It's getting tough to be a pot farmer. The West Coast's marijuana industry, already pinched by drought and facing sharp criticism over its water use, now faces another imminent threat: fire.
Overall, more than 146,000 acres have been lost to wildfire in California. In Washington state, where recreational marijuana has been sold since last July, fires have already consumed an area the size of Rhode Island. Not surprisingly, some marijuana growers are fearful they too could see their farms go up in flames.
Weed is a lucrative industry out West: In California, medical marijuana generates some $100 million in sales tax revenue and keeps more than 100,000 people employed across the state. Washington's industry—which permits sales of both medicinal and recreational pot—has already netted close to $260 million in total sales this year and could garner more than $190 million in tax and revenue.
Some growers, like Tim McCormack, have been lucky. McCormack serves as CEO of Antoine Creek Farms, one of the largest licensed farms permitted by the state of Washington. The few thousand plants he tends comprise nearly 20,000 square feet of plant canopy. Flames from the Chelan Complex fire, one of the largest wildfires still burning across the state, were about five feet from his farm before firefighters were able to divert their course elsewhere. Had Antoine Creek Farms been caught in the Chelan Complex, McCormack estimates he would have lost several hundred thousand dollars.
"I joke that this is God's own pot farm because that's the only power that could have saved it."
"The farm was seriously threatened by fire at least three times," McCormack says. "The first two times something as simple as wind change saved us, and the last time the courageous firefighters actually did a back-burn on the back third of my property, and they saved us from a third fire, which was called the Black Canyon Fire. I kind of joke that this is God's own pot farm because that's the only power that could have saved it."
Others haven't been so fortunate.
Timothy Anderson, the purchasing manager for Harborside Health Center, a medical marijuana dispensary based in Oakland, California, says most of his suppliers are located in the lower end of the the Emerald Triangle, an area comprising three counties at the tip of Northern California. The Emerald Triangle's economy is largely dependent on marijuana growers, who have a reputation for producing some of the country's best bud, including sought-after strains like Mendocino Purps and Humboldt Headband.
Some of Anderson's suppliers haven't been able to get their product to market due to road closures. Others are situated in the midst of the blaze's danger zone, but, according to Anderson, remain reluctant to leave their farms to nature's mercy just yet. Evacuating runs the risk of losing a farm not only to wildfire, but to neglect. No one is around to check key irrigation lines or reservoirs, he says—daily reminders that the state is still in the midst of one of the worst droughts in memory. Water isn't just a lifeline for most marijuana growers these days; it's also a luxury.
"I had one of my contract farmers, with whom we work with very closely, who lost an entire farmstead," Anderson says. "He lost a house, a barn, an outbuilding, and had to lay off his employees at that facility for the season as well."
Anderson sources most of Harborside's medical marijuana from Mendocino or Sonoma counties, both located on the northern end of the state, but he also has growers as far down as Southern California. Since Northern California still holds the market for most of the state's pot supply, dispensaries in the southern portion of the state are just as likely to feel the effects of the wildfires burning up north. Higher prices and less product this year are a major concern to Anderson, who says that, thanks to drought, water shortages, and a thriving black market for recreational weed, he's already seen less cannabis on the market than in years past.
"We were already kind of facing less options, less material, higher prices," he says. "And now that these fires have really become a very distinct and hard-to-deny effect on the entire industry, I think there's a good potential that that we could continue to see that."
Most of the weed in Washington is grown east of the Cascade Mountains. The area's dry, desert climate is prime not only for weed farming, but also for massive wildfires, like the Chelan Complex fire. Since beginning in mid-August, the fire has been only 52 percent contained, and continues to burn steadily across nearly 90,000 acres. Michael West, director of biotechnologies at Green Lion Farms in Seattle, says his company knows three of four growers located within miles of wildfire territory.
"There are a lot of licensed producers on the east side of the mountains that are really concerned about their farms," West says. "There's been a couple cases I've seen that they've shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars to get their license, and they're sitting on their farm watching forest fires creep closer and closer."
