Reporting from Arcata, Calif. — About the time the wholesale price of pot hit $4,000 a pound, Tony Sasso bought a bulldozer and an excavator and dug a massive hole on his ranch in eastern Mendocino County.
Then he bought four metal shipping containers and buried them in the hole. Inside the containers, Sasso installed 32 1,000-watt lights, a ventilation system and plumbing – all of it powered by a 60-kilowatt generator. His subterranean plantation produced 60 pounds of pot every 56 days, the time it took to turn a crop. They were popular strains, with names like Blueberry, Herojuana, White Widow and Big Red.
He'd begun growing pot as a teenager in the mid-1980s, when police helicopters forced growers to hide their plants indoors. Going underground was the next logical step, to shield the lights from the infrared sensors of law enforcement.
His harvests paid for expensive trucks, skydiving in Maui, boogie-boarding in Chile and a five-bedroom home with a four-car garage. He eventually owned five ranches, including two in Oregon, and says he took in as much as $11 million a year.
"I grew up believing that the only way to make money was to grow marijuana, and I was good at it," said Sasso, now 42 and serving a 14-year sentence at the federal penitentiary in Atwater.
His career as a pot entrepreneur, drawn from interviews with Sasso and from court records, mirrors the arc of the marijuana business in California.
Today, indoor-grown pot is king. A weed that grows naturally in the sun has been tamed into an industrial product that is branded like soda pop and as subject to fashion as women's shoes. Pot raised indoors or underground commands up to $3,000 a wholesale pound, twice the price of outdoor varieties.
A Nov. 2 ballot measure to legalize limited cultivation and use of marijuana is the talk of Northern California's "Emerald Triangle," where indoor pot is an economic mainstay. The effect that legalization would have on the marijuana market is unclear. Much would depend on the policies enacted by cities and counties, which would have power to regulate and tax production and sales. Oakland is making plans to allow cultivation in warehouses, which could affect prices.
What is clear is that consumers now harbor a powerful fetish for indoor weed. A potent bud is no longer enough. Like connoisseurs of wine or coffee, pot smokers want cachet: an exotic look, a distinctive smell of cheese or lemon. This requires growing indoors, where plants can be coddled, protected from the elements and blasted with nutrients.
The spread of medical marijuana dispensaries has contributed to demand for indoor varieties. The dispensaries need a year-round flow of identical product that only indoor grows can produce.
Magazines and websites have helped promote a cult of indoor pot. High Times magazine glamorizes indoor strains with photo spreads of lush marijuana plants, their branches dripping with resins that hold the psychoactive chemical THC.
Nowhere is the ascendancy of indoor pot more evident than in the rugged hills of the Emerald Triangle: Mendocino, Trinity and Humboldt counties, where some of the most potent weed in America is grown.
In the city of Arcata in Humboldt County, several hundred houses are partly or entirely devoted to growing marijuana, said Police Chief Tom Chapman. This has led to more residential fires, a consequence of overburdened wiring.
In half of the city's 50 or so structure fires each year, firefighters come upon "grow" rooms, said Arcata Fire Chief John McFarland.
Money from indoor pot has led to an increase in home-invasion robberies and fostered a taste for massive trucks, designer jeans and plastic surgery.
In urban parts of Humboldt County, electrical use per household has leaped 50% since 1996, when voters approved the state's medical-marijuana initiative, according to a study by the Schatz Energy Research Center at Humboldt State University.
In Arcata and unincorporated areas of the county, average electrical use rose 60% during that time -- while California's overall use remained virtually flat.
"The housing inventory in California is continuing to get more efficient. Yet our per-capita use is increasing," said Peter Lehman, director of the Schatz Center. "Indoor grows have got to be part of it. How much? Nobody knows."
In areas without electrical service, the diesel generators that power indoor grow operations foul the air, and spills of diesel fuel have polluted streams.
Home and garden stores have become grow shops whose aisles are piled high with 1,000-watt light bulbs, tubes for watering and nutrient potions with names like Bud Ignitor and Bud XL. Along Highway 101, logging trucks have been replaced by big rigs stacked with bags of potting soil.
Key to indoor's rise is that it channeled the energies of a new group of growers native to the Emerald Triangle: rural kids who saw a chance to make more money from a weed than they, or their parents, ever thought possible.