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California Wildfires Torch Cannabis Farms at Height of Harvest Season

Just months before California is poised to legalize recreational marijuana, fatal wildfires tearing through three northern counties have scorched an untold number of cannabis farms. In addition to killing at least 31 people, the devastating wildfires consumed grapevines in California’s famous wine country and charred outdoor cannabis farms at the height of the harvest season. The area’s cannabis crop, typically grown outside in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties because of the normally ideal growing conditions, was hit hard.

Losses include not only the crop itself, but the infrastructure needed to comply with state regulations. The financial losses are impossible to calculate at this point since many growers have not been allowed back to visit their farms to assess the damage, but the estimate is in the tens of millions. Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association, said Friday morning that at least 21 members had lost crops, and the number could go higher.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if, when all is said and done, the number is as high as 100,” Allen told NBC News (http://cnw.fm/86Gn0).

Since marijuana is still considered an illegal drug by the federal government, the industry works entirely in cash, making it nearly impossible to secure commercial crop insurance while banks and credit unions steer clear of the industry. Cannabis businesses subsequently are not eligible for federal disaster relief and many growers lost not only their crops but their cash savings.

“None of the confirmed losses had any insurance on their crops,” Allen said.

Even those cannabis farms not in the direct line of fire could still face devastating consequences because of smoke damage, soot and ash blanketing the region. Cannabis is rigorously tested to ensure that no contaminants or pollutants capable of damaging the sensitive marijuana flowers exist in the strains being prepped for consumption. Smoke taints the taste and smell of a crop as it is absorbed through the leaves of a plant and can present a health risk. Smoke-exposed cannabis plants could be used to extract cannabis oils for use in vape pens and other products, although marijuana sold for concentrates generally commands a lower price than the flowers, said cannabis researcher Sara Browne, founder of Radar MRX, a consumer insights center for cannabis (http://cnw.fm/rAjp1).

California voted in November to legalize recreational marijuana, allowing adults 21 or older to possess a limited amount for personal use and have up to six plants in private residences. The law is set to take effect in January 2018, with state officials anticipating the recreational market will generate about $1 billion in new tax revenue. Medical marijuana has been legal there since 1996.

The wind-whipped wildfires could not have come at a worse time for California cannabis growers, who only last week began harvesting their fall crops. The rest of the cannabis supply chain is impacted as well, with seed sellers, storage warehouses and oil extracting facilities all being leveled by the fires (http://cnw.fm/6rC9n).

Even with the record crop losses, California as a whole should deliver a record cannabis harvest, said Tim Blake, who runs the Emerald Cup cannabis competition from Laytonville in Mendocino County, noting that the cannabis community is too vast and dispersed to be crippled.

“We’re resilient,” Blake said, adding that other growing regions in the state are expecting bumper cannabis crops.

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