Can marijuana rescue coal country?
Johnsie Gooslin spent Jan. 16, 2015, tending his babies -- that's what he called his marijuana plants. More than 70 of them were growing in a hydroponic system of his own design. Sometimes, he'd stay in his barn for 16 hours straight, perfecting his technique.
That night, he left around 8 o'clock to head home. The moon was waning, down to a sliver, which left the sky as dark as the ridges that lined it. As he pulled away, the lights from his late-model Kia swept across his childhood hollow and his parents' trailer, which stood just up the road from the barn. He turned onto West Virginia Route 65. Crossing Mingo County, he passed the Delbarton Mine, where he had worked on and off for 14 years before his back gave out. Though Johnsie was built like a linebacker, falling once from a coal truck and twice from end loaders had taken a toll. At 36, his disks were a mess, and sciatica sometimes shot pain to his knees.
Still, he managed to lift the buckets that held his plants; friends sometimes helped. In another part of the barn, they had set up a man cave with a big-screen TV and girlie posters. When they weren't transplanting and trimming, they played video games and discussed their passion for cultivating pot. None of them had studied marijuana like Johnsie, but they all loved growing, seeing it not just as a hobby or a way to make a buck but as an act of compassion.
"Mostly the people that bought were older men and women, Vietnam veterans and people that's been hurt," Johnsie told me. "I mean, to hear them say, 'You know, ever since I started smoking your pot, I ain't touched a pain pill ..." He trailed off, shaking his head, but it was clear what he meant. In a state with one of the nation's highest rates of overdose deaths, most of them opioid-related, it felt good to give people an alternative, one that even the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said this year has never caused an overdose fatality.
Minutes after leaving the barn, Johnsie parked in the light of his own trailer, a newly remodeled 14-by-60 that he shared with his wife, Faye, and 14-year-old daughter Bethany. His phone rang. It was a neighbor from Rutherford Branch Road, where the barn stood. Cops were there, asking about him.
Inside, Johnsie dialed his mother. Two officers, she told him, were standing in her living room. She handed the phone to one of them. Though he didn't have a search warrant for the barn, the officer said he could get one, according to Johnsie. "But," he said, "I think it would be better if you come and talk to me first." (This account is based largely on Johnsie's recollection. Neither arresting officer was permitted to be interviewed for this story, but it is consistent with a description of Johnsie's case in the 2015 West Virginia State Police Annual Report.)
Johnsie hung up. He'd placed cameras around his building and vented it out the back, but people were packed tight into that narrow hollow. It was only a matter of time before someone figured out what was inside. Turning to his wife, he said, "Look, I'm going up there, and I'm going to jail."
With Skoal tobacco, his one chemical vice, pressed tightly against his cheek, Johnsie drove back to Rutherford Branch Road, where officers met him outside. "It's like this. I got your dad. I got a lot of pot on him," Senior Trooper D.L. Contos told him. This was no surprise. Sam Gooslin had smoked pot for decades, and half of Johnsie's pot went to him. His dad relied on it to ease pain from lung cancer, a new ailment layered atop others -- diabetes, a stroke, four heart attacks and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
"He's a Vietnam veteran," Johnsie recalls Contos saying. "I respect that. I don't want to see a veteran go to jail. If you make me go get a search warrant, I'm taking you to jail, and I'm gonna get your dad on felony conspiracy charges because he's taking the blame on what's going on up there."
Johnsie had only one option. He crossed the road and unlocked the barn, opening a series of doors to release a flood of light. The officers paused. One said he had busted hundreds of marijuana operations and had never seen anything like this. For the next two hours, Johnsie walked the officers through his process. He explained the role of the lights and hydroponics; why he placed three plants in a bucket, not one; how he used gibberellic acid to push the plants at just the right time. At the end, he recalls Contos telling him they had to seize his plants, but, referring to Johnsie's equipment and supplies, he said, "I'm not going to take it away. One day, this might be legal."
