Monday, June 18, 2018

Landscape in Transition: Jackson County, Post-Legalization

Oregon's legal marijuana market is bringing change to Southern Oregon's picturesque Applegate Valley, a longstanding epicenter of cannabis cultivation in the US.

When I visited southwest Oregon in August 2015, the region’s rolling hills and lush valleys were home to dozens of illegal marijuana grows. Back then, medical marijuana was legal and a recreational marijuana measure had just taken effect, but the state’s regulatory apparatus had not yet kicked in. So although cannabis was a boon for the local economy, cultivation was not regulated, and residents had to deal with an array of side-effects, including mysterious and threatening strangers, obnoxious lights and fans, and menacing guard dogs.

Three years later, Oregon officials are still wrangling the state’s fledgling legal market in cannabis, one that has proven to come with just as many social, environmental, and economic consequences as the black market it attempts to replace.

Chelsea Rose has lived amongst these growers for more than a decade. An archaeologist at Southern Oregon University in Medford, Rose is witnessing firsthand what many other communities are experiencing across the country: she’s watching her backyard transition from a smattering of hidden, ramshackle gardens into the polished, professional landscape of legal weed.

As detailed in the final chapter of my book, Grass Roots, Rose took me on a fascinating tour of southern Oregon’s Applegate Valley—one of the nation’s cannabis-farming hotspots—in 2015. I recently caught up with her on the phone to see how things have changed in the valley.

Small, secretive grow ops like this one are disappearing around the 
Applegate Valley, largely due to competition from bigger legal grows.
Several years ago, many of the valley’s growers were not farmers by profession; rather, they were opportunists trying to make a lot of money on a short-term investment in black-market cannabis. Caught between their own inexperience and the clandestine nature of their activity, many of these growers clear-cut properties, leveled hillsides, diverted water from streams and wells, and improperly used and disposed of dangerous substances like pesticides and diesel fuel.

“Every time a neighbor moved or sold you dreaded who would come in,” Rose said. “Everyone was looking toward short-term goals, to make as much money as possible.”

Three years later, Rose is noticing that the mysterious backwoods grower has given way to the licensed ganjapreneur—no less an opportunist, but on balance a more responsible one. Licensed by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, legal cannabis cultivators are setting up shop all over the region. Nearly 300 producers are licensed in Jackson County alone, easily the largest number in the state.

“Now that there’s so much more competition and the price is dropping, this gets into regular farm stuff: you have to be able to grow more with less. You can’t add a lot of time and expense by farming on a sloped piece of land, for example,” Rose said.

Oregon’s state law requires cannabis producers to have water rights before it grants a license, discouraging the once-common practice of growers diverting water from streams and wells. Regulations also require all cannabis crops to be tested for banned pesticides, a list of which is maintained by the state Department of Agriculture.

With legal producers snapping up some of the best agricultural land along the Applegate River, Rose said that the obnoxious and sometimes menacing neighborhood growers have mostly gone away.

“There’s not as much impact to the neighborhoods,” she said. “There’s still a lot of dogs. But the lights and fans and fences are gone.”

Gone too are the crowds of bohemian trimmers who used to come in every summer, Rose said. Mechanical trimmers and the state’s million-pound marijuana glut have largely put them out of work.

The overproduction of marijuana has also presented a new challenge to southern Oregon’s army of cannabis producers: how to survive as prices crash through the floor?

Many growers are finding relief in hemp, the non-psychoactive version of cannabis. Unlike marijuana plants, which contain high amounts of the psychoactive compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), hemp plants contain high levels of cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive compound that is becoming a hugely popular therapeutic option all over the cannabis-friendly West.

Image result for cbd shops medford oregon
CBD products - derived from nonpsychoactive
cannabis plants - are becoming more popular
in the legal cannabis market.
“CBD is a growing market; you can do a lot of value-added products with that. It’s kind of cool to see all the different things people are coming up with, from soda to oil to cookies,” Rose said. “Also, the market is international. You don’t have to just keep it in the state. So if you get a hemp license, you can access the wide market.”

In response to the oversupply of marijuana, Oregon regulators stopped approving new production licenses in May 2018, but there are currently no plans to cap the total number of producer licenses.

The high demand for CBD products may present Oregon with the opportunity to cap marijuana-specific licenses and award more hemp licenses, but that would mean turning away the hundreds of businesses that have already applied for marijuana cultivation licenses.

While the state sorts out that sticky situation, Rose is optimistic that the Applegate Valley’s many agricultural industries can unify for the greater good of the region.

“Until some of the kinks get ironed out, there’s still a lot of confusion over what can happen,” Rose said. “Some of the farm associations have been trying to work with weed growers and create a dialogue between weed and wine farming—how can we make this work for everybody? How can we move forward in a way that’s sustainable? … I think everybody realizes that this is an economic opportunity for the region. How can we make it work so it can benefit the whole county?”