The Napa Valley of Cannabis: Can sungrown marijuana become a tourist attraction?

Prior to the fall harvest, CannaSol Farms was packed with flowering cannabis plants. Photo by Andre Dayani.

Prior to the fall harvest, CannaSol Farms was packed with flowering cannabis plants. Photo by Andre Dayani.

By Andre Dayani

For years, Napa Valley has been heralded as the wine capital of the United States. The combination of exceptional grapes, picturesque landscapes and a renowned tourism industry have made Napa not only a prolific wine producer but also a global destination for travelers.

Now that marijuana has been legalized in Washington and Colorado, and several more states are on the horizon, it begs the question: Will there ever be a Napa Valley of Cannabis?

In the Pacific Northwest, Eastern Washington already features a thriving wine industry. Is marijuana next?

Cannabis cultivation in Eastern Washington already sets itself apart from anywhere else because of one important reason — the advent of legal, regulated, retail, outdoor-grown marijuana. But does the sunnier side of Washington have the other qualities necessary to become the marijuana capital of the United States?

To become the Napa Valley of Cannabis, Eastern Washington must have marijuana producers who create a world-class product, regulations must sensibly support the burgeoning industry, and the community must be willing to embrace the industry and a tourist-friendly environment.

 

Part I: Eastern Washington is the New Home of Sungrown Marijuana

Napa Valley’s wine is world-class because of its unique taste, rich history and renowned quality. Eastern Washington’s claim to fame, besides its own incredible wine, could eventually be its sungrown marijuana.

What exactly is sungrown marijuana? It is what the name implies: marijuana that is grown in the sun. But to the growers who have embraced it, sungrown is so much more.

Within the chain-linked gates of CannaSol Farms, fields of sungrown marijuana are blossoming in the early fall. At first glance, the farm looks like a winery, but instead of grapes, there are marijuana buds. Rows upon rows of flowering cannabis are neatly filed, containing plants up to seven feet tall; sophisticated irrigation systems line the edges of the rows; white cotton strings support the stalks that are too heavy with flowers to support themselves.

Visitors of the farm are instantly awestruck. They whisper to each other with smiles on their faces, some of them call the farm beautiful. Overhead, a light breeze pushes the low-hanging clouds across the sky, and the sun slowly churns toward the mountainous horizon. Okanogan County’s air is crisp, fresh and pollutant-free; the greens of the trees are a vivid emerald, and for miles, you see the jagged, blood-orange tops of the Cascade Mountains.

Ten bud-harvesters are in the field, squeezing giant colas to check their maturity, while trimming excess leaves. The fall has almost arrived and that means the harvest is imminent.

“We hope for close to 2,000 pounds of marijuana this harvest,” Jeremy Moberg says while running his empty hand through his hair. Moberg is the owner of CannaSol Farms, located in the small town of Omak, in the central valley of Okanogan County. To shade his face, Moberg holds his clipboard above his head; he looks down the fields of marijuana and makes a face that looks like a mix of pride and anguish. Not long ago, his operation would have been a drug enforcement agent’s dream drug bust. Today, at the market rate of $4,000 per pound, Moberg plans to legally sell CannaSol’s ton of marijuana to Washington retailers for $8 million.

Moberg has become a rock-star of outdoor cannabis production because of his growing prowess. He’s been cultivating marijuana for the past 20 years, and consults regularly for a number of other growers. That’s not to say that everyone loves him; he’s made more than a few enemies because of his outspoken beliefs and renegade style.

Whatever the perception of him is, he’s been successful at getting what he wants. When Washington’s Initiative 502 was approved by voters in November of 2012, the Washington State Liquor Control Board didn’t even consider permitting outdoor grows. The board cited the inherent security risk and heavy public scrutiny such open-air marijuana farms would draw. Safety is the same reason Colorado restricts cannabis cultivation to indoor or enclosed facilities (like greenhouses). But after months of lobbying by Moberg and other outdoor growers, the Liquor Control Board amended its rules to permit pure outdoor marijuana farms.