The first time Johnsie planted pot, he was 14. He stole a single seed from his father and buried it. "I didn't know what I was doing," he recalls. "I was just a kid being a kid." That seed barely grew, but it did take root in a sense. Years later, while still working in the mines, he began reading about marijuana cultivation. Though he'd already learned that he couldn't smoke it himself (every attempt made his heart race and left him paranoid), the science behind the plant, the act of nurturing it, enthralled him. After he stopped working at the mine about five years ago, and after his father gave him the barn, Johnsie tried growing marijuana again, this time treating the exercise more as a science experiment.
He was actually the third generation of Gooslins with a passion for pot. His father didn't grow it but smoked it constantly. His grandfather, a former Kentucky constable, was just the opposite. He never used marijuana but sold it to supplement his retirement income. At one time this sort of thing wasn't uncommon, says 1st Sgt. Michael Smith, who heads West Virginia's drug-eradication efforts: "It was generally local individuals that would go back in the woods and, similar to the image of old-time moonshiners, they would get them a clandestine location and take care of their crops. Families would grow marijuana. ... They would hand it down."
Reliable estimates of the size of the marijuana market in West Virginia are hard to come by. According to the group NORML, which advocates for marijuana legalization, pot has been West Virginia's most valuable cash crop for the past 20 years.
Lately, however, marijuana has been overshadowed by opioids, which are devastating parts of coal country. In Mingo County, where Johnsie lives, a single pharmacy pumped out 9 million hydrocodone pills over just two years, according to a 2016 investigation by the Charleston Gazette-Mail. That was enough for every man, woman and child in the area to have 350 of them. Hydrocodone was part of a new generation of opioids that pharmaceutical companies introduced in the United States in the past two decades and heavily marketed to doctors as posing minimal risk for addiction. That, of course, wasn't true, and as government officials cracked down on prescription opioids, they became prohibitively expensive, pushing addicts in West Virginia and elsewhere toward illegal substitutes, including heroin, which ran about a third the price.
The Mountain State is now ground zero of one of the worst drug crises in our nation's history. In 2015, 725 people died of overdoses in the state, the highest rate per capita in the country. Last year, that figure grew another 15 percent, reaching a staggering 844 deaths. That averages to one West Virginian dying from an overdose every 11 hours. Eighty-six percent of the state's overdose deaths in 2016 involved an opioid.
While there are no easy answers to the opioid crisis, a growing body of research suggests that legalizing marijuana could help. More than a dozen states with legal medical marijuana have recorded significant drops in overdose deaths from other drugs, including heroin, according to a 2014 study in JAMA: the Journal of the American Medical Association. A 2015 pilot study by Yasmin Hurd at the Behavioral Health System's Addiction Institute at Mount Sinai found that cannabidiol, a compound in marijuana, minimized cravings for opioids, making it easier for participants to stop using them. And unlike methadone, an opioid that is used in drug treatment to minimize cravings for opioids, cannabidiol was not addictive. Hurd is pursuing further research but argues that legislators must address this epidemic now. "You can't wait for all the ducks to be lined up," she says. "You sometimes have to make bold steps."
Attempts to decriminalize marijuana in West Virginia date to at least 2010, but for years no bills made it out of committee. As of 2015, the year of Johnsie's arrest, stalwarts in the Republican-dominated legislature still could not bring themselves to legalize marijuana for medical use. But younger lawmakers would not let the issue go.
One of the leading proponents of loosening restrictions on marijuana in West Virginia is Democratic state Del. Mike Pushkin, who represents parts of Charleston and its surrounding areas. Pushkin is an unconventional pol -- a cabdriver and folk musician who has spoken about his own struggles with addiction. He once told the Charleston Gazette-Mail how he spent 11 years living from crisis to crisis. "I'm sure there were times that my mother would have thought it more likely she would be attending my funeral than she would be attending my swearing-in at the Capitol," he said.
It took a spiritual awakening to get his addiction under control. To stay sober, he told me, he volunteers at detox facilities and talks to addicts in area jails. This experience informs his policy positions. He's sure West Virginia can't arrest its way out of this drug crisis. And he has pushed his colleagues to consider marijuana in a new light. "While marijuana is described as a gateway drug, that's not proven," he says. "What is proven is that a lot of people who are prescribed painkillers get hooked on heroin."
