Could marijuana save California?

In the 60s hippies fled to the backwoods of northern California to grow pot. There they have been joined by growers of ‘medical marijuana’ – available with a doctor’s recommendation – as well as by Mexican drug cartels. With cannabis now its largest cash crop, the state will soon vote on whether to legalise it fully – and even Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is thinking the enormous tax revenues might just solve his budget deficit…

Jim Hill in his greenhouse growing medical marijuanaJim Hill in his greenhouse where he and his wife Trelanie grow medical marijuana. Photograph: Sarah Baldik for the Observer

‘When I see that, it’s like looking at a shed full of cows. I see a whole lot of work,” says Jim Hill, opening the little gate into his humid greenhouse in which a forest of marijuana grows, and from which a pungent, heady scent exudes at gale force. Not work as in hard labour, emphasises Hill – though there is a bit of that – but expertise growing some of the most potent weed on the planet.

Nearby there are vineyards and horses graze the sun-stroked farmland, but this verdant hillside near the town of Potter Valley in northern California lies in an area called the Emerald Triangle: three counties bordered by mountains to the east and the Pacific to the west that connect the lyrical terrain north of San Francisco with the wilderness of the Oregon state line. This breathtakingly beautiful corner of earth is the marijuana capital of the western hemisphere thanks to three conspiring factors: its perfect climate; the pervading culture; and topography – this is a maze of mountain dirt roads, locked access gates, isolated villages, secluded slopes and wooded glades, far from prying eyes.

Jim Hill, however, is a respectable figure – neither old stoner nor criminal – and he is not afraid to show off his working practices. “You’re just going to have to smell of weed for the rest of the week,” he jokes as we clamber through his greenhouse. “Squeeze this,” he enthuses, “take a sniff, feel the nice, rich oily texture…”