At that point, government-regulated, retail-ready, sungrown marijuana was born.

 

Sungrown Marijuana has Age-Old Roots

Americans have grown cannabis since the country’s founding. For many years, especially those during war, the government encouraged production of hemp to manufacture rope, sails and clothing. Cannabis, like any other plant, was grown outdoors, harnessing the natural powers of the sun, wind and earth.

But the War on Drugs changed everything. Beginning in 1971, President Richard Nixon dramatically increased federal drug-control agencies, labeled marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug (the most prohibitive drug category), and began mandatory criminal sentencing for drug-related crimes. Drug hysteria reached its all-time high in the 1980s when President Ronald Reagan spurred numerous legislative policies to significantly increase prison penalties for drug possession and cultivation. The number of people incarcerated for non-violent, drug-related crimes went from 50,000 in 1980 to more than 400,000 in 1997.

Marijuana was pushed underground, largely and ironically, to the benefit of cartels and illegal growing operations. Drug cartels profited tremendously from smuggling low-grade, pesticide-ridden marijuana across the porous United States border. Meanwhile in the U.S., cannabis production was driven indoors because of growers’ fears of police seizure or theft. Sunlight was replaced with high-intensity light-bulbs, wind was mimicked by ventilators and fans, and every aspect of growing became carefully controlled. As a result of the underground marijuana culture, indoor growing technologies grew at an astounding rate, while outdoor techniques remained largely forgotten.

But times are changing quickly. In 1996, California became the first state in the nation to allow the possession and cultivation of marijuana for medical use. Since then, a total of 23 states and the District of Columbia have removed the criminal sanctions for the medical use of marijuana.

Some growers in these states have started outdoor growing operations, only to be eventually shut down because of the constant threat of federal intervention.

Then in 2012, two states — Washington and Colorado — took an entirely new direction: ending marijuana prohibition for all adults, not just medical patients, and taxing marijuana like alcohol or tobacco. Now any person over 21 in Washington and Colorado is a potential consumer, and this huge new customer base demands another new direction for marijuana—a move back into the sunshine.

 

Sungrown cannabis is not synonymous with ‘outdoor grown’

The drive from Seattle to Eastern Washington passes through mountainous terrain, large pastures, and orchards of fruits and vegetables. Multiple wineries along the route offer free tastings and tours. Large white windmills pepper the hills, slowly scraping the sky; nearby, dams corral the huge inflow of water from the Cascade Mountains and to the north in the Canadian Rockies. Together these alternative energy sources harvest enough energy to power cities.

The sun beats strong overhead during the late summer months at CannaSol Farms, located in Okanogan County. “The sun is the greatest light source of all,” Moberg explains. “For too long we’ve deprived these plants from their natural habitat.”

“Outdoor grown” might not be the best way to describe what some cannabis producers are accomplishing. These growers are holding themselves to higher standards, expectations and quality than what many people associate with “outdoor grown” marijuana. In order to differentiate themselves, these growers call their product sungrown marijuana. Sungrown represents a return to the “natural” cultivation of marijuana — high-quality, organic ingredients, locally-sourced water and pure sunshine.

Eastern Washington is becoming the epicenter of sungrown cannabis for a number of reasons: Washington was the first state to license purely outdoor cultivation of retail marijuana; compared to the west side of the state, Eastern Washington has relatively cheap land that is zoned for agricultural use; and the sun shines more on the eastern side of the state. Under these conditions, the future of sungrown marijuana in Eastern Washington is looking brighter than ever.

“Outdoor growing has been stereotyped for what it used to be,” Moberg says. “Today, the first thing people think of when they hear ‘outdoor grown,’ is guerilla-style grows, hidden in forests, often unattended, never tested, nor regulated.”

But after I-502 paved the way for licensed marijuana cultivation, outdoor growers can now operate on a different scale and entirely new potential; growers like CannaSol function like advanced agriculture.