Though he spent only 14 hours in jail, Johnsie returned to his trailer a different man. The police did not confiscate his equipment, but he was still charged with a felony for cultivating marijuana. That, combined with his back problems, made it nearly impossible to find work. He was not allowed to leave the state, which meant he could not move to a place where he could grow marijuana legally.
With his $1,000 or so in monthly pot sales gone and Faye making just $9 an hour as a cashier at a gas station, cash was dwindling fast. They had begun receiving $129 in food stamps, but that didn't help much. "Three people eats more than that in a week," Faye says.
Johnsie's lawyer, Wesley Kent Varney, chose for strategic reasons not to rush his case, instead engaging in a slow, courteous dialogue with Mingo County Prosecuting Attorney Teresa Maynard. He thought he could get Johnsie off on a technicality, in part because the pot the police confiscated later disappeared.
Varney told me police also found no marijuana "bricked up" for shipping, no scales, not even any large sums of money -- making this a low-priority case for Maynard. Even when she proposed a plea bargain that would have put Johnsie under home arrest, Varney sat on the option, hoping to get a better deal. (Maynard declined to comment for this story.)
That approach kept Johnsie free, but his family's losses started adding up. Debt collectors began calling. Both their cars were repossessed. "Before I was arrested," he says, "we was both pushing an 800 credit score. Wasn't nothing we couldn't buy on credit at any given time. Now, I think mine is 500 and hers is like 470. Pitiful."
About a year after his arrest, the bank came for their trailer -- the nicest place Johnsie had ever lived, and just about the only home his teen daughter could remember. The family got 24 hours' notice. Their sole option was moving to the battered trailer next door that had passed hands in Faye's family over and over until it was empty and rusting with bent underpinnings and insulation peeking through holes in the walls.
It was raining that day, and no one could help. That left Johnsie, with his bad back, and Faye to carry their belongings through the mud. They hauled all they could but ended up leaving a lot. "We worked ourselves to death," Faye recalls, "and we just couldn't do it."
She didn't go outside when the repo guys came. Instead, she watched through a leaky aluminum-framed window as they hitched up their trailer and hauled it off. Her living-room furniture, desk and bed frame were still inside.
After that, Johnsie rarely left home. During the days, while his daughter was at school and Faye at work, he alternated between his computer chair, where he read articles about marijuana reform elsewhere (Massachusetts, Maine, California and Nevada would all legalize adult use of the drug in 2016), and the window. There, he'd chew tobacco and stare at bare soil, where their old home had rested.
In May 2016, Pushkin introduced a bill in the West Virginia House of Delegates to let adults grow, use and possess a limited quantity of marijuana, provided that they paid a one-time fee of $500. That month, he told the Charleston Gazette-Mail that he didn't have high hopes for its passage. He was right: It wasn't even debated in a committee. But it did spark media attention and prompted an eye-opening brief from the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, which showed that a marijuana tax could be a boon for the state, generating as much as $194 million annually if the drug were legal for adult use. That would be enough to eliminate West Virginia's projected deficit and create a $183 million surplus, a dramatic improvement in a place that's been slashing everything from higher education to Medicaid as it tries to stay afloat.
Indeed, Pushkin's argument for marijuana legalization had a strong economic component. "They're not having the types of budget issues in Colorado that we're having here," he told the Charleston Gazette-Mail. In Colorado, where pot is now fully legalized, the industry created 18,000 full-time jobs in 2015 alone. New Frontier Data, a financial consultancy in Washington, estimates that by 2020 the marijuana industry will create upward of a quarter of a million jobs in the United States, more than manufacturing is expected to create.
It's hard to imagine anywhere that could use these jobs more than West Virginia. Since the 1980s, both coal and manufacturing in the Mountain State have been in a steep decline. As these industries have dried up, so have others that rely on them -- such as freight rail, which has cut jobs by the thousands and begun pulling up tracks.
