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Fresno County California

Pot in Prison? Growers Want to Use Lockup

Fresno County isn’t exactly known for its love of marijuana. All cultivation is banned in unincorporated parts of the county, even for medical use. So are cannabis dispensaries.

Claremont Custody Center, CoalingaBut one town in this decidedly conservative part of California wants to buck the trend and welcome the marijuana industry to town. Specifically, to the now empty Claremont Custody Center in Coalinga.

A Southern California company named Ocean Growth Extracts has filed a petition with Coalinga city officials seeking to turn the 77,000-square-foot jail into a massive factory for growing cannabis and making hash oil.

The city in the San Joaquin Valley is known elsewhere for its large crude oil field. But it’s also home to two large lockups: Claremont and the Pleasant Valley State Prison.

Coalinga is financially struggling

Both facilities have long been big employers in Coalinga, along with petroleum. But with Claremont vacant and oil prices plunging, city leaders are seriously considering Ocean Grow’s proposal, which could employ 100 people full time.

The plan was submitted in March to Coalinga Mayor Ron Ramsey and City Manager Marissa Trejo. Company executives explained the potential upside of the plan at a city council meeting in early March.

A lease on the jail could generate almost $2 million in local taxes and fees, the company said. And if California votes to legalize marijuana for recreation in November, the number of full-time jobs with benefits could double.

The city moved in January to break from the anti-cannabis trend in Fresno County and allow cultivation and delivery services within city limits. Coalinga Police Chief Michael Salvador opposed the decision, but Ocean Grow agreed to work with him if given the lease, Trejo said.

The former jail would be equipped with security cameras linked directly to the police department, and the company has agreed to perform criminal background checks on all employees. First Ocean Grow would have to obtain a license from the city.

Cultivating cannabis for dispensaries

The facility would be used both to grow marijuana plants and to make hash oil and other cannabis concentrates. Those products would be sold wholesale to medical marijuana dispensaries and, if legalization passes, to retail pot shops.

City officials and Casey Dalton, a representative of Ocean Grow, confirmed ongoing discussions. But most of the people involved refused to give much detail about the proposal.

Hash OilCoalinga was never big on marijuana, but the city has been shedding jobs for years. The plunge in oil prices and the closing of Claremont have put residents in a tight economic bind, said Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Keough.

“People are hurting,” Keough said. “The oil industry is losing jobs. We’re talking about 100 full-time jobs, and no dope in the streets.”

That’s because marijuana businesses in Coalinga cannot sell their pot in town. There are no legal dispensaries in Fresno County, including Coalinga. But a new hash oil plant could pump money into the local economy and city coffers, which are short $3.3 million.

“One company could take us out of the red in three years,” Keough said.

The oil industry crisis has hit Coalinga hard. The city began as a small mining town atop a crude oil reserve discovered in the 1890s, and petroleum has been its central industry ever since.

Aera Energy of Bakersfield, the company that draws oil from Coalinga ground, is still operational, though it employs only about 40 people. The company claims employment is down only slightly, but the city’s bottom line doesn’t see it that way.

Tell us: Are there any California jails or prisons you’d like to see used for cannabis cultivation? Comment below.

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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