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Everyone who knows Peter Hunt, a tall blond in his late twenties, thinks of him as a nice guy. Peter comes from a “good family” on the East Coast, went to a college prep school, attended an Ivy League college, and even did some graduate work in biology.
Peter stumbled into the marijuana industry by accident. On vacation in Hawaii a few years back, he and his wife Susan fell in love with Maui, and they haven’t been back to the snowy East Coast since. Peter was sure he could find a job with his background. He and Susan settled into a little cottage on the beach. After a six-month job search, he finally took a low-paid teaching position at a private school on the island. His income barely covered their rent and food. Peter quickly learned that, in spite of the old adage, sunshine in Hawaii isn’t free.
Then Susan got pregnant, and Peter knew he would have to do something or they would starve. He quit his teaching job and became a marijuana grower. Three years later, Peter and Susan had completely paid for their home on three acres of rolling hills, their 24' trailer boat, and the two cars in their garage.
Peter is not unusual. Marijuana is a big business on the island of Maui. Interest in marijuana is widespread in Hawaii. Although the Polynesians don’t have any ancient chants about smoking “pakalolo,” there is some evidence that marijuana showed up in the islands around 1800. Immigrants from the Orient or whaling ships stopping in Maui's port of Lahaina introduced the substance to natives.
With Hippies Comes Seed
It wasn’t until the influx of the hippies in the late 1960s that marijuana was cultivated as a cash crop. Hawaii exists as the crossroads of the Pacific. Seeds have come in, and Sinsemilla has gone out, stashed in the gear of military personnel back from Vietnam and Thailand, hippies from the Mainland, and yachts cruising from Mexico and South America.
The Flower Children of the 60s began planting seeds that sprang up in the warm, rainy climate of Hawaii. But it wasn’t until the early 1970s that the marijuana growing technicians appeared in Hawaii. These were educated young people experienced at methodically growing cannabis plants. Tired of living in the urban rat race on the Mainland, many of these new immigrants moved to Maui to get away from it all.
But they brought with them the skills needed to produce thousands of pounds of quality marijuana. This new breed of growers approached growing with a scientific bend. Seeds were carefully crossed to produce hybrids, special combinations of fertilizer were tested, experimental crops were planted at varying altitudes, and new techniques in drying were tried.
While stateside marijuana supplies contracting and the willingness of smokers to pay high prices, Maui growers started exporting their crop en masse in the middle 70s. Word spread quickly as more and more Maui marijuana went to the mainland. By 1976, national magazines were raving about “Maui Wowie,” and well-connected smokers had tasted the one-toke effect of the island’s new Wonder Weed.
The Maui marijuana grower of today is no hippie, but rather an intelligent, hardworking farmer. As one grower put it: “I like to think of myself as a professional. I’ve had to study and work hard to make it in this field.” They make good money. Growers claim significant incomes—of course they don’t all have income tax returns for proof, but they do have brand new four-wheel-drive Jeeps with custom paint jobs, new boats, and expensive houses.
They share the same set of values that other people in the same bracket have, like owning your own home or sending your children to college. The only difference: they make a living by producing pot.
Exactly how much marijuana these thousands of people grow is extremely hard to pinpoint. However, people who deal in marketing marijuana estimate that over 100,000 plants were processed to be sold by the late 1980s. Each plant brings in at least $200 - 500 apiece for the processed buds, and some as much as $1500 for buds and leaves. “In the old days,” a grower told me, reminiscing of the time before the big boom in demand for Maui hit, “you could have as many as 300 to 500 plants in one area. Yeah, in one field. It was unreal.”
Today, however, with the increase in publicity over the last few decades, Maui marijuana growers have to be more cautious. Crops are now grown in stashes of a few plants—about five to eight—in a camouflaged area. Finding a good place to grow marijuana has always been an art. “The place has to be perfect. It has to satisfy the demand of the plant for adequate water, soil, light and air cover,” one grower said. "Plus it has to be inaccessible or you’ll get ripped off. But at the same time, it can’t be too far out in the boonies, or the pig hunters will trample it. It’s getting harder and harder to find a good place.”
