Fatal fires that have consumed nearly 200,000 acres in Northern California, devastating the region’s vineyards particularly in Napa and Sonoma Counties, are also taking a toll on a fledgling industry just months before its debut: recreational marijuana.
Many of the region’s farms, including those that harvest cannabis, have been scorched, including those in Sonoma County and in Mendocino County, the center of California’s marijuana industry. Mendocino is one of three California counties that comprise Emerald Triangle, where much of the United States’ marijuana is produced.
Hezekiah Allen, the executive director of the California Growers Association, said that at least seven farms had been destroyed, and that he expected the number to “increase significantly” as people returned to their homes. Tens of thousands of cannabis growers live in Northern California.
The owners of the seven farms include small-scale growers who put their life savings into their farms over the past year, he said. None of them have insurance, he said.
“They leveraged themselves entirely,” Mr. Allen said. “It’s going to hit some families really hard.”
Since marijuana is still considered an illegal drug by the federal government, the industry works entirely in cash, said Josh Drayton, a spokesman for the California Cannabis Industry Association. That makes reliable insurance difficult to acquire and banking impossible to use.
Even the crops that were not in the direct line of fire could lose value or become unusable because of smoke damage, soot and ash. Growers will have to sort out whether the damage is merely aesthetic or whether it could include contaminants that would present a health risk to consumers, Mr. Allen said. Smoke tends to stick to the plants, which is bad news for a product that depends largely on flavor and scent for its value.
“If it’s supposed to smell like lemon and it smells like wildfire, that’s going to be a significant detractor,” he said.
Mr. Drayton said October is the end of growing season in Northern California, making it a disastrous time for the fires to hit.
“A lot of these crops have not been harvested at all, so that means a total loss on those farms,” he said.
Photos of scorched land have started appearing on Instagram, including one from Sonoma Cannabis Company. “We have all been touched by this tragedy. One of our Team members lost their home, their crop and everything in the fire,” the caption read.
The state has long been the country’s illicit hub of growing marijuana, and its market alone is estimated to be worth about $7 billion, according to Arcview, a company that conducts cannabis research.
California voted in November to legalize recreational marijuana, allowing adults 21 or older to possess limited amounts for personal use and have up to six plants in private residences. The law is set to take effect in January 2018, and officials expect legalization to bring about $1 billion in tax revenue. Medical marijuana has been legal in the state since 1996.
California has been at odds with the Trump administration on the state’s marijuana industry. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has equated marijuana use with heroin, has asked Senate leaders to roll back protections for the medical marijuana industry. And in February, the White House said it would consider enforcing federal law against recreational marijuana businesses.