Growers protected from fire damage may command higher prices when they sell to dispensaries; in turn, dispensaries may struggle to keep prices low for consumers.
Fortunately, a burning marijuana field probably isn't going to get anyone high. But Anderson is already concerned that smoke damage could potentially render future buds and flowers hazardous for consumption. Cannabis flowers are like sponges, enthusiastically soaking up any nearby aromas. There's not yet enough scientific research to prove whether weed exposed to smoke is unsafe or if the smoke simply lowers the quality of the bud. Still, Anderson worries about potential health impacts, particularly among medicinal users with compromised immune systems, whom he says should be wary of any negative additives like mold, ash, or extinguishing fluid in their pot.
"If a bud smells like smoke, I’m not going to be able to sell it," Anderson says. "No one wants to buy 'barbecue buds,' as we sometimes call it. It's just not going to smell or taste right."
The full effect of wildfires on the West Coast's marijuana industry probably won't be felt until this fall, when bud harvest begins in September or October, Anderson predicts. But there might very well be less product available on the market, either because it's smoke-damaged or because it's been lost in the fire. As a result, growers protected from fire damage may command higher prices when they sell to dispensaries; in turn, dispensaries may struggle to keep prices low for consumers.
At Green Lion Farms in Seattle, West distills and processes marijuana flowers into oils extracted from two chemical compounds: cannabidiol (CBD), which provides therapeutic benefits without any psychoactive side-effects; and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which, basically, gets you stoned. Those oils can then be used in edibles, vape pens, and non-psychoactive topicals. While he doesn't expect the quantity of this year's harvest to suffer, he predicts Washington state will see an influx of lesser-quality bud on the market due to smoke damage. Because of this, distilleries like West's, which can separate particulate matter like smoke residue from the plant's essential oils, could be in higher demand. And because there is currently one retail store for every four licensed farms throughout Washington state, farmers could be much more likely to suffer from the effects of the fires than the overall retail market, he says.
"A lot of these retail stores have kind of a price war going on where you have a lot of different licensees that are trying to vie for shelf space," West says. "So a lot of licensees are really willing to bottom-line their price of flower just so they can get it into the stores. Farmers are going to see the price drop-out from beneath them. Most of the retail stores I've talked to aren't decreasing their prices."
Meanwhile, Antoine Creek Farms is up and running again, but it isn't business as usual just yet. McCormack is unsure how wildfires will affect his work—specifically, his buds—in the coming months. Buds, those resinous, pungent knots that people smoke, are actually the flowers produced by female plants. If a female plant is pollinated by a male plant, those sticky buds form seeds, which are un-smokable and less potent than pure, female bud. So to ensure a genetically identical, all-female crop, marijuana farmers clone female cuttings from a Mother Plant, the genetic heart and soul of a growing operation.
"The marijuana industry doesn't yet have crop insurance, so basically if we had burned down we would be out of business. That'd be it for us."
But Mother Plants without 24/7 light can start to flower. They also risk becoming hermaphrodite plants, which could potentially pollinate and ruin an entire crop. During the wildfire, Antoine Creek Farms lost power, and McCormack is still unsure whether his Mother Plants changed sexes during the outage. (His cloned plants are holding steady, though.) Light deprivation, thanks to heavy smoke cover near his farm, has already tricked more than half of his crop into flowering ahead of schedule this year. Now, he'll likely have an earlier harvest. Compounding McCormack's worries, the issue of financing in the marijuana trade is a cumbersome one, as many farms and shops continue to find themselves spurned by pessimistic (sometimes moralistic) banks and insurance agencies.
"If I was growing wheat or if I was growing grapes, it wouldn't be that bad because I would file an insurance claim and they would send in an adjuster and they would evaluate what we had and make some appropriate claims based on the loss," McCormack says. "Well, the marijuana industry doesn't yet have crop insurance, so basically if we had burned down we would be out of business. That'd be it for us."