CannaSol prides itself on using organic soils and fertilizers. The farm draws its water from the wells installed on the property, and the plants sustain solely on sun, without the aid of artificial lighting. Moberg wants other growers who call themselves sungrowers to adopt similar practices. That way, sungrown will become representative of a certain type of product, a minimum standard for cultivation. Moberg wants to treat the label similar to how the food industry uses “organic.” “Customers need to know what to expect from the label; somebody shouldn’t be able to tarnish the sungrown name,” says Moberg, who is also president of the Washington Sungrowers Industry Association.

Sungrown should represent a consistent brand image and quality, Moberg says.

However, in a certain regard, sungrowers are at a disadvantage in the marketplace because their product lacks the “bag appeal” of their indoor-growing counterparts. Indoor cannabis is groomed to perfection, carefully monitored and nurtured. Meanwhile, sungrown cannabis is like the wolf compared to a trained hunting dog. Sungrown cannabis is a product of its environment, beholden to the sun, perpetually threatened by the possibility of an untimely rainstorm or frost.

Yet, the differences of sungrown compared to indoor marijuana should be celebrated.

With the proliferation of new potential customers, the industry cannot sustain itself without the contribution of outdoor-cultivated marijuana. A 2011 study, cited most notably in the Seattle Times, found that the energy necessary to grow one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of indoor marijuana, produces 2.8 metric tons of carbon-dioxide. For scale, that is the equivalent to driving across the country (in a 44 mpg car) nearly five times. One marijuana joint, according to the study, is the equivalent to lighting a 100-watt light-bulb for 17 hours.

Although some argue the researchers in the study unfairly represented its conclusions, the basic fact remains: as the consumer market for marijuana expands, the indoor and outdoor growing operations must coexist and supplement one another.

Furthermore, regulators in other states should take note to encourage and not oppose sustainable-growth practices like sungrown cannabis. Eastern Washington, and its utilization of the power of the sun, wind and earth, is incredibly important for the longevity of the legalized marijuana industry.

 

The Foundation of Sungrown is Eastern Washington’s ‘Terroir’

Like wine, cannabis plants have the ability to reflect the environmental conditions that raised them. Napa Valley’s soil, sun and climate blend to create a world-revered grape.

“The same works with marijuana,” says Michael “Buffalo” Mazzetti, a medical marijuana grower also based in Okanogan County. “Each sungrown marijuana plant in Eastern Washington becomes a product of the local soil, the northern breeze, the fresh water from the Cascades.

“My patients can taste Okanogan in my sungrown marijuana.”

Wine enthusiasts call the environmental factors that make up a grape’s unique properties the “terroir.” Like any agricultural crop, sungrown marijuana also becomes a reflection of its growing environment: local soil, water, wind and sun exposure (even growing latitudes can make a difference for a plant’s growth) are factors that play into each plant’s composition.

Therefore, each sungrown plant has its own sort of fingerprint. If those natural variations can be heralded (look to the wine industry for guidance), then outdoor marijuana may one day be as diverse and unique as the grapes in wine country.

The marijuana buds of Eastern Washington will have different properties than those grown in California or Oregon. The varieties of outdoor marijuana, like grapes, can be exhaustive — and since it is such a resilient plant that can grow in just about any environment, the potential of sungrown cannabis is unimaginable.

It also represents a new step for the marijuana industry: the reintroduction of geographically-sourced strains.

All over the world, appellation systems exist to protect geographically-sourced goods. These systems provide a series of regulations that ensure that region-specific products (such as cheese or wine) are protected and regulated. In order for goods to adopt certain titles, they must be derived from the region and must meet certain production standards.

Think of sparkling wine. In order for producers to label it champagne, it must be manufactured with grapes grown in the Champagne region of France, and it must meet the minimum standards set by officials in the province.

Examples of the appellation protections are already plentiful, including several varieties of Brie cheese in France, tequila in Mexico and an assortment of food products in the U.S.