Smart leaders would have diversified their economy decades ago, but that didn't happen here. "We've been relying on the extraction industries for far too long," Pushkin told me, noting that West Virginia is not just experiencing a budget crisis or even a drug crisis. The state's population is shrinking; many who stay are depressed by their prospects and taking poor care of themselves. A National Bureau of Economic Research paper published in February found a positive correlation between a county's unemployment rate and its opioid overdose death rate. And a link between unemployment and drug use was also confirmed by a meta-analysis of 28 studies, including 10 done in the United States, that appeared in the June issue of the International Journal of Drug Policy. Diabetes rates exceed 150 percent of the U.S. average in some parts of West Virginia, and obesity is just as severe. Pushkin sees the opioid crisis as more of a symptom of the underlying economic one. "When you see countries that are based on one industry, those are mainly Third World countries," he says. "We're really like a Third World country inside the United States."
In his rundown trailer, with no end to his legal limbo in sight, Johnsie soon faced another setback. His father had begun having seizures. They became so routine that Johnsie was not alarmed when, on June 24, 2016, he got a call informing him that Sam Gooslin was bound for the hospital. But this time, when Johnsie arrived and said his name at the nurse's station, a chaplain approached. "I knew then it wasn't good," he recalls. No one was sure, but they thought his father might have had another stroke. This one was just too big.
As the two-year anniversary of his arrest approached, Johnsie found himself without his father, unable to pursue his passion and flat broke. He grew more reclusive and stopped having people over because he was ashamed of where he lived. "Gained 20 pounds," he says. "Just sitting and waiting on death."
But just as he began to feel like he was fighting a losing battle, Maynard, who had lost her reelection bid, decided to step down early. The incoming county prosecuting attorney, Jonathan Jewell, was inheriting a mound of cases. Varney was quick to point out a case that the new prosecutor could settle fast -- one where the defendant, Johnsie, had kept his nose clean for two years while on bond. This was a gift to Jewell, who scheduled a hearing for Jan. 31. (Jewell did not respond to requests for comment.)
For several nights prior, Johnsie lay awake, thinking about all that had happened. Beside his sleeping wife, with his daughter just a thin, splintered wall away, he tried to picture their future. He couldn't work coal, not with his back like it was, or even stand at a register all day. That and growing marijuana was about all he was qualified to do.
He could probably get a job at a legal growhouse in California. He knew somebody who knew somebody who owned one. But Johnsie was a good-old-boy conservative. He supported Trump and pokes fun at liberals. He loves guns and four-wheeling. "I just don't know if I can handle California," he once told me. Plus, how could he uproot Bethany while she was doing so well in school -- taking advanced placement classes? He wouldn't dare do anything to upset her future.
The morning of his hearing, Johnsie rose bleary-eyed and, with Faye, drove under a bright winter sky. The 20-minute ride was quiet. They didn't know what to expect at the Mingo County Courthouse. Inside, things moved fast. Each lawyer said a few words, and within 10 minutes, West Virginia Circuit Court Judge Miki Thompson dismissed the case without prejudice. For the first time in two years, Johnsie was truly free. He and Faye drove back to their side of the county and, at the gas station where she worked, celebrated with ice cream cones.
Meanwhile in Charleston, Pushkin and like-minded lawmakers saw an opening to try again for legalization. In late 2016, both gubernatorial candidates had publicly supported legalizing medical marijuana. And some of their colleagues were showing a new openness to it. In February, he backed legislation focusing on medical marijuana. While it met with familiar opposition in the House of Delegates, a similar bill wove through the state Senate with bipartisan support. This forced the House speaker and other old-guard Republicans to soften their stance. The bill not only made it out of committee, it was debated on the House floor -- and an amended version passed.
The bill permits patients to use pot derivatives, such as oils and pills, but prohibits smoking the plant or growing it at home. Just 10 growers will be authorized statewide, and the price to play will be steep -- a $50,000 registration fee. On April 19, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, D, signed it into law.
