Pubdate: Tue, 02 Jun 2015
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2015 The New York Times Company
Author: Anemona Hartocollis


TOWN OF 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, Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Friday at the State Health Department, which will grant up to 
five licenses this summer. It is requiring bidders either to show 
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.

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 officers, 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, Mr. 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.

Mr. Depew was a 4-H member and raised heifers as a child. He 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?

Mr. 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?" 
Mr. 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, H.I.V./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 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, N.Y.; and the city of Utica.

Compassionate Care Center of New York, run by a gastroenterologist, 
Larry Good, from Long Island, has leased 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 Dr. Good's company would be significant. 
"Good-paying jobs, with benefits, which we're pretty excited about," 
Mr. Taylor said.

Like Mr. Depew in Wallkill, Mr. 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," Mr. Crawford, 50, said, "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."

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. Mr. Mills became a 
commercial developer. "It's always good to preserve open space," Mr. 
Mills said, 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, Mr. 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."

Susan C. Beachy and Alain Delaqueriere contributed research.
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