Can Marijuana Rescue Coal Country?
By Mark Lynn Ferguson | Washingtonpost.com
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.)
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