Can Franklin County Farmers Benefit From the Cannabis Boom?

"The public is ready for this. And we should make sure the economic benefit accrues to people in Mass, not just large corporations," said State Representative Stephen Kulik

As state lawmakers finalize the first draft of recreational marijuana regulations, some local farmers are betting that Franklin County will benefit from cannabis cultivation.

“We’re going to be doing something in South Deerfield,” said Jim Pasiecnik, owner of J.M. Pasiecnik Farms on River Road in Whately, referencing plans to build 100,000 square feet of greenhouses and possibly a marijuana cafe in South Deerfield’s industrial district by the end of 2018.

“I think it’s going to bring a lot of money into the region,” Pasiecnik said. He currently farms 1,200 acres throughout the region. “It’s a money maker. I want to get onto the bandwagon.”

Right now, cannabis is regulated by two laws: one for medical marijuana that was passed in 2012, another for recreational marijuana approved by state voters in 2016.

Draft regulations covering recreational use are expected to come out in the next few days, according to Dot Joyce, spokeswoman for the Cannabis Control Commission, an oversight entity molding regulations.

Following a public comment period, final laws will be signed by mid-March 2018 and applications for growing recreational marijuana will be accepted a month later. Finalized regulations will dictate whether or not small-scale farmers can feasibly cultivate marijuana. Many local and state leaders are hoping for the best.

“The public is ready for this. And we should make sure the economic benefit accrues to people in Mass.,” said state Rep. Stephen Kulik, a Democrat representing the 1st Franklin District. “We need to ensure — and I know it’s the legislative intent, carried on by the commission — that this is not just an economic opportunity for large corporations.”

Explaining cannabis laws

Medical marijuana falls under a strict law enacted in 2012. Every aspect of medical marijuana production, including cultivation and distribution, is controlled by one highly regulated permit. Further, medicinal cannabis plants must be grown in high security facilities with regulated pesticide use.

“The (laws) are complex, and require a large investment on the part of applicants,” said Michael D. Cutler, a Northampton lawyer who helped write the recreational marijuana legislation. Cutler estimated at least “a half million dollars in liquid assets” is required to even get started in the medical marijuana field.

Over the past five years, that monetary barrier has prevented farmers like Pasiecnik from cultivating cannabis even though they have the expertise and equipment. Instead, laws have prompted “a lot of high rollers to invest” and “purchase property in less expensive communities to get into the medical marijuana cultivation process,” Cutler said.

In contrast, recreational marijuana laws are expected to facilitate and possibly encourage smaller scale cultivation.

“The basic recreational law seems to be much more thought out. It clearly separates out growing and selling. The definitions make sense, and the structure makes sense,” said Whately Planning Board member Judy Markland, noting there won’t be one single permit that covers all aspects of recreational marijuana production and sales.

Instead, growers will apply for a cultivation license, stores for a retail license, and so on based on a business’ needs, Cutler said.

Based on public documents, farmers will most likely be able to grow outside of high-security buildings in greenhouses, drastically reducing the amount of required investment capital.

“The state law gave a nod to craft cultivation by mandating that the Cannabis Control Commission encourage small-scale cultivation. We are looking forward to see how the commission provides this opportunity to small farms in their draft regulations,” said Philip Korman, executive director of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, an agricultural advocacy group in South Deerfield.

The entire process will be accessible, while regulated with technologies like seed-to-sale tracking, licensing, and physical security measures. Cutler noted the commission is also exploring cultivation cooperatives similar to the Cabot Creamery Cooperative.

State legislators passed an amendment in July repealing the 2012 medical marijuana law, replacing it with a new law similar to recreational regulations. The changes won’t be felt fully until 2019. Meanwhile, there’s a streamlined process for businesses with active medical marijuana permits to transition into recreational marijuana production.

An economic opportunity

All of this presents a potentially lucrative, stable, and long-term economic opportunity for local farmers, some of whom besides Pasiecnik also expressed interest in trying to grow marijuana — given the right circumstances.

“My initial reaction is I’m interested if I can grow it on my farm without razor wire and a DEA agent breathing down my neck. I would have to weigh the risk-benefits. I don’t want to be under a microscope any more than I am,” said Gary Gemme of Harvest Farm.

“I’m certainly not opposed to it,” said Whately Agricultural Commission member Bill Obear. “We have really active and profitable farms in town. I would think that cannabis could be grown on somewhat marginal land, not prime land.”

For Whately, cannabis production could stimulate an increase in revenue and tax flow.

“The opportunities are limitless. We have farmers who are good business people — they see the market potential in potatoes, and in squash,” said Whately Selectman Jonathan Edwards. “This is an area that has the potential to take advantage of this new crop.”

Edwards also highlighted that cultivation could draw new businesses into Whately, creating “economic diversification,” which in turn could also positively affect Whately’s tax base.

“There are only several ways to accrue taxes, and this strikes me as one of them,” Edwards said. “Our economy needs opportunity. And this is an opportunity if we have the knowledge, motivation, and sweat equity to implement a good business model.”

You can reach Andy Castilloat: acastillo@recorder.comor 413-772-0261, ext. 263

On Twitter: @AndyCCastillo