Wild Fires Are Burning Up Millions of Dollars of Weed. But Don't Inhale, Experts Warn

BY JARED GILMOUR

Santa Rosa firefighters work on a fire in Santa Rosa, Calif. Cannabis farms in Mendocino, Sonoma and Napa counties have all been impacted by the fires. Jeff Chiu AP

Santa Rosa firefighters work on a fire in Santa Rosa, Calif. Cannabis farms in Mendocino, Sonoma and Napa counties have all been impacted by the fires. Jeff Chiu AP

As wildfires rage across California, much of the state’s legal marijuana crop is going up in flames.

“The news is bad and it will get worse,” said California Growers Association Executive Director Hezekiah Allen. “As the crisis is ongoing it is hard to estimate total losses, though at this point I can confidently say that crop losses are in the tens of millions at least.”

Seven farms — and possibly more — have been lost so far, Allen told the Los Angeles Times.

That number could get much, much higher in coming days, growers say. The fires have already killed more than 20 across the state and have left thousands of structures in ruins. Cannabis farms in Mendocino, Sonoma and Napa counties have all been impacted, according to CNN.

“We have a lot of people who have lost their farms in the last 36 hours, and their homes,” Tawnie Logan, chair of the Sonoma County Growers Alliance, told SFGate on Tuesday.

Some California farmers in the traditionally grape-growing region of the state have been switching from vineyards to cannabis fields since the state legalized marijuana, the Sacramento Bee reports. And the math, for growers, is simple: An acre of Napa County grapes can bring in $356,000, the Bee reports, while an acre of ‘NorCal bud’ could rake in $1.1 million.

Legal cannabis sales are set to begin in California in January.

Because federal law prohibits marijuana sales, growers don’t qualify for insurance or federal disaster relief aid. So even though marijuana is one of the fastest growing industries in the country, according to CBS — yielding as much as $11 billion in revenue by 2019 — growers can’t legally get their farms insured, despite more and more states legalizing the drug for recreational and medicinal use.

“If their facilities burn down, a lot of these people won’t be able to get any economic relief for them from an insurance claim,” Derek Peterson, CEO of Terra Tech, a company that grows and sells cannabis, told CNN. “It’s a tremendous risk for these people.”

Peterson told CNN that the average California cannabis farmer has put $5 million into building up their operation. Planting the crop alone can run as much as $3 million, he said.

What happens when those cannabis crops do go up in smoke, though? Don’t expect a contact high, California Growers Association director Allen says.

“The residents won’t get high,” Allen told the Guardian two years ago, during an earlier set of wildfires. “Basically, you’d get sick from [inhaling] other things.”

California’s fire protection department told the Guardian that breathing in any wildfire smoke is likely to expose residents to harmful substances that are being burned — even if there’s a whiff of marijuana in the air.