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Fire On The Mountain: The Fight For West Coast Cannabis Growers

As if 2020 hasn’t piled on enough, California and Oregon have been ravaged by wildfires for the last two months. These fires spreading out across the West Coast have left at least 40 people dead, burned more than 5 million acres, and leveled more than 7,000 buildings. Experts have determined that these are the worst fires the region has seen in 18 years. While there has been disagreement as to the severity of the fires - some linking their prevalence and intensity to climate change, and others, like President Donald Trump, blaming poor forest management - one thing we can all agree on is the horror of this widespread devastation.

Given the large economies of California and Oregon, and all the industries that call these states home, the fallout from these wildfires will be significant. But it may be the cannabis industry that proves to be the most vulnerable.

As Chris Roberts points out, this was shaping up to the best year for California cannabis growers in recent years. Since the legalization of cannabis in California, the market has been volatile. That’s why it seemed the tide had turned, when the demand for small-scale cannabis farms began to show promise again in 2020.

Even if your crop isn’t consumed by a wildfire itself, outdoor cannabis in the vicinity of a wildfire is at risk. This is because cannabis flowers become tainted by airborne toxins like pesticides, ash, soot, fire retardant, and the like, making them unsafe and unsavory for consumption. If this happens during the early stage of growth for a plant, it may show resilience, but unfortunately, the season for wildfire tends to come when outdoor cannabis is in its most vulnerable time for contamination. When a crop is contaminated, it must be destroyed.

This isn’t just a concern for growers cultivating cannabis. Think about the hundreds, if not thousands, of acres of industrial hemp being cultivated for cannabinoids in California and Oregon. Cannabinoid rich hemp flowers are cultivated especially for extraction or as a smokable product. These crops that are exposed to wildfire smoke and airborne toxins will also likely need to be destroyed. Trying to find a silver lining anywhere in this scenario is difficult, but at least it’s affording hemp researchers at Oregon State University the opportunity to study the effects of wildfire smoke on cannabis, specifically industrial hemp crops.

It’s hard to speculate what the loss will be in terms of a dollar amount. Given how nascent the U.S. hemp industry is, many producers are unable to acquire important agricultural risk mitigators like crop insurance. There are many reasons for this, including that future prices and commodity pricing for CBD and other minor cannabinoids is still being developed. However, this raises a critical point for hemp producers - the necessity in reporting their acreage and production and marketing data to USDA Farm Service Agency. As Panxchange, a hemp industry commodity trading platform, recently reported, underreporting by hemp producers continues to pose an obstacle for hemp in the United States.

As someone who has travelled through much of Northern California, and gotten to see this beautiful land and the cannabis cultivated on it, West Coast cannabis cultivation poses a great dilemma. We know that the cannabis plant thrives in mountainous regions, as this is where the genus botanically originated in Asia. Aside from being advantageous for black market growers to evade detection from law enforcement, from a geographic and agricultural perspective, Northern California is an ideal location for growing cannabis cultivation - whether that be cannabis or industrial hemp. In fact, many folks claim that certain flavor and cannabinoid profiles that result from cannabis grown in North California, simply cannot be replicated. It’s just something in the air.

Yet, fires come with territory and there is very little way to avoid the liability they pose, especially to folks who are already taking a risk or are all in on this burgeoning industry. We celebrate all of the brave folks who are out there fighting these fires and putting their lives on the line to contain them from continuing to wreak havoc. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all who have been evacuated from their homes and whose livelihoods have been shaken to their core. In a year like this, that has consistently posed tragedy after tragedy, I can’t help but think - it takes all you got just to stay on the beat.

Written By: Robert Hoban

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