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Emerald Dreams

Deep in the nation’s marijuana horn of plenty, an eco-tourism center gears up for life after Prohibition.

SLIDESHOW

An impossibly bucolic scene in Mendocino, just south of Hopland.

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Nonpsychoactive pot from the Solar Living Center’s new dispensary.

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Chelsea Lucich, director of Emerald Pharms.

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Solar Living Center founder John Schaeffer was among the first to realize the symbiosis between the solar and marijuana industries.

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Vegetables grow from seed inside a geodesic dome.

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In addition to a new weed dispensary, the Solar Living Center recently debuted an 89-square-foot cabin for overnight guests.

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Inside the Real Goods Store at the center.

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"Eat half of that," the friendly, blue-haired lady behind the counter advised me 30 minutes ago. I studied the strip of cannabis-laced fruit leather in my hands. It seemed easier just to eat the whole thing. Ever since, I’ve been ambling around the Solar Living Center, a meandering, 12-acre grassy campus in southern Mendocino County sprinkled with solutions to assorted human-caused ecological crises. Here’s some passive solar construction; there’s a display about slow sand filtration. Here’s a yurt; there’s a geodesic dome. Compost demo: check. Lavender labyrinth: check. World’s largest straw-bale building outfitted with waterless urinals: double check. 

Near the eastern edge of a small pond, I step into a shade enclosure made from local hop vines. From there, over to a stream to admire a natural oxygenation technique, then on to a weathered old biodiesel pump. The place exists in an idealized world unfettered by fracking and Chinese coal and climate change denial. There’s a sunniness to the presentations that chips away at cynicism. “Turn inspiration into action,” one plaque reads, and my only thought is a wholesome “I will try!”

Is this the fruit leather talking? Have the frogs in my vicinity just gotten freakishly loud? What is going on? I don’t feel high, exactly, but I also don’t feel not high. It occurs to me that, at some level, slipping into a novel state of mind might be the whole point of this place.

This past October, the Solar Living Center took a left turn that was unprecedented in its 20-year history: It added a weed dispensary. As left turns go, the opening of another pot shop in the so-called Emerald Triangle—the 10,000-square-mile marijuana heartland spread over Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity Counties—might not sound so remarkable. But as everyone around here knows, all that is normal is about to change. The inevitable legalization of marijuana in California, perhaps coming as soon as this November’s election, threatens to upend one of the state’s more idiosyncratic economies. What will become of pot country after Prohibition? As I commune with the frogs today, it occurs to me that this site proposes one possible answer. 

I’d been meaning to visit the center for years, intrigued by an eco-Epcot trying to educate us away from environmental disaster. But when this venerable, oldish institution decided to get into the cannabis business, I became interested on another level. The opening of the Emerald Pharms dispensary didn’t happen at just any time. The prospect of a black-market agricultural economy ceasing to be black has many hoping for a second life for the region as a marijuana-tourism epicenter—a Napa for weed, as the well-worn phrase goes. But what might that look like? And of particular significance: Could the area’s quirky soul survive or would something less interesting and more corporate take hold?

Arguably, I’ve picked an odd place to ponder these questions—the Solar Living Center has no analogue in Mendocino County or, for that matter, anywhere else in America. Organized as a series of remedies for our enviro-sins, it’s less a reflection of our dark, Drumpf-rattled national mood than an antidote to it. In a way, this uniquely hopeful place is at the center of a complex web that ensnares a multitude of Left Coast interests: our worship of sustainability, our faith in technology, our passion for the possibilities of science, our frustration with the criminal justice system, and our occasional desire to save the planet. And at the center of all that is a man with an uncanny knack for anticipating whatever’s coming next.


To get to John Schaeffer’s
world, all you have to do is drive two hours north on the 101, and watch California magically transform. The office parks fall away first, a gradual diminishment of beige. Then the gas stations go, and soon the oaks somehow get gnarlier. You pass through Marin, then Sonoma. The radio begins to scan helplessly, a stand selling crystals appears, and finally there are just hills. Not regular hills—Lord of the Rings hills, vivid and ancient. Crossing into Mendocino immerses you in a misty, otherworldly calm—the complications of urban life swapped for a realm of hills and streams.

