WALLKILL, N.Y. – Don Crawford comes from a long line of Orange County farmers. Though he no longer tends dairy cows, he still cuts hay for the thriving equestrian industry, and cringes at the creep of the suburbs.
So when a stranger came to town and announced plans to grow marijuana on the fallow land next to his, Crawford was thrilled.
“It’s better than a bunch of houses,” he said.
And it would be legal.
The prospective farmer, Erik Holling, a former chief operating officer of a technology company, is vying to become one of five registered producers of medical marijuana – or medical cannabis, the term favored by those in the trade – permitted under a New York state law coming into effect.
The enthusiastic local reception that Holling’s company, Valley Agriceuticals, has received offers a case study in how the public perception of medical marijuana has changed, and how some communities have come to view it as a potential economic boon.
Applications to cultivate, manufacture and dispense medical marijuana are due June 5 at the state Health Department, which will grant up to five licenses this summer. It is requiring bidders to show either that they have the real estate necessary to produce cannabis, or to post a $2 million bond. (In addition to a “grow facility,” each organization will operate dispensaries at as many as four separate locations.) The law calls for the drug to be made available to patients in January 2016.
The competition for the marijuana licenses resembles the recent jockeying among those competing to operate casinos in New York, as a newly legal enterprise is welcomed as a potential lifeline in economically underserved areas, where local officials are eager to look beyond any stain of disrepute.
Wallkill is a community of 30,000 people about an hour’s drive north of New York City, whose residents, including many New York City firefighters and police, value its pastoral qualities.
The town supervisor, Daniel Depew, 34, saw the marijuana farm proposed by Valley Agriceuticals as a way of preserving open space while creating jobs. In a similar vein, Depew recently visited Wisconsin in a bid to attract a water park to the blighted county fairgrounds in Wallkill.
He has installed colorful “Welcome” signs around town, featuring Wallkill’s new slogan: “Where happy babies are born,” a nod to the local medical industry, embodied by Orange Regional Medical Center and Crystal Run Healthcare, an outpatient behemoth.
Depew, who was a 4-H member and raised heifers as a child, said he would have welcomed other crops – “tulips, geraniums” – but none were offered. Given the town’s history, he added, what could be more appropriate than medical marijuana, with its blend of horticulture and health?
Depew said that, if approved by the state, Wallkill’s marijuana operation would not be a shady-looking den of indoor grow-lights behind barred windows. Rather, he said, Valley Agriceuticals had agreed to build greenhouses and a red barn with cupolas, and to take advantage of a natural dip in the earth to keep its buildings out of sight inside a ring of trees.
At a town Planning Board meeting in March, one member of the panel, Doug Dulgarian, asked, “How did you end up in the town of Wallkill?” Holling replied: “It’s a beautiful town.”
Another board member, Jim Keegan, suggested that calling the project a farm was a stretch, and that it would be more like a pharmaceutical lab. The Wallkill town board unanimously endorsed the proposal in April, though with conditions that included lowering the lights after 9 p.m. so as not to wash out the stars.
As the 23rd state to legalize medical cannabis, New York is a relative latecomer to the industry. (Four states, Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska, as well as Washington, D.C., permit the recreational use of marijuana.) Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has insisted on keeping the program extremely restrictive.
As of now, doctors can prescribe the drug’s use to treat only 10 conditions, including cancer, HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy; even then, patients must have specific symptoms and functional limitations.
The marijuana can be converted into a liquid or oil extract that can be taken in various ways, including as drops, vapor or capsules, but it cannot be smoked in its raw form. Nor can it be added to edible products without the state health commissioner’s approval. Some medical marijuana advocates say the plant has benefits that cannot be captured in extracts, which could force patients in New York to seek the marijuana they need on the black market.
“I think there’s concerns that the program is so narrow that it’s not really a viable business model, and they won’t be able to make money, so some have withdrawn on that basis,” said Julie Netherland, the deputy state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, which has advocated for the legalization of marijuana.
Several local jurisdictions have nonetheless endorsed prospective medical marijuana ventures, either through formal resolutions or through the support of elected officials. Besides Wallkill, they include the towns of Lewiston, Chazy, Romulus and Wilson; the villages of Wolcott and Newark, New York; and the city of Utica.
Compassionate Care Center of New York, run by a gastroenterologist, Larry Good, from Long Island, wants to lease a greenhouse in Newark, in western New York, that once belonged to the Jackson & Perkins garden company. The village’s mayor, Jonathan Taylor, remembered that in its heyday, Newark was known as the Rose Capital of America. More recently, he said, the Jackson & Perkins greenhouse has been empty, until this winter’s disastrous snowstorm in Buffalo drove another flower grower to move there temporarily.
Newark, population 9,000, has an industrial park that is home to small manufacturers of 20 to 75 employees apiece, so the 100 jobs being promised by Good’s company would be significant. “Good-paying jobs, with benefits, which we’re pretty excited about,” Taylor said.
Like Depew in Wallkill, Taylor also hopes to benefit from the local share of a state marijuana excise tax, though it has been hard to project exactly how much that would amount to since it will be dependent on demand.
Valley Agriceuticals is working with Seach, a medical cannabis company from Israel, to share technical expertise. It promises to create as many as 150 jobs in Wallkill, and to pay a “living wage” of at least $15 an hour. That went over well with some factory workers making boxes for pizza and other things at President Container, where a machine operator like Chris Cherry, 31, earns $20 an hour, but others earn less.
“I would be there in a heartbeat,” said another worker who declined to provide his name for fear of offending his employer. “I have no love for corrugated containers.” This worker said he was also eager for recreational marijuana to be legalized
The Crawford family has been harvesting hay and hunting deer on the land being considered for the marijuana operation, and in the interest of neighborly relations, Valley Agriceuticals promised to let them continue on the portion of the property that would not be used for growing.
“Now, being that I’m going to most likely have it, it’s about like your own property, so I might want to put some lime and seed in it,” said Crawford, 50.
About the only discordant voice in town has belonged to Howard Mills, 89, whose farmland was almost the site of the Woodstock festival, where plenty of marijuana was consumed, in 1969. Mills became a commercial developer.
“It’s always good to preserve open space,” said Mills, standing outside his door. He added, a bit cryptically: “But what you use to save it with, that’s a different story.”
As in other communities around the country that have authorized marijuana-growing operations, security is a concern, given that the plants and the drugs could make inviting targets for thieves. Answering those worries for the company is its security chief, John Cutter, a retired deputy chief in the New York Police Department who oversaw counterterrorism initiatives.
Tramping through damp, knee-high grass and purple wildflowers recently, Cutter pointed to old rock walls and thorn bushes, which he described as natural deterrents to intruders. He said he would add welded wire-mesh fencing that is difficult to climb or cut, as well as security cameras and motion sensors.
“I spent 25 years chasing sneakers down the street to lock up people doing drugs illegally,” he said. “The only reason I’m involved with this group is because it’s strictly about medicine, not about helping people get high.”