jones, a prominent marijuana activist who teaches grow classes in Oakland and Los Angeles. "There is still the home invasion issue, and your neighbor to the left or to the right might want to steal it from someone who has a VIP pass to grow something that is not legal for others."
At a recent "traveling party," when neighbors went around to one another's homes to check out new additions or garden makeovers, a friend asked Clarke if she and her husband would be showing off their new grow room. Clarke declined.
"It's still hard for people to understand this is legal," she says. "So now when people ask about our new hobby, we just laugh and say my husband is growing a few plants for me. People know we're doing it. They just don't know the full extent."