That living room has a few EZ chairs and a long, wrap-around couch — replete with built-in cup holders — where a "trimmer" is stationed with a marijuana-filled TV tray. He's using a little pair of scissors to cut the leaves (the "trim") off the buds (the desirable part of the plant for sale to consumers). MTV's For the Love of Ray J plays quietly on the television. ("In order to keep the trimmers trimming," she advises, noting how they can get easily distracted, "it has to be reality television. It can't be sports.")
"We pay our trimmers $20 an hour, plus food," explains Mary, gesturing to the composed laborer. "We can't offer them health insurance, though. Most of our trimmers are unemployed otherwise." One of them, it turns out, is a former chef who's had a hard time finding work in the global depression.
Mary then escorts us to the house's gardening center, the heart of the grow operation. It is mind-blowing, like a picture out of High Times magazine: this charming, unassuming little home is teeming with marijuana plants at different stages of development. Mary and Joey grow multiple strains of cannabis, including some that have such colorful names as Barack Oganja, East Coast Sour Diesel, Strawberry Cough, Massachusetts Super Skunk, and a hybrid strain of Chocolate Trip crossed with Blackberry Widow.
"It's a great product," she says proudly, "and I use my own product. I don't pollute the environment. I don't use pesticides. I care about my clients and I care about the patients." The way Mary looks at it, "as long as we're ethical, we're doing a good thing."
The marijuana she sells goes for $400 per ounce — a good deal, considering that in cities like New York, marijuana can have a street value higher than its weight in gold.
"The electric goes up, but our prices haven't," she points out. "In this economy, people need weed."
Some of the grow rooms are pitch black, others are in full light, depending on where the plant is in its cycle. She has learned expensive lessons over the years — at certain stages, just the tiny red light from a power strip could ruin an entire crop.
I spoke with her son Peter, now 19, who enthusiastically supports his mother's journey from pill popper to pot user. "Before my mom started smoking, and she was on the pain pills, she was pretty zombied out," he says. "She stayed in her room a lot. Marijuana helped her be a parent again."
From toker to grower
"My stepdad died, and we didn't have any money," Peter explains. "We lost our house, and mom had to send me and my brother and my sister to live with my dad. The only way she was gonna get us back was to start growing."
That was 10 years ago. Mary was living on worker's-comp checks of $129 a month, with three young children to support. No one would hire her, she couldn't get medical insurance because of her pre-existing condition, and she couldn't afford to buy marijuana on the black market to control her chronic pain. "I'm 100 percent disabled," she notes.
Joey, whom Mary had just started dating, suggested they try growing marijuana themselves.