Why not apply protections and minimum standards for region-specific marijuana, such as Eastern Washington SunGrown?

If the current wave of marijuana decriminalization continues, strains that were popularized decades ago — Maui Waui, for instance — could one day be sourced and regulated by their namesake communities.

Eastern Washington already touts the sought-after product; the next step is the legal foundation to build a marijuana empire.

 

Part II: Regulations Must Sensibly Support the Burgeoning Marijuana Industry

Although Eastern Washington has the potential to become the Napa Valley of Cannabis, many growers and retail operators still face steep regulatory challenges.

First, even though Washington law permits marijuana possession, the plant remains illegal under federal law. According to the 1970 Controlled Substance Act, the federal government still classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, the most restricted category of drugs that have “no currently acceptable medical use.” The category also includes heroin, LSD and ecstasy (cocaine and raw opium are considered Schedule 2 drugs).

The label is significant because a number of agricultural resources are federally governed, including, for example, the use of federal irrigation waters. In May of 2014, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation issued a “temporary policy” forbidding marijuana growers from using any federally reclaimed waters.

If the bureau suspects that an I-502 grower is using such irrigation water, the bureau will notify the Department of Justice. The penalties that the Department of Justice would administer in such a case are unclear, but many growers aren’t taking the risk.

At CannaSol, the farm draws from multiple wells installed on the property. But installing and maintaining wells, as many growers know, can be a nightmare; the property must sit on or close to an underground water basin, drillers must be able to find that basin, and the costs of installation can skyrocket into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Second, the federal Schedule 1 classification still causes absurd financing issues. Growing operations can be costly, requiring large amounts of capital to purchase properties, supplies and build out facilities. Banks have been unwilling to lend money — or in some cases even offer basic services — to marijuana businesses, state-licensed or otherwise. Credit is not an option because banks treat marijuana sales according to the federal law. Banks could potentially lose their FDIC protections, or even face criminal accomplice charges, should the government ever enforce federal drug laws.

Although lawmakers have hinted toward legislation that would open the door to traditional banking for the marijuana industries in Washington and Colorado, nothing yet has come to fruition.

Many businesses continue to operate on a cash-only basis, leading to transactions that are not only difficult to track but also dangerous to collect. Sungrowers, like CannaSol, that operate on a large fall harvest scale, sell marijuana by bulk starting in October. They are forced to transport hundreds of pounds of marijuana in their vehicles to retailers; after the sale, they must carry back thousands of dollars to their business. Banks’ credit-restrictions are forcing the industry to operate outside the laws’ protections.

Luckily though, the banking issues may be alleviated soon. Some local banks are taking on marijuana production/retail businesses without any concealment — at a premium cost. Since banks may lose their federal insurance on marijuana transactions, they are passing the increased risk to customers in the form of higher transaction fees. Regardless, anything is better than operating cash-only; the days of hiding thousands of dollars in shoeboxes might be gone.

And finally, the regulations regarding outdoor cultivation have not caught up with reality. But the Liquor Control Board is not entirely to blame; no state in the nation has gone through the process of regulating outdoor marijuana cultivation. The current rules, including testing requirements, are stringent on outdoor grows because they are based on indoor-cultivation regulations where some contaminants like dust are not an issue.

If outdoor growing is going to continue, Moberg of CannaSol Farms argues for a compromise between growers and the quality-assurance requirements. He suggests the Liquor Control Board should give testing laboratories more discretion in their safety testing standards.

“The labs know what is dangerous to consumers and what is harmless; regulators need to trust the science,” he said.

 

Part III: Who will embrace cannabis tourism?

“Prohibition never works as well as regulation and control.” — Judge Jim Gray, retired California Drug Court judge

Despite the approval of voters and the passage of Initiative 502, Eastern Washington continues to be — at best — a hesitant participant in the world of legalized marijuana.