This illusion of bucolic simplicity has helped billions of dollars circulate through California’s economy, bong load by bong load. But nothing’s remotely simple here. If marijuana is the country’s most popular illicit drug, and California is the center of its production, and this part of California is the center of that, then these peaceful hills are the churning, cash-saturated, not-at-all-calm Silicon Valley of weed. Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy estimates that the Emerald Triangle could be home to more than 30,000 cannabis gardens, approximately one for every eight people who reside here. 

Even if you’ve never been to Hopland (population: 756) before, you know it in your California bones: roadside burger place, volunteer fire department, wine tasting room, that funny coexistence of NRA bumper stickers and a dude selling tie-dyes. Then you turn off the highway into the Solar Living Center and you’re in another dimension entirely. I follow Google’s directions down a winding gravel road, past ponds and eco-structures, until I reach a parking lot with a dozen and a half cars, some hooked to free EV chargers. 

Each year, 150,000 tourists visit this place. Kids take pollination workshops, grown-ups stock up on hybrid inverters and canning supplies, and everyone basks in the pleasantness of a pretty, forward-thinking oasis whose existence doesn’t fuck up the planet. Until 1994, these 12 acres were an abandoned Department of Transportation dump site. Then Schaeffer came along and transformed them into a sustainability theme park—a smorgasbord of all things solar, permaculture, recycled, organic, and otherwise groovy.

I park and wander, first to the 89-square-foot house I’ll squeeze into tonight (rentable for $89 a day) and then to a deck overlooking one of the ponds, which feeds the adjacent farm via solar pump. I’m taking in the view when a man with a fringe of white hair introduces himself. There aren’t many celebrities in the world of composting toilets and Fronius inverters, but John Schaeffer is an exception. He’s a mountain of a man—not just big but also serene and somehow timeless. Despite his rural vibe, he’s a recovered city slicker, born in Santa Monica in 1949.

“I graduated from Berkeley in 1971 and moved to a 290-acre commune,” he says on the deck above the tidy pond. “The idealist in me wanted to see what it was like living in the woods with no creature comforts and what it took to be a human with nothing.” Nothing included Schaeffer’s convertible Beetle, the driver’s seat of which had fallen out. Whereupon he replaced it with a redwood stump. Once he realized that he could use an old car battery to power a 12-volt lightbulb, more ideas began to spark. Increasingly, he saw technology as a path to renewable energy. When he found that a 12-volt TV could also be wired to car batteries, his fellow back-to-the-landers began tiptoeing to his house at 11:30 once a week to reluctantly guffaw at this odd new TV show called Saturday Night Live.

Still, the thing about going back to the land is, the land doesn’t have many stores. Lantern wicks, chicken wire, and other essential equipment all failed to grow on trees at Schaeffer’s commune. His regular drives to his computer job in Ukiah soon caught the attention of his homesteader comrades. Pick up some shit for us, they’d request. The picking up of shit would become an empire.

In 1978, Schaeffer and a partner opened the first Real Goods Store, in Willits, an emporium for everything needed to spurn civilization. The next year, he opened a second Real Goods in Ukiah, and in 1982, a third in Santa Rosa. Solar Living Source Book was published that year for the first time, a bible for off-grid living. (Sample article: “Water Pumping Truths and Tips.”) By 1984, Schaeffer had retooled Real Goods as a mail-order business, and in 1991 it went public.

As I type this, Real Goods Solar Inc. is a $54 million company. But getting there required it to become large, publicly traded, and, as Schaeffer says, increasingly unlike the soulful enterprise he’d started a generation earlier. Wildly successful and increasingly unhappy, in 2000 he merged his empire with Gaiam, a media and yoga company, and began easing his way down the corporate ladder with the idea of retiring in 2015. Then Real Goods, now headquartered in Colorado, gave him some news. The Solar Living Center, however swell, was doing nothing for the bottom line. So they were going to put the place on the market.

The idea of his eco-paradise becoming another winery was too much to bear. Real Goods offered the land to Schaeffer at a good price, and he and his wife bought it themselves in December 2014. “We wanted to do something new with the place,” Schaeffer says. “We already had the gardening, biodynamics, the permaculture, the recycling, the EV. We were looking for the next wave.” He gestures at the gleaming marijuana dispensary behind him. “That’s where we came up with this.”


