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County Looks to Marijuana to Rebound After Wildfires

Thomas Liberty lost nearly everything in September 2015, when the disastrous Butte fire swept his property in Northern California’s interior. But the worst loss may have been his marijuana garden.

Thomas Liberty, Mountain Range, California“It just hurts to see it,” Liberty told The Sacramento Bee while surveying his homestead. The fire, the seventh largest in California history, burned 71,000 acres, incinerated 860 structures – and has already led to a loosening of local cannabis regulations.

In May, officials in Calaveras County voted to pass an emergency ordinance allowing commercial pot grows of up to one-quarter acre on land of at least 2 acres. Half-acre gardens are now allowed on 4-acre properties.

Relaxing cultivation limits

The county’s board of supervisors eased cultivation limits in response to the devastation that leveled Liberty’s small farm – and many others like it. The economic impact of that economic loss could prove substantial over time.

Liberty, 52, said his house wasn’t much to look at, though the surroundings were incredible: It came with an unbeatable view of the dense green California forests that give the nearby Emerald Triangle its name. But it was the cannabis garden that made him happy, he said. He hoped to sell the pot to dispensaries and use the money to fund his retirement.

But the Butte fire torched Liberty’s entire property, turning “our little heaven on Earth” to ashes, he said. No trees, no bushes, no marijuana plants remain.

California Wildfire
The Butte wildfire in California burned 71,000 acres of land in 2015.

Liberty, a retired Air Force psychiatric technician and counselor, is a medical marijuana activist in the area. He lived on the property with his wife, Lauren, and had just added dozens of plants to their farm. He planned to sell the weed in Calaveras and Santa Rosa, but the harvest burned before he could gather it.

County supervisors are expected to cement the new regulations with a second reading of the ordinance later this year. Calaveras County previously had no specific rules governing outdoor marijuana cultivation.

The new acreage allowances are larger than those in any other county but Humboldt, the heart of Northern California’s cannabis-growing region. There, new commercial marijuana growers are allowed to plant nearly a quarter acre, while existing cultivators may plant up to an acre.

Boost to the local economy

Cannabis advocates in Calaveras County turned to two somewhat contradictory claims in pushing for the generous new rules. First, they argued legal grows could boost a struggling economy, especially in the aftermath of the fire. On the other hand, they said, big corporations hungry for a taste of the cannabis market might try to buy up scorched land before locals have a chance to rebuild.

Supervisors passed the ordinance 4-1 with hopes it would solve both problems at once. The new law requires that land owners who were already growing cannabis as of May 10 enroll in the new program by July 30 and pay a $5,000 yearly fee.

Liberty said he’s not the only local marijuana farmer to apply after the fire destroyed his plants. And some locals planted their first crops shortly after the blaze, hoping to soften the financial blow of the disaster.

“It’s a very weird part of the recovery,” Liberty said. He has applied for two grow permits covering two properties, including his home, he said. “We had a lot of people lose their homes and possessions, and they either had insufficient insurance or no insurance at all. And many people saw this as a way of coming back.”

About Matt Brooks

Based in San Francisco, Matt is a journalist who has specialized in marijuana policy for more than five years. He provides regular news coverage on marijuanaandthelaw.com and californiamarijuanamarket.com.

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