Pot farmer's dreams go up in smoke during California wildfires

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[October 16, 2017]  By Heather Somerville

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (Reuters) - Andrew Lopas' plans to bring his marijuana business out of the black market with a legal, profitable and organic pot farm went up in smoke in the wildfires that have scorched Santa Rosa, California.

After four decades of growing pot illegally, the 54-year-old saw an opportunity last year to start a legitimate business serving the medical marijuana market.

Last Sunday, as the wildfires, which have now killed at least 40 people, first erupted, Lopas' cannabis farm in Santa Rosa went up in flames, leaving behind the stumps of two chimneys, heaps of ash, charred marijuana plants and a despairing entrepreneur. [nL2N1MP07S]

After moving into the farm last November, he had been only days away from his first harvest.

Lost in the conflagration at Mystic Spring Farms were 2,500 pounds (1,100 kg) of cannabis worth an estimated $2 million, $10,000 in cash to pay the mortgage and workers, a farmhouse that dated back to the 18th century, trailers and farm vehicles, and 900 marijuana plants.

"That was all our eggs in one basket," Lopas said. "We were devastated."

California's newly legalized marijuana industry was hit hard by the deadliest blaze in state history.

Fires consuming communities north of San Francisco have destroyed almost 30 pot farms in Sonoma, Mendocino and Napa counties and significantly damaged a similar number, according to the California Growers Association. Those are a fraction of the estimated 15,000 pot farms in the region.

California is the source of most of the nation's illegal marijuana farming. Humboldt and Mendocino counties, in the cannabis-growing region known as the "Emerald Triangle", have led the state's production.

FLEEING FROM FIRE

California voters approved medical marijuana in 1996, despite a federal ban, and last year approved recreational use of the drug by adults. Since then, the state has been developing rules to allow recreational sales.

Lopas said he and his girlfriend, Monika Meyers, were focusing on the medical marijuana market, taking a "wait and see" approach to the developing recreational market.

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A wildfire burns in mountains above Sonoma, California, U.S., October 14, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

Medical marijuana businesses in California are expected to operate as non-profit cooperatives, but beginning in January 2018 they can apply to run as for-profit companies, according to the California Franchise Tax Board.

Lopas fears the fires have irrevocably destroyed many farmers in Sonoma County. He said marijuana's illegal status on a federal level means farmers cannot qualify for federal aid in disasters and most do not have crop insurance that would cover the fire losses as there are not adequate policies available.

Lopas' first warning of the rapidly approaching fire was flickering lights in his greenhouse as he worked last Sunday evening. He smelled smoke, and when the wind picked up, he and Meyers fled, grabbing little more than some clothes and their two dogs.

Lopas, who has grown marijuana since he was a teenager and sold it illegally much of his life, said he wanted to make his farm a shining example of regulatory compliance and environmentalism, spurning the pesticides that many illegal farms use to boost yield.

"We were trying to bring the industry out of the dark," he said.

Lopas has had trouble sleeping since the loss and worries how he will repay his investors. But he is not giving up.

"We want to rebuild," he said. "This property is too special to me."

(Reporting by Heather Somerville, additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Ben Klayman and Mary Milliken)

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