In January of 2014, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson issued an opinion stating that according to I-502, local governments may choose to allow or ban marijuana establishments. As a consequence, municipalities across the state have continued to outlaw marijuana establishments, fearing that these businesses will attract a criminal element and increase teen marijuana dependency. Much of the anti-cannabis rhetoric continues to sound like “Reefer Madness” propaganda.

The Eastern Washington cities and counties that staunchly oppose the proliferation of the marijuana industry are stifling the state’s potential to lead the marijuana industry. Not only are these communities failing to set the tone of the new cannabis industry, they are also allowing for black-market marijuana to persevere.

However, that fear-based argument appears doomed. The prohibitionist mentality — the “not in my community” mantra — has already failed. Look at the past 30 years of the War on Drugs. Has stringent policing, mandatory drug sentencing, and prohibition curtailed marijuana use and trade? No. According to a study published in 2010, marijuana was the most used and imported illegal substance in the world. Communities that ban regulated marijuana establishments are, in effect, supporting the unregulated, black market.

Think of the argument in terms of alcohol. During Prohibition in the 1920s, Americans made moonshine because they couldn’t legally purchase alcohol. The fact that alcohol was prohibited didn’t stop people from drinking; instead, they turned to moonshine and bathtub gin. After Prohibition ended, people largely stopped drinking black-market spirits.

Like alcohol, cannabis purchasers should know the source of their marijuana, whether it has been tested for pesticides or other intoxicants, and whether vendors are only selling to individuals who are at least 21 years old.

Until local communities allow such markets, consumers will continue to illegally buy marijuana.

A common critique of retail cannabis is its prohibitively high cost compared to medical marijuana or black-market products. Many industry officials argue that the high costs are caused by the lack of supply. If growers and retailers were more abundant, giving greater access to different communities, the availability of regulated marijuana will increase, and retail prices could compete with the unregulated markets.

Washington has a chance to end the nation’s prohibitionist mentality. The state has already done so in its laws; now it’s time to end the mentality in its practices. Eastern Washington could be a pioneer in the green industry by controlling cannabis production and availability, educating local communities on responsible use, and developing a new agricultural empire.

 

Industry’s expansion is more than possible, it’s imminent

The marijuana industry is leaping into a new age. During the War on Drugs, marijuana could only exist in the fringes of society; professionals dodged the question during interviews, parents lied to their children, the president of the United States claimed he never inhaled. Today, the landscape has changed.

New retail stores are pitching cannabis to a new demographic. It’s steadily becoming more socially acceptable. Professionals, local men and women, young and old, and tourists from everywhere in the world, are lining up at retailers across Washington and Colorado.

Small towns can imagine the possibility by looking to Napa Valley: professionally managed, methodically organized, clean, upscale retail experiences; tourism officials with strong business acumen; products that can be consumed socially.

Towns can also strictly control and monitor retailers. If regulated retail shops begin to outnumber black-market sellers, small communities can better restrict minors’ access to marijuana.

There’s no doubt that an individual city or county, or an entire region will emerge as the focal point of cannabis tourism.

Seattle and Denver have the big-city appeal, but Colorado doesn’t allow outdoor grows and Western Washington doesn’t have an ideal climate for sungrown cannabis. Great wine alone didn’t create Napa Valley; the sheer beauty of the land helped establish it as a destination.

Southern Oregon and California’s “Emerald Triangle” may be outdoor growing havens, but as of yet, neither state has legalized marijuana for non-medical adult use.

Eastern Washington has a chance to dictate how cannabis culture develops nationally. Local communities can reasonably tailor the industry to its liking while kick-starting an economic surge.

But time is of the essence for Eastern Washington. Oregon and Alaska are on the cusp of legalization, and their industries might be more receptive of the cannabis super-crop. If Eastern Washington is slow to embrace legalized cannabis, it will be left on the fringes, and the tourism potential could vanish entirely.

There is no better time than now for Eastern Washington to become the Napa Valley of Cannabis.

Andre Dayani is an attorney specializing in marijuana law and a staff writer for Marijuana Venture. He can be reached at Andre@gmail.com.

 

 

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