This past January,
Colorado hosted the country’s first-ever Cannabis Wedding Expo. Travelers in cities like Seattle and Portland are, as you read this, enjoying weed-themed tours, marijuana cooking lessons, even the “first-ever, cannabis-friendly, all-inclusive art class.” And while post-legalization ventures like these are certainly possibilities for the Emerald Triangle one day, it’s hard not to wonder about a more, well, Emerald Triangular take. The history here—of weed, environmentalism, and characters like Schaeffer born of that confluence—feels too interesting to paper over with touristy blandness. Which helps explain the special appeal of California’s first solar-powered marijuana dispensary.

At first blush, Emerald Pharms resembles any other pot shop: tidy glass cases, attractive lighting, mellow hotel-lobby trip-hop emanating from discreet speakers. What’s different is the pot itself: The focus here is on the non-psychoactive cannabidiol compound, or CBD, rather than the THC—tetrahydrocannabinol—that most people associate with the drug. While both are chemical compounds within cannabis flowers, they bind to different receptors in the brain. What might seem a granular distinction in fact represents a paradigm shift. For many years, cannabis in this country has been bred for THC, the molecule that gets you high. This has meant lowering the CBD content, which a growing body of research has shown to have an array of medical applications.

Enter Schaeffer. If legal marijuana evolved to a large extent as a masquerade—a nation of young stoners suddenly struggling with glaucoma—a crack in that pantomime is forming. A marginal but growing community within the Potemkin universe of medical marijuana has begun to explore actual medical marijuana.

This gets into some linguistic thorniness. Any marijuana use is medicinal, many cannabis proponents argue, and, indeed, Emerald Pharms sells the THC-abundant stuff, too. But CBD medicates on another level, with patients claiming benefits for epilepsy, cancer, pain, nausea, inflammation, anxiety, arthritis, and more. A number of these claims have been backed up by research; others await further investigation. Attempting to make headway on these questions, and to provide information to patients, is the Healdsburg–based nonprofit Project CBD. It was the organization’s director, Martin A. Lee, whom Schaeffer first called when he bought these acres in 2014.

Lee is slender with salt-and-pepper hair, his soft-spoken and almost retiring manner at odds with years of full-throated investigative journalism. The coauthor of Acid Dreams, a social history of LSD, as well as books on media bias and fascism, he cofounded the progressive watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting in 1986. Ask Lee when he grew interested in CBD, and he’ll say it happened while he was reporting his 2012 book, Smoke Signals, a deeply researched history of weed. But on a personal level, the molecule captured his attention well before that. In 2006, Lee suffered a massive cerebellar stroke. He underwent emergency brain surgery and began a grueling recovery, during which he learned a bitter truth. “Conventional medicine was wonderful at saving my life,” he says. “It was terrible at helping me get better.”

Lee doesn’t talk about marijuana as if it were a miracle cure. But as he witnessed over three months of intense nausea, its healing properties can be startling—all the more so for the dedication with which they have long been bred away. (Between 1978 and 2008, the average amount of THC in marijuana in the United States grew by more than 600 percent.) He recovered from the stroke and began to turn his journalist’s eye on those curative properties. When Schaeffer invited him to bring that work to the Solar Living Center, Lee saw a perfect fit.

The marriage of the environmental and weed-growing movements in Mendocino effectively began in 1979, when Schaeffer was working at the original Real Goods Store. One day a man from Los Angeles popped by with some then-cutting-edge photovoltaic cells in the trunk of his old Porsche. A light went off in Schaeffer’s head. He bought 3 nine-watt solar panels at $600 each and quickly unloaded them on customers. He then restocked with 25, then 100, all of them selling quickly—the nation’s first retail solar sales operation, he says, if not the world’s. Many more panel purchases followed; the area would eventually be called the solar capital of the world. But Schaeffer wasn’t selling to just anyone. “The pot growers are responsible for starting the solar movement, because they were the only ones who could afford solar,” Schaeffer says, speaking of his fellow homesteaders, many of whom had begun to turn to marijuana cultivation for a living by the mid-’70s. “At the same time, solar supported the pot growers, since they couldn’t live off the grid without solar.”

