Wildfires scorched marijuana crops, possibly complicating California’s rollout of legal sales

 In Legalization, News

Amy Goodwin removes the yellow leaves and checks for damage on the marijuana plants for SPARC on Wednesday in Glen Ellen, Calif. The plants require a high level of maintenance, and the fire stopped employees from working. (Mason Trinca/For The Washington Post)

 / October 20, 2017

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

At least 34 marijuana farms suffered extensive damage as the wildfires tore across wine country and some of California’s prime marijuana-growing areas. The fires could present challenges to the scheduled Jan. 1 rollout 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 remains extremely difficult, if not impossible, for most of the marijuana businesses affected by the fire to access insurance, mortgages and loans to rebuild. Even a charitable fund set up to help marijuana farmers was frozen because a payment processor will not handle cannabis transactions.

Cannabis businesses also are not eligible for any type of federal disaster relief, according to a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“It’s the darkness right before the dawn of legal, regulated cannabis in California,” said Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association, who cautioned that the full extent of the damage remains unknown. “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 swaths of Mendocino County, which is part of what is known as California’s “Emerald Triangle,” the nation’s epicenter of marijuana growing. It also devastated Sonoma County, which is best known for wine but has seen an increase in cannabis farming. The fires killed at least 42 people and damaged thousands of buildings, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Some marijuana farms were completely destroyed, and many others are believed to have been heavily damaged by fire, smoke and ash. Structures used to store dried marijuana burned, as did greenhouses and irrigation lines. Many marijuana cultivators live on their farms, and some homes burned to the ground.

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, Calif., about 50 miles north of San Francisco, engulfed by flames after awakening to the smell of smoke. The first thing he saw after getting close to the farm was a metal-roofed barn on fire. It was filled with marijuana harvested to sell on the legal market.

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

Read more at washingtonpost.com