By Kym Kemp Originally published in Grow magazine.
“Out in the mountains, it’s almost like you forget it’s illegal…We’re just these farmers with veggie gardens. But the reality is, we’re breakin’ the law.” As a second generation grower, James isn’t against marijuana but his twenty-second birthday changed his life forever.
The big grin that normally fills his broad cheerful face disappears as he looks seriously out across the hills that he calls home. When he was in his late teens, he quit working for his family and began to take care of marijuana for a big grower. “This was a whole different ballgame,” he says. “[Our family] would leisurely grow some plants and I’d smoke some pot. But this scene was all about how ‘we’re gonna make …money!’”
He moved into a nearby house owned by the big grower and, within a year or two, he had tucked away almost $15,000 in a closet at his new place. Even so, he was ready to get out. “These people were really flagrant. They were making me nervous…They were in an entirely different headspace—money, party, rage, drive trucks, … be idiots…I was making money for the future so I didn’t have to do this forever.” He says that he was only two weeks from his final harvest when his life changed on the morning of his twenty-second birthday.
In honor of the day, he had been partying heavily the night before.
I was sleeping in—completely tacoed [hungover]. I heard a car door slam…I looked out the upstairs window. OH, SHIT! I saw a sheriff with a shotgun…
Wearing only his boxer shorts, he crawled out through the open glass and
…cue James Bond music. I ran and grabbed the upstairs porch rail with both hands and vaulted over and down 15 feet…I landed on a rock face…I tore the bottom of my feet off but I didn’t feel it….Adrenaline pumped, I tripped over a rocky ledge and face planted–shattered my nose. Totally barefoot and [almost] naked…The choppers were flying…I ran through a ravine.
Blackberry bush [He waved a hand wildly]–I ran right through it— I was going to Mom’s.
While running, he realized that he didn’t want to lead the police to his family’s house.
… [I] hid myself in a pond.…[I] crawled out of the pond and into [a] bush. From 7 in the morning ‘til 8 at night I hid….I was hung over–hammered. And the yellow jackets kept eating my feet. I tried to keep them off but I didn’t have enough strength… Man, it was painful… I tried to walk but I couldn’t. I was too injured…I needed a cigarette. [I was] hungry. Now I know what people stranded in the desert feel like. Seriously, a couple days would drive people crazy…[A] chopper flew for hours looking for me…It started getting dark.
He worried, “I can’t just lay here and die.” But he couldn’t manage to put any weight on his feet. [Later, he would find that they had lasting damage.] His brother, who had been combing the hills looking for him, drove by and he managed to flag him down. “When I got in the car, I lost it. I cried.” He paused for emphasis. “Like a baby.” But, in spite of the agony and the loss of the large amount of cash he had left stashed behind at the house, at least he’d gotten away.
Unfortunately, in his rush out the window and over the railing, he had left not only his money but his wallet behind—with his license and other identifying papers.
“The cops drove around the hills showing my license to people.” They asked if anyone recognized who he was. Everyone was familiar with him but no one told the officers. Nonetheless, as one of his neighbors later told him, “…you were fucked.”
No one, of course, acknowledged knowing him or how to find him but, eventually, accompanied by his lawyer, James turned himself in. “I didn’t want to run forever. I’ve seen The Fugitive. That’s not cool.”
He eventually had to do 120 days of SWAP (Sheriff’s Work Alternative Program), one day a week, for over two years, and felony probation for three. James says he liked the work. “I was impressed with the sheriffs in the program. If you offered them respect, then [you got respect.] They were friendly guys…”
At first, he worked low paying restaurant jobs but then he moved into construction where he continues supporting his family well.
He says in spite of the hardship, he wouldn’t change what happened to him. “That was a defining moment. I quit growing, I quit smoking, I quit drinking. I was a reformed Christian without the Christianity!” In spite of his experience, he doesn’t think marijuana should get people arrested. “It’s an herb not a drug. Just because its illegal, doesn’t mean it should be.” But for him, the ordeal helped him focus on what was important in his life.