Over the years, Schaeffer found a way to grow a spectacularly successful business in this singular place. The Real Goods Store started carrying compact fluorescents way back in the mid-’80s, thanks to a tip from scientist Amory Lovins; nobody had heard of them, but they soon began going like hotcakes. Then there was hemp clothing, then permaculture, then biodynamics, all of which Schaeffer could promote with the mail-order catalog. “How we sustained ourselves in the early days was finding revolutionary new movements and taking them mainstream. Then after it goes mainstream, time to find the next one. You want to stay on the crest of the wave,” he says.

Schaeffer is reasonably certain that medical marijuana—true medical marijuana—is the next crest. Which only underscores the oddness of pot’s broader status now. To spend time in the Emerald Triangle is to immerse yourself in a heightened version of America’s abiding contradictions around cannabis: openly advertised on billboards yet still a Schedule I drug alongside heroin; the acknowledged economic backbone of Mendocino County yet still generating prison sentences; and so on. And per the economics of contraband, that very illegality helps keep prices up and profits churning. As much as two-thirds of Mendocino’s economy is weed related, according to an often-cited 2009 study commissioned by the county. Another study in Humboldt showed marijuana to account for more than a quarter of that county’s $1.6 billion economy. Whatever the figures, this much is indisputable: A good-size chunk of California is built around Prohibition, and Prohibition’s days appear to be numbered.


Time for a glimpse
of the future. My strategy, as I explain to Chelsea Lucich, the blue-haired director of Emerald Pharms, is to ingest some of her finest CBD and then go exploring. From behind the counter she produces a bag of weed roughly the size of my torso. I scrutinize it, then other products—caramels, sublingual sprays, gel caps, lotions, vape cartridges—before settling on the CBD-rich fruit leather.

Lucich is an empathetic young woman with paisley pants, a silver marijuana leaf on her ring finger, and a general fire-spinner vibe. It turns out that her path to CBD involved a trauma of her own. One morning in 2007, she was driving to work in Yuba City when she pulled out into an intersection to cross a highway. She doesn’t remember any of it. The car barreling down the highway T-boned her hard enough to hurl her through her passenger-side window. Several hemorrhaging organs and shattered bones later, Lucich learned that getting better was harder than getting hurt. When she became hooked on the opioids she was taking for her pain, it was CBD that helped her break the addiction. More important, she says, it cemented her identity as a healer. “When something like that happens, it can’t help but make you more compassionate.”

Lucich found work preaching the CBD gospel at an East Oakland dispensary. The gospel fell on deaf ears. “They were there for their eighth of weed, which is fine,” she says. “Just because someone isn’t terminally ill doesn’t mean they don’t have real reasons for using cannabis. But I was excited to work somewhere where it was more about compassion. Most of our patients here are older. They’re here for relief they haven’t been able to find elsewhere.”

The fruit-leather fireworks never really come. CBD just isn’t THC, and that’s fine (and to be honest, I feel a little self-conscious taking nonrecreational marijuana recreationally). It turns out that exploring a 12-acre alternative to our untenable civilization is trippy enough on its own. I roam Schaeffer’s Eden, and it’s unlike anything a tourism company would create and unlike anything they could concoct in Colorado or Washington. The environmental piece and the pot piece and the off-grid piece all swirl together, the products of their times and of the idealist-entrepreneurs who dreamed them. In the months ahead, Schaeffer plans to open a cannabis museum here to mark a history that had to remain hidden for years. “It will show people how cannabis and solar have complemented each other over the years and make it even more of a tourist center,” he says. “And once marijuana is legalized, this could be an incredible demonstration site and visiting site for tour buses from the city.” He envisions people arriving here from around the country, wanting to see the cannabis industry in action; learning about how their favorite cash crop is grown, extracted, and sold; understanding how it heals people.

As I wander, I can’t help thinking that the museum could go even further. There’s something about the place that inspires larger connections. Ponder solar and soon you’re pondering marijuana, and then, possibly with an assist from your fruit leather, you’re deep in the most pernicious aspects of our national drug policy. By the time the rain starts, I’m full-on ruminating. If the central appeal at the Solar Living Center is the fantasy of starting over—of creating a more intelligent and unbroken world, of grasping the connectedness of systems—I see no reason to draw the line at composting and photovoltaics. These 12 acres could become a West Coast Smithsonian, a place where cannabis science and climate change mitigation and countless modes of sustainable living all get equal billing. You’d have to be high not to dig that.

 

Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco

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