Residents of the 11 ranchettes fronting the lane weren't exactly shocked to learn from his Web site that Schmidt considered himself a purveyor of medical marijuana. Like many folks in Sonoma County, where more than 70% of the electorate backed Proposition 215, no one on Martin Lane is philosophically opposed to medical use of marijuana. They figured Schmidt would plant a few seeds and be done with it. Summer came, and there was no sign of sunflowers or corn. Instead, cannabis grew.
As the crop came in, the protection arrived--barbed-wire fences, patrols and guard dogs. Infrared scopes and videotape equipment were deployed, neighbors say.
"The whole thing had an air of absurdity to it," said next-door neighbor Mary Roth. "Until we got scared."
Some of the guards had crossbows. A few neighbors had scary confrontations with the dogs. A silhouette paper cutout of a human figure was pinned on hay bales. Schmidt's crew left it up for target practice. "It was plainly meant to intimidate," said Roth's husband, Ted.
Janine Carpenter, who lives directly across the narrow street, said she hadn't slept well most of the summer: Any bump in the night had her up, fearing a threat. She kept her children, ages 5 and 8, from playing out front. The Roths insisted their visiting grandchildren stay inside.
Neighbors started calling the sheriff's narcotics division, but were told nothing could be done. "They said they knew about Robert, but their hands were tied," said Fran Begun, 77.
The Sonoma County sheriff's narcotics task force did not return calls for comment. But other county officials say their reluctance to intercede springs in large part from a 2001 court case on the medical use of marijuana. Two proponents accused of growing 899 pot plants for a San Francisco dispensary were acquitted after contending they were caregivers for patients.
Schmidt, likewise, told neighbors that his marijuana was justified under Proposition 215. Though county regulations set a limit of 99 plants per patient, Schmidt told neighbors he had more than 1,000 letters from sick people needing his pot as medicine.
Such arguments are considered pointless by federal drug agents. Under U.S. law, the possession, use or cultivation of marijuana for any purpose is a felony. Unfettered by state law, the DEA had been conducting surveillance on Schmidt for more than a year, neighbors later learned At dawn on a cloudless late-summer day, agents stormed in with guns and chainsaws. Schmidt was handcuffed in a lawn chair, left to bellow: "This is all legal, you know!" By the end of the day, the pot crop he had nurtured for months had been hauled away.
Neighbors were elated to see it disappear. But Schmidt's crew was irate. None had been arrested, so they lingered for days afterward, trying to clean up the mess.
"It's something that doesn't make sense," said farmhand Jeremy Mayfield. "The DEA is supposed to be fighting the war on drugs. Instead they're putting 1,200 patients on the street to look for drugs on the black market."
A lanky man with flames tattooed on his arms, Mayfield understands the concerns of neighbors. But workers at the Genesis pot farm simply wanted to keep the "medicine" safe for needy patients, he said. They didn't mean to scare anyone except potential thieves.
Inside the house, a message from Schmidt is still scrawled on a board: "Safety first; friendly fire is not friendly; good neighborhood relations." If intruders approach, guards were told, call 911 and alert the sheriff.
Outside, a graveyard of plant roots litters the property. Drug agents punched holes in water tanks, Mayfield said, and cut electrical lines. Mayfield said Schmidt fashioned Genesis 1:29 as his redemption, his payback to society. In the early 1980s, federal officials say, Schmidt was busted for pot smuggling and spent several years in prison. The goal of Genesis, Mayfield said, was to free people who couldn't cultivate--the old, the infirm, those stuck in cramped apartments--of the black market's dangers.
Though drug agents put the value of the Genesis crop at more than $1 million, Schmidt told medical marijuana activists he planned to sell it for far less. Top grade pot goes for about $4,800 a pound on the street, but Schmidt's marijuana was expected to sell for $2,000 a pound, said Lynette Shaw, founder of the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana. "This," she said, "was a devastating loss for patients in the North Bay Area."
But the neighbors on Martin Lane say all the risk was being dumped on them.
What's needed now, the neighbors reason, is for government to sort out the conflict between state and federal law. That won't come quickly, they realize, so they have united behind a push for change in local law. Last week, they dispatched a letter to Sonoma County supervisors asking that zoning rules be altered to put residential areas off limits to medicinal marijuana farms.
"We want it regulated, zoned," Begun said. Mike Mullins, Sonoma County district attorney, said the folks on Martin Lane "had every right to be afraid." But zoning restrictions would merely shift the problem to rural areas, he added. The solution must be faced head on: Either legalize medical use of marijuana across America or end what in California has become "an absurd situation."
Supervisor Mike Reilly, a Proposition 215 supporter, admits he's unsure how land-use rules apply to a crop that is "quasi-legal to begin with." Reilly hopes the medical marijuana community will learn to avoid farming in residential areas.
On Martin Lane, the old peace has returned. Schmidt is in federal custody. His pot farm is dismantled. But some neighbors remain ill at ease--about being cast as villains by medical marijuana boosters, about retribution. And about the fate of Robert Schmidt.