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A Tale of Two Farm Towns: How the Central Valley Is Torn Over Marijuana

Alice Daniel | KQED

Part I: Huron

Loud music and the smell of roasted corn on the cob fill the air at the Friday night street festival in the small Fresno County town of Huron. Kids play on a bounce house slide, while adults sell everything from used bikes and shoes to melons and tomatoes.

Jazmin Vargas, 22, is selling an idea: that Huron residents should bank on a newly regulated industry in California — medical marijuana. She asks a young man to sign a petition in support of a city ordinance.

“We’re in need of people’s support for this to happen, for the council members to let it pass,” she says. “So if you’d like to support us, feel more than welcome to give your signature.” The young man agrees to sign it.

Under new state regulations, medical marijuana dispensaries must have a local permit from the city or county in which they wish to operate before applying for a state license.

This permitting process is something cities in the Central Valley are grappling with in advance of November’s election, when voters will decide whether to pass Proposition 64 to legalize recreational marijuana.

Vargas grew up in this farming town an hour southwest of Fresno. She started picking watermelons at 15. In fact, most people in this town of 7,000 work in the fields or at a local tomato cannery. But there’s also high unemployment.

Huron is a small farming town on the west side of the Central Valley in Fresno County.
Huron is a small farming town on the west side of the Central Valley in Fresno County.(Alice Daniel/KQED)

Vargas thinks medical pot is the ticket for Huron. So do Andrew Chavez and Luis Valencia, two young entrepreneurs who recently started a medical marijuana company, Purple Hearts Holistic Alternative Therapy.

When Vargas met Chavez and Valencia, she was thrilled they wanted to start a business in Huron. She became their volunteer champion.

“She’s helped us get embedded in the community,” says Chavez. “She’s been the angel on our shoulder.”

Chavez says they focused on Huron because it needs new businesses that offer more than seasonal work. “You have a population that is hoping for something to hang onto. And it’s tough when you don’t see anything beyond the mountains around you. It’s hard to get over that, to realize there’s a world out there.”

But they also wanted to build on the momentum of Huron’s sister city, Coalinga, Chavez says. In July, Coalinga sold its unused prison for about $4 million to a company that makes cannabis extracts.

Andrew Chavez and Luis Valencia came to the Huron farmers market to try and get locals on board with medical cannabis.
Andrew Chavez and Luis Valencia came to the Huron farmers market to try and get locals on board with medical cannabis.(Alice Daniel/KQED)

Chavez, who has a master’s degree in public administration, and Valencia, a driver for a medical marijuana collective, have also done their part to attract community support. Last month, they handed out 120 school backpacks to show their commitment to Huron. They’ve also spoken before the City Council. Valencia, who served in the U.S. Navy for several years, believes medical cannabis has helped veterans suffering from PTSD and other health problems.

The grass-roots effort appears to have paid off.

Late Wednesday, the City Council was expected to pass the ordinance Jazmin Vargas was petitioning for, allowing Purple Hearts and one other company to grow medical marijuana.

Councilman Roberto Pimentel says that could mean 50 new jobs and tax revenue. “The ag industry is losing a lot because of the drought, and because of technology, honestly,” says Pimentel. “A lot of the tomato harvesting machines use a lot less people than when I was working on them.”

But Pimentel, an eighth-grade math teacher, says there’s another reason for this ordinance. While it does OK medical pot, it allows the city to forbid dispensaries and to set limits on recreational marijuana ahead of the November election.

Part II: Hanford

Huron’s decision to license medical marijuana companies isn’t typical here in the Central Valley, at least not yet. The region is pretty conservative and many cities don’t want anything to do with marijuana, recreational or medical.

“That you would use a valuable resource like water to grow marijuana — that is madness!” exclaimed resident Michael Lamb at a recent City Council meeting in Hanford, just 30 miles northeast of Huron.

“It also brings the bad elements into our community,” added resident Maria Galante.

“Not too far from my house they had a shooting — some guy trying to steal the other guy’s pot grow, trying to steal his plant. I don’t need that!” says Lamb.

Oakland dispensary owner Keith Stephenson is hoping to turn this 1-million-square-foot former tire plant in Hanford into one of the biggest medical marijuana operations in the state.
Oakland dispensary owner Keith Stephenson is hoping to turn this 1-million-square-foot former tire plant in Hanford into one of the biggest medical marijuana operations in the state.(Christian Parley/Courtesy Fresno Bee)

Still, that doesn’t mean outsiders aren’t eyeing the cheap real estate and ready labor force. “There are no other opportunities that exist around the state like they exist here,” says dispensary owner Keith Stephenson of Purple Heart Patient Center in Oakland.

When he found a vacant 1-million-square-foot facility in Hanford, he jumped on it. “I’m a small business,” Stephenson says, “so in the grand scheme of things I’m attempting to scale my business and survive in the emerging paradigm.”

Stephenson’s plan is to use 200,000 square feet to grow marijuana inside the former tire plant. He says he’d lease the rest to other growers and manufacturers. It would be one of the biggest operations in the state, and he says this is the perfect place for it. “This facility offered a great opportunity. It’s in an agricultural community, it has a citizenry who understands agriculture, and this is just another form of agriculture. It’s indoor agriculture.”

He’s already heard from some locals, he says — people looking for work, building contractors, soil manufacturers and power companies.

But while Stephenson sat in the audience at Hanford’s last City Council meeting, the council unanimously passed a resolution opposing Proposition 64 — and took steps to ban recreational pot in case it passes.

Stephenson estimated his facility would create over a thousand jobs and $14 million a year in tax revenue. But council members, local law enforcement officials and residents raised a flurry of concerns about crime, addiction and resource management.

The council hasn’t made any decisions yet, but Hanford Mayor Justin Mendes says, despite opposition from some vocal residents,  the idea is getting some traction. “A lot of people here are in the farming world,” he says, “and they say if you’re gonna grow it and ship it to folks in San Francisco — they eat our grapes, they eat our almonds, let them use our marijuana.”