Many lawmakers who voted for the bill were reacting to public pressure and media scrutiny. And although the law passed, there is no certainty that the trend toward loosening restrictions on marijuana will continue. "Close to half the people who voted for that [legislation] are against medical cannabis," Pushkin told me, "but we got something on the books. I do believe we can fix it." A bill he introduced to tax medical marijuana is in committee. Beyond that, Pushkin admits, he is still figuring out what to do next.
Johnsie doesn't like coffee. Rather than order anything at the coffee shop where he and I are meeting Pushkin on a Friday in May, he waits at an empty table, nervous and fidgeting. I get hot tea, and we talk about how unlikely this sit-down is. With his background, Johnsie never imagined he'd talk to a man who could help undo laws that ruined his life. But when I told Pushkin about Johnsie weeks before and asked if they could meet, the delegate said yes.
Coming off an 11-hour shift of cab driving, one that took him clear to Ohio and back, Pushkin walks in while wiping rainwater from his shirt. Both men wear jeans. Pushkin's jeans have a hole over the left pocket. Johnsie's are paired with a button-down for the occasion. Though neither looks their part -- a West Virginia delegate and a former pot grower -- they somehow appear to belong at the same table.
With a handshake and a nod, they begin a slow discourse on the new marijuana law. Johnsie may have found a financial backer, a Michigan businessman who visits Mingo County's ATV trail a few times a year, but breaking into legal marijuana production would be much easier if the fee were lower. He references a provision that's popular in other states, one that assigns "caregivers" to patients. These licensed professionals help people get and use their marijuana. They can even grow it for them. By his own admission, Pushkin doesn't know a lot about the provision, but he's always looking for new ideas. "I wouldn't mind going back and trying to get that in," he later tells me, showing the kind of openness that defines his vision for West Virginia.
Pushkin still sees tremendous potential in his home state. Charleston, for instance, has the kind of "cultural capital" that attracts newer industries -- prewar buildings galore, gritty warehouses begging to become lofts, and indie businesses that include a sprawling bookstore-cafe-gallery and a new art-house cinema. In many ways, it resembles Pittsburgh or Asheville, North Carolina, before those cities became hipster meccas, and Pushkin looks to those places as models. Legalizing recreational use of marijuana could be another asset, a way to boost tourism and retain young people. "I want to fight to make it the kind of state friends want to move back to," he later says. "I want to help make this a cool place again."
The scruffy delegate pauses to sip his coffee, and Johnsie fiddles with his phone. Quiet passes between them until Johnsie begins to talk about his passion for marijuana. "I'd fall asleep at night studying," he says, "with the laptop still on." He describes the intricacies of growing, his hydroponic technique, how he kept his plants budding.
Pushkin looks down. When he first learned about Johnsie, he said, "I'm sorry that this prohibition has turned somebody who was just trying to help their father into a criminal."
Sitting across from this man who lost everything, who had been stripped of his home and livelihood, who is no longer permitted to pursue his passion, Pushkin grips his mug. "This is the kind of story that needs to be told in the statehouse," he says and shakes his head.
The two talk a few minutes more until Pushkin's coffee is gone. He stands up and -- though many politicians wouldn't have even entertained a conversation with a former marijuana grower -- he extends his hand. "I'm going to give you my number," he says, looking Johnsie in the eye. "Call anytime you need help."
After they part, Johnsie and I go for pizza; then he drives an hour in the rain, back to Mingo County, where he and Faye have been keeping their expenses low. She has saved just enough to buy a used car. He now drives a 17-year-old truck inherited from an uncle and spends his days making low-cost improvements to his trailer.
While hanging drywall one day to cover torn wallpaper and exposed wires, he deliberates on his future. He still hates the idea of moving to another state. West Virginia gets ahold of you, he once told me, and won't let go.
Maybe he can get one of those 10 marijuana-farm licenses. Maybe the legislature will make it easier for regular people to take part in this new industry. He's not sure how exactly, but he's determined to grow his "babies" again.
He beams at the thought. "Hook the water and electricity up, and I'd have seeds in the cups tonight," he muses and spits chewing tobacco into an empty bottle. "I'm ready to go anytime, when the law says you can do it."