In one fell swoop, and just weeks before California’s legal market for recreational weed goes live, wildfires ravaged the countryside; destroying thriving pot farms willy-nilly. As of Friday last week, 34 farms lay in smoldering, smoking ruin. However, according to the executive director of the California Growers Association, Hezekiah Allen, that figure is still rising.
“Unfortunately,” Allen says, “it will grow significantly.” He has been working tirelessly contacting all farmers in affected areas to confirm the reports of burned farms, and he says that, “Just the scale of this event is kind of numbing.” The fires, which began in early October and spread swiftly across the state, are the most devastating in the history of California thus far.
According to the state’s firefighting department, Cal Fire, 42 people have died. The fires have burned 7,700 structures and laid waste to at least 245,000 acres. Sonoma County was particularly worst hit by the fires, which claimed 30 cannabis farms, and according to the Sonoma County Growers Alliance, three marijuana manufacturers lost everything in the fire and none has insurance to cover the damage.
While compiling his statewide tally of burnt marijuana farms, Allen managed to confirm that the fire in Sonoma County destroyed 25 of them. However, he is still trying to contact the remaining five farmers suspected to have met the same fate. Allen says that the farmers are “thankful to be alive,” but that the extent of the damage is “heartbreaking,” particularly as none of them have insurance.
As Allen said, the fires occurred with “uniquely bad timing.” The legal market for recreational marijuana is set to launch in California on January 1 next year, and hundreds of stores and dispensaries will need to stock their shelves with products. Additionally, the majority of farmers applied for their state permits using their savings, and a single state permit can cost as much as $50,000.
Because marijuana is still illegal under federal law, financial institutions and banks are unable to provide the pot industry with lawful financial services, even in the eight states that have made recreational cannabis legal. This is the same reason why cannabis farmers are unable to get insurance coverage, as federal prohibition makes it unlawful for providers to insure pot businesses.
“The road to recovery is going to be long,” explained Allen, a former weed grower who sold his ranch back in 2012. “We live harvest to harvest, so we are looking at how we get people to the next harvest. Right now, our immediate goal is making sure folks have what they need to get those seeds into the ground.”
Despite the widespread devastation caused by the fires, it is unlikely to harm the state’s marijuana supply in any negative way. This is because there are so many farms currently in operation who can fill the supply deficit. According to Allen, California has well over 50,000 weed farms. In Sonoma County alone, there are as many as 15,000 grow spots, likely more.
California legalized medical marijuana back in 1996 already. Just last year, voters approved Proposition 64, which makes recreational cannabis legal in the state, as well. According to Cal Fire, roughly 10,000 firefighters battled the nine enormous infernos and evacuated approximately 15,000 people to safety. Fortunately, with the arrival of rain, they did get some much-needed help fighting the blazes.