Top Growing Areas
There are essentially two major growing areas in Maui. The largest is on the windward (or rainy) slope of the 10,000-foot dormant volcano, Haleakala. The slope, known as the Koolau Forest, is a series of steep valleys along a 50-mile stretch, miles and miles from any populated area. It has everything a grower could want— plenty of rain, rich soil, good sun in the summer, adequate ground cover from the lush forests of bamboo, and inaccessibility.
The only disadvantage is getting there. It is at least a five-hour hike to the first feasible place to begin growing. The hike is through thick grasses, a wall of trees, and knee-deep mud swarmed with mosquitoes.
The other major growing area is on the other side of the island, on the slope of the West Maui Mountain—an older 5000-foot volcano above Lahaina. The terrain here is also wet and thick, but the hike not quite so treacherous. Because of the easier accessibility, a three-hour hike through sugar cane fields as compared with a five-hour hike through dense rain forest, growers here are more apt to bump into each other. This sometimes causes problems as to who has the right to grow in certain valleys of the more prime upland.
A grower selling about 150 plants is considered a large grower. 150 plants, sometimes spread out in as many as ten to 15 different locations, is about all one grower can handle by himself.
“I got about five times as many plants ripped off as I sold,” is a typical complaint among growers. So to expedite growing, several growers form a “hui” or cooperative, and work on several thousand plants at one time. “It’s much easier,” a member of a hui of five told me. “One person is responsible for watching the seedlings, one guy fertilizes, one on trim, etc. The plants get better care this way.”
“I sell starts of varying sizes and grades,” one farmer said, showing me a greenhouse about 20 feet by 40 feet in size and filled with tables of marijuana plants ranging from one inch to a foot and a half. “It’s for people in a hurry. Or those who don’t have the facilities to do seedlings. What I charge, depends on the size, the type, and who I’m selling to,” he said. “I give a discount if people buy in volume, or if people buy fertilizer from me.”
The farmer also has seeds for sale, although he doesn’t recommend planting them outside of Hawaii. “You just can’t duplicate the conditions we have here,” he explained. “Sun is a very important factor—we are at just the right latitude. Plenty of rain. Unless a grower from Maui went to the Mainland with the proper fertilizers and knew how to make up the differences in latitude and climate, I’d say forget it.”
“In the last couple of years there’s been just too darn many amateurs out in the fields. I worked a nice spot for a couple of seasons, only to find some younger growers who had probably never grown zinnias, let alone a complicated crop that needs care, come into my place, clear cut the area so you could spot it a mile away—with a chainsaw no less. That’s what’s happening to the business. Everybody and his brother have decided to make a fast buck growing weed.”
Several other growers voiced complaints about “non-professional” growers coming in and trying to grow a large crop of marijuana. “These guys are too much,” a woman complained. “I mean, planting 20 plants right next to the road, or in the middle of an irrigation (sugar) cane field is ridiculous.”
Time of the Season
The commercial growing season in Maui begins in the spring; seeds are planted in April or May—by June at the very latest. By September-October, the crop is ready for harvest. Over decades, growers have been raising crop called the “90-Day Wonder,” which is planted on September 1. This special plant buds quicker as sunlight depreciates through the fall. Harvest time for the 90-Day Wonder is late December. No crop is planted from January through March, as a result of Hawaii's rainy season.
During the harvest, most plants are cut down; some are as high as 15 feet tall with trunks eight to ten inches in diameter. Some growers will cut the tops of their plants and let the plant regenerate. That way a plant will produce for 18 months, with three harvests. Other growers turn their nose up at this practice, claiming that a plant can only produce one real good crop, and that the two later crops are much weaker.
The harvested plants have to be dried, clipped, and cured. The processing of marijuana is a cottage industry in itself. “It’s a labor-intensive project,” said one large grower. “A lot of people are employed. It feels like an organized factory. People are putting plants on the rack, weighing them, clipping them. That’s another reason for the high prices in marijuana. It’s no longer a backyard project, but a full-scale industry.”
A large house way out in the country is usually rented for the occasion. Clipping and drying occur for several weeks, with workers paid $5-10 an hour. Employees are typically the grower’s family and close friends. "And when the check comes back for our efforts, it’s usually a bonus all around,” said a clipping lady.