I recently attended a cannabis trade show in Desert Hot Springs to see how the recreational industry is faring three months in. Desert Hot Springs is the white hot center of it all in the Southland. This once little town that couldn’t – Palm Springs’ destitute and crime-ridden neighbor to the north – is now the town that cann-abis – and does.
In 2014 DHS found itself with just $400 in the bank, a victim of the recession, depressed property values, and drug and gang problems so pervasive the city had to call in the National Guard for back-up. They had to cut city employees and wages. “We looked at various options and decided to open the door to cannabis,” says then and current Mayor Scott Matas. “I was opposed at the beginning. But when I started discussing the medical side of it with people in the community , many of them elderly, sensible businessmen who had been helped in their pain relief by marijuana, I changed my mind.”
These days the city needs the National Guard to haul all the cash around. Businesspeople from LA, San Diego, and as far off as Canada and New York are coming in droves and planting roots – both in the community - and in their grow facilities. Acreage that once sold for $7,000 is now fetching as much as $200,000.
Today there are 8 cultivation facilities with another 12 under construction. A total of 67 CUP’s have been issued for over 10 million square feet of grow, with another 4 in process that would add another 4.5 million sf. There’s also 8 dispensaries open, with another 8 on the way. They envision bud friendly lodging (“Soak and Toke,” anyone?), tasting rooms, canna-lounges. Events and festivals. What’s this doing for the city? Everything.
Their annual budget is $15 million. Within 3 years cannabis tax revenue will easily surpass it (it’s projected at $5 million this year). Not to mention jobs created, real estate appreciation, and new money for cops, fireman, parks and education. All the things that lift community up - and make it safer. Because with all this cannabis, crime is actually down. Palm Springs is now more dangerous.
The trade show was about as vanilla looking a crowd as a Kenny G concert. I’ve seen more sinister looking people at a Kiwanis convention. Many were longtime residents looking for a way into the industry. Others were growers, investors, and of course, lawyers, lots of lawyers.
The culmination of the show was an after party at the home of the association’s president. He was on the tony side of town, up a hill with a gorgeous view of Palm Springs and the San Jacinto Mountains. Kind of like looking at the Manhattan skyline from New Jersey. But on this night, a certain giddiness and good cheer flowed – a sense that just this once we were on the right side of the Valley. Out back an Indy Rock band stood defiant on the top deck, hair blasting in the infamous desert wind, wailing unrelenting. This was a party.
A former Humboldt County pot farmer who now traffics in grow technology told me he had closed acres of deals, and was moving his company here immediately. He offered some real contraband – Cuban cigars. “Northern California was dead,” he said.
And that gnawed at me. Pot was always an outdoor crop, grown until recently in sun-drenched places like Jamaica, Columbia, Mexico and Thailand. Then Northern California horticulturists perfected it in places like Humboldt, Mendocino, and Santa Cruz Counties, growing some of the stickiest, ickiest, dankest bud on the planet. Why would we then “Frankenweed it” with artificial lights and cooling systems, bereft of soil or natural light, bolstered with chemical additives, in some of the bleakest, hottest places on earth? Why wouldn’t we just let the pioneers – many of whom risked (and lost) their freedom to the crop they so fiercely believed in – convert their black market grows to the legal green rush?
As always, follow the big money. The funds, investors, VC’s. The guys with cash to invest. And the connections. The ones who can make the big land deals, build outs, scale, distribute, and turn and burn a crop as quickly as possible by fooling it into believing 60 days is a full season. It reminded me of free range chickens versus those raised in captivity, toe to toe, never seeing daylight. Which do you think is better for you?
As Martin Luther King once said, “I have been the mountaintop, and I’ve seen the promised land.” For cannabis lovers, it’s towering, 15’ plants with thick, fragrant buds reaching for the sky and swaying gently in the Humboldt sun. Will this glorious sight give way to rows of stunted industrial cross-breeds, raised in parched Coachella Valley? It already has.