Natural disasters

Dope dealers see crops go up in smoke in bush fires, complicating California’s legal roll-out

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 October, 2017, 2:42pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 October, 2017, 10:33pm

The deadly forest fires that ravaged communities and wineries in Northern California also severely damaged marijuana farms, just before the state is expected to fully legalise the drug, in a disaster that could have far-reaching implications for a nascent industry.

At least 34 marijuana farms suffered extensive damage. The fires could present challenges to the scheduled January 1 roll-out of legal marijuana sales at the start of an industry that is expected to generate billions of dollars in revenue.

In many cases, owners have spent tens of thousands of dollars to become compliant with state law to sell the product. But because the federal government considers marijuana cultivation and sales a criminal enterprise, it is extremely difficult, or impossible, for most of the marijuana businesses affected by the fire to get insurance, mortgages and loans to rebuild. They are also not eligible for federal disaster aid.

“It’s the darkness right before the dawn of legal, regulated cannabis in California,” said Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association. “These businesses are in a really vulnerable position, and this really came at about the worst time it could have. It means we’re on our own.”

The fires burned large parts of Mendocino County, which is part of what is known as California’s “Emerald Triangle”, America’s centre of marijuana growing. It also devastated Sonoma County, which is best known for wine but has seen an increase in cannabis farming.

Erich Pearson, co-owner of SPARC, a large medical cannabis dispensary with two locations in San Francisco and others north of the city, saw his crops in Glen Ellen, California, 80km north of San Francisco, engulfed by flames after waking up to the smell of smoke. The first thing he saw after getting near the farm was a barn on fire. It was filled with harvested marijuana that was ready to sell on the legal market.

“We lost everything we harvested to date, and had significant damage to what’s left,” he said.

There is concern that damage from smoke, ash and lack of water for crops that did survive could seriously affect the supply for customers when marijuana is legal for sale.

“Now, we might be facing a much smaller harvest than we were anticipating, which could potentially drive the price up,” said Josh Drayton, deputy director of the California Cannabis Industry Association. “It’s going to touch every different piece of the industry, and we can’t get ahead of this yet. We still don’t know how much has survived, how much has been lost.”

Chiah Rodriques, chief executive of Mendocino Generations, a marijuana collective in Mendocino County, said most of the 40 farms she works with were only about 25-to-50 per cent harvested when the fires broke out earlier this month. About a quarter of the farms were affected by either fire or smoke and just 10 of the 40 have the permit necessary to become compliant with the state. None of them have crop insurance, she said.

The one saving grace might be to repurpose affected plants and use them for oil and other tinctures that can be sold at dispensaries. The oils are far less lucrative than the flowers, the part of the plant that is consumed – and this year was expected to be a bumper crop.

“You’re looking at the difference between US$800 to US$1,500 a pound (0.45kg) to now getting US$100; it’s a huge blow,” she said, especially when farmers have spent so much money trying to become compliant with laws. “These people put everything they had into paying for this fee and this tax and this permit and this lawyer, one thing after the next, and to have this happen right when it’s finally harvest is huge.”

Ashley Oldham, owner of Frost Flower Farms in Redwood Valley, California, did something very out of character: she left her mobile phone at a friend’s house the day the fire reached her. A neighbour pounded on her door in the middle of the night as flames surrounded her home, saving the lives of Oldham and her four-year-old daughter.

Oldham’s house was destroyed, but her greenhouse stayed intact, in part because she hiked through what looked like a “post-apocalyptic disaster zone” to check her property after the fire passed. She said emergency officials initially did not allow marijuana farmers to check on their crops, as is allowed for farmers of other agricultural products.

When she arrived at the farm, she used a neighbour’s hosepipe to wet a large oak tree that was ablaze, saving her greenhouse. She estimates that she lost about 25 per cent of her crop to wind damage, and much of it looks burned.

She and other cannabis farmers must have their crops extensively tested under California’s new regulations, and most people don’t know what affect smoke or burn damage will have.

She said that she will not be able to recoup the full value of her house through insurance because she grows marijuana.

“We’re totally legal,” she said of her farm. “But we’re still being treated unfairly.”