‘Cannabis will be everywhere’

 In Legalization

The Washington Post / By Scott Wilson / Dec 28, 2017

California towns scramble to prepare for legal marijuana on Jan. 1

In the high desert of eastern California, where a two-lane road and the rail tracks cross, sits a cluster of buildings that date to the turn of the last century.

There is a small hotel, a 10-table restaurant, a general store. A backhoe kicked up tan dust amid the sheds and trailers where about 30 people live.

Once a thriving gold-mining town, Nipton is now an experiment.

The nation’s largest publicly traded marijuana company, American Green, recently bought the town for $5 million, with plans to develop a “cannabis-driven” resort on the edge of the Mojave.

The investment represents the promise some see in an expanding marijuana economy once the drug, on Jan. 1, becomes legal for recreational use in the nation’s most-populous state.

“This is the Hotel California,” said Stephen Shearin, a nomadic entrepreneur who manages the project here, reciting the lyrics of the Eagles song as he walked the site.

The company will double the size of the five-room Nipton Hotel, and the Whistlestop Cafe is being redone. Camping will be encouraged, and Shearin said the company will add to the half-dozen tents on raised platforms already in place.

The old schoolhouse will host yoga and painting classes, dancing lessons, and flora and fauna lectures. An amphitheater amid the eucalyptus will open out toward the hills for concerts, and an evening bonfire will feature glass-blowing displays, creating a mix of Burning Man and Club Med far from most civilization.

“Cannabis will be everywhere, if you want it,” Shearin said. “You want to smoke a fatty? You want to dab? You do that. But don’t blow smoke on a family that’s enjoying the scenery.”

There is another sentiment prevalent on the eve of the law’s change: concern. A four-hour drive west along a pair of desert highways ends in Oildale, near the city of Bakersfield, in a county that glows red on maps showing the prevalence of drugs.

The Kern County Board of Supervisors voted recently to forbid the sale of cannabis, underscoring the risk some communities see with the ready availability of marijuana, a drug the federal government still classifies in the same category as heroin.

The conflicting views, shaped by geography and local history, have sharpened to a point since Californians voted last year to make marijuana, an outlawed if thriving cash crop for decades, legal for adult use and small-scale cultivation.

Those with a medical prescription have been able to buy cannabis here since 1996. A referendum last year made California the eighth state, plus the District of Columbia, to make the drug legal without a doctor’s consent.

While seeking to clarify California’s position, the vote has in some ways had the opposite effect on what is projected to be the state’s $5 billion-a-year legal marijuana market.

The ballot measure, known as Proposition 64, allows adults to possess small amounts of cannabis and to cultivate as many as six plants. But it also allows counties and cities to regulate the sale and taxation of cannabis, and to decide on their own whether it can be grown in amounts larger than those allowed by state law for personal use.

The result has been an inconsistent array of rules across the state. There is money at stake, private investment and public revenue. State and local governments could collect $1 billion a year in taxes, according to the University of California Agricultural Issues Center.

At the Green Mile medical marijuana dispensary in the Kern County town of Rosamond, Marcus Borgun, a manager, said, “We’re a business like any other, paying taxes, and now we’re waiting to see if the county will allow us to go on.”

Standing behind a glass case displaying jars filled with West Coast Diesel, Old Skool, Gelato and other “brands” of marijuana, Borgun said the dispensary’s patients are going to be left without a way to ease pain and anxiety.

“Suddenly, basically overnight, they tell us we can’t be here,” he said. “And I see liquor stores on every corner.”

For potential investors, the federal law poses a similar problem. Without having a clear sense of the Justice Department’s position on state marijuana legalization, many businesses fear putting money into an industry that could be shut down by the current administration, or future ones.

Last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said, “We’re looking at that very hard right now,” adding that it is his view that “the use of marijuana is detrimental and we should not give encouragement in any way to it.”

Nipton is nearly surrounded by federal land, with the vast Mojave National Preserve to the south and a Bureau of Land Management tract to the north, where a huge solar-energy field shines in the middle distance. The one road into town runs through federal land, raising concerns about whether those traveling to Nipton will be subject to federal drug laws.

“Will the road serve as a safe passage?” Shearin said. “We don’t know. Nobody knows.”

Hope for a green rush

Head southwest from Las Vegas, through red-rock canyons and into the high California desert, then take the turnoff with nothing in sight. Where the desert slopes into foothills, there is a small blur of color, which nearly a dozen miles off the interstate finally resolves itself into Nipton.

Gold built Nipton, and the railroad kept it thriving for decades. Dennis Benson used to hop on the train as it slowed through town, riding it an hour west each morning to high school in Barstow.

Benson is 66 years old now and has seen a series of owners buy and sell the town. Its population varied with the quantity of minerals in the hills, then with the cattle grazing in the desert — now banned by federal law — and finally with a three-barrel-a-day oil derrick, now defunct.

Cannabis, in Benson’s view, is the next stage of the town’s commodity economy — the gold rush turned green. He has liked what he has seen from American Green since the new owners bought Nipton — 80 acres in all — in August.

“These old boys have done more for this town than anyone has done in the last 30 years,” Benson said. “I feel confident this will be good for us over the years.”

Not much new construction has happened here yet. Benson’s one-man hauling and digging company has been put to work clearing lots and disposing of junk.

The town sits on the far edge of San Bernardino County, which voted in favor of Proposition 64 last year. County regulations are still being worked out, and there’s a chance that the planned resort will not sell cannabis on site. There are no plans to grow marijuana here, with water so scarce.

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