Crash Barry used to show up for radio shows wearing tattered jeans and a T-shirt. Today, he looks professorial, with combed hair and sport jacket. The one constant: A bag of weed in his pocket.
More because of circumstance than by design, Barry, the indie writer who lives in the foothills of western Maine, has become Maine’s defacto pot ambassador thanks to his book, “Marijuana Valley.”
Barry describes his self-published book as narrative non-fiction. He spent most of 2011 on an Oxford County pot farm researching what he intended to be something journalistic about Maine’s emerging marijuana economy and cannabis culture. What he wrote instead was a partly fictionalized account based on his own experiences and the people he met.
The 46-year-old has been a stoner most of his life and sees the platform that he’s been given as his best chance to demystify weed and ease its passage to mainstream status alongside beer, wine and liquor.
“Now that I am kind of clean cut and now that I have a suit jacket that I sometimes wear to signings, I am mainstreaming herb to people who are somewhat familiar with the cannabis culture,” he said an interview at his Oxford County farm.
Since his early days going undercover in homeless shelters as a reporter for Portland’s Casco Bay Weekly, Barry has been drawn to stories about people and communities on the fringe. He doesn’t consider himself a spokesman or ambassador for the pro-pot movement, but he finds himself thrust into the role — and doesn’t seem to mind.
Barry likes being asked to judge joint-rolling contests and being the guy whose job is to preach the power of pot. In addition to serving as a primer for anyone who wants to grow pot, his book makes a case for the economic potential of legalizing it.
MAKING THE ROUNDS
“Marijuana Valley” is getting a lot of attention. Barry is showing up on TV and radio and in bookstores and libraries across the state. In September, he’ll speak at the Common Ground Fair in Unity, where many small farmers in attendance either grow pot already or are considering adding the crop.
At most of these events, Barry passes around a Mason jar of pot so people can see what a Maine-grown bud looks and smells like. He also takes long drags on his vaporizer, a pocket-sized device that vaporizes pot for inhalation without the smoke.
A few weeks ago, he offered WCSH-6’s Rob Caldwell a hit on the air. He did the same with Jennifer Rooks, host of MPBN’s “Maine Calling” radio talk show.
Barry has been an open user since the early 1990s when he acknowledged in Casco Bay Weekly that he smoked. When his colleagues grabbed a drink before the City Council meeting, he got stoned.
These days, Barry and his wife, Shayna, live on 21 acres off a pitching gravel road. They lease the land from a friend and have a small farm with a few chickens and pigs and gardens with asparagus, garlic, strawberries, beets, Brussel sprouts and broccoli.
In addition to growing and raising their own food, they legally grow pot. Shayna is licensed to grow medical marijuana to supply people who have a prescription to use the drug. Barry has one to help him with chronic wrist pain from an injury he suffered while living and working in Eastport.
“Marijuana doesn’t make the pain go away,” he said, “but it makes it not bother me so much.”
Shayna takes care of the garden and greenhouses. He enjoys jobs that involve manual labor, though he vowed to give up manual labor when he left Eastport four years ago. He’s clearing the land one small stand at a time, burning and bartering the downed trees. He hopes someday to raise enough goats, chicken and pigs to make a business out of it.
“I’d really like to be a small-scale meat producer,” he said, “I’d like to take care of 100 people’s meat needs.”
Barry has a small writing studio a few hundreds yards from his house, on a sloping path that dips past a greenhouse where Shayna keeps her pot plants. The studio is made from wood milled from trees that Barry took down and includes a small iron woodstove.
Gary Lawless, owner of Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick, said Barry writes with a voice that’s familiar to anyone who grew up in the 1960s or ’70s but not often heard.
“He tells a good story and opens your eyes to some of the stuff that goes on that we don’t necessarily think about. I’m waiting for the bath salts book, the Oxycontin book, the Allen’s Coffee Brandy book,” Lawless said.
Leslie Mortimer, adult services manager at Patten Free Library in Bath, admitted being “a bit shocked” when she saw Barry offer “207” co-host Caldwell a hit from his vaporizer on live TV. But she had worked with Barry before, and she knew what to expect when she brought him in last week for a reading.
About 35 people showed up, ranging from ages 20 to 80 and, as Barry noted, “not a single dreadlock.”
He used the book as a starting point for conversation about pot in Maine, the changing local and national laws and the potential of the crop on Maine’s economy.
“Pot is at the center of a national debate,” Mortimer said. “This is the perfect time to have this conversation.”
NOT ALL HAPPY IN THE ‘VALLEY’
Not everyone is happy with the conversation. Jonathan Leavitt filed a complaint against Barry in Oxford County Superior Court, claiming that Barry violated a contract between the two.
Leavitt said he invited Barry onto his pot farm in Oxford County in 2011, the first full year after Maine legalized pot dispensaries for medical-grade marijuana. Leavitt was looking for someone to help him tell what he thought would be a fascinating story about Maine’s pot industry.
Meanwhile, Barry filed a slander and defamation claim against Leavitt, because Leavitt began showing up at Barry’s readings carrying signs saying, “Trash Barry is a thief and a liar!” In April, a judge ordered the sides to arbitration, a process that should begin soon.
Barry said his idea for the book changed as he began writing. He went in to the project with the notion of writing about Maine’s evolving pot culture, tracing its history back four decades and measuring its economic impact and potential. He wanted to tell that story through the people he knew and met in the pot-growing communities, a band of rural Maine that stretches from the New Hampshire border in York County up to Bangor and toward the coast along the Airline, or Route 9.
As he got deeper into his research, he found himself drawn to the personal stories of the people involved. There were heroes and villains, jesters and clowns, and lots of freaks. He created characters based on people he knew, and he recreated conversations he witnessed and was involved in. “I learned a lot about people and their foibles,” he said. “I learned just how incredibly flawed the bulk of these characters are. They made some really bizarre decisions.”
The book describes a gang of stoners who try to raise a crop of weed while dealing with money problems, sexual complications and the threat of crop failure, thieves and mold.
“Marijuana Valley” falls in the gonzo-storytelling tradition that has defined much of his career and shaped his two previous books. They include “Sex, Drugs & Blueberries,” a novel about the seedy side of the Downeast blueberry harvest, and “Tough Island,” a memoir about the two years Barry spent on Maine’s remote Matinicus Island and the hard-living fishing culture.
Barry sold between 3,500 and 4,000 copies of his two previous books. He expects to sell at least as many copies of “Marijuana Valley.”
Lawless, the bookseller, believes the book has a chance to be a summer hit among locals and visitors. It’s fun reading — and educational, showing readers a part of Maine many may not know.
“It’s not Sarah Orne Jewett. It’s not Marshall Dodge or John McDonald, either,” Lawless said, citing historic and contemporary Maine writers and humorists. “It’s a different kind of voice.”