ONCE UPON A TIME, a small city called Coalinga, 50 miles southwest of Fresno, California and home to approximately 18,000 inhabitants, was thriving thanks to the revenue brought in by three main industries; agriculture, oil and incarceration. The quaint community, sitting on just over six square miles of land, contained three separate prisons: The Pleasant Valley State Prison – a minimum-to-maximum security State Prison, The Coalinga State Hospital, which housed sexually violent predators, and the Claremont Custody Center, a “rehabilitation” center home to hundreds of non-violent drug offenders. In 2011, everything changed when the State was ordered to reduce the number of those imprisoned. The decision forced the Department of Corrections to sever ties with Claremont, prompting it to close its doors, leaving 100 staff members jobless and the prison abandoned. Fast forward to last year, the city had accumulated a debt of approximately $3.3 million thanks to dwindling oil and agriculture revenue along with Claremont’s upkeep and unemployment benefits for the former staff, and things were bleak. There was simply no revenue.
This is where Damian Marley and Ocean Grow Extracts enter the equation.
At first this was going to be a story about an abandoned prison metamorphosing into a marijuana cultivation center and its very obvious symbolism, especially pertaining to the failed war on drugs. However, after having the opportunity to speak with the people involved, it became clear that this story isn’t about a prison, or the plant or even the movement. It’s not even about the poetic justice of a place that once housed drug-offenders being converted into a location that creates, for many that were incarcerated, the very substance that put them in there in the first place. It might seem that way on the surface, but in reality, this is a story about a small, traditionally conservative town that put aside their traditionally unwavering beliefs for the opportunity to provide for their families and improve their community. “I recognize these people might not be like you or I and had to get their head around a marijuana farm in their home town,” acknowledged Dan Dalton, who along with his brother, Kelly, and sister, Casey, co-own Ocean Grown Extracts, which purchased the prison. “I commend them for thinking outside what they’re used to.”
Dan also happens to be Damian Marley’s longtime manager, but their similar interests extend well beyond music. “Damian and I have been working together for over 12 years now and this was an area that’s very close to he and I,” he added. The two also co-own Stony Hill along with TruCannabis, a dispensary that recently opened across the street from Mile High Stadium in Denver. Damian’s favorite strain, OG Kush, happens to be one of the staples at Ocean Grown Extracts, in fact, he loved it so much the two parties ended up collaborating on a new strain called Speak Life, an OG hybrid, which will be introduced at the upcoming Emerald Cup.
“I wanted to be involved with them because, you know, I’m a fan of the herb. And at the same time, both parties, Ocean Grown Extracts and myself, just to be involved together in a business partnership, and then the opportunity for the prison came up, you know what I mean?” Marley excitedly boasts.
As the story goes, Ocean Grown Extracts was looking for opportunity to expand on what they had already built out in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. “They were seeking opportunities and somehow they were led to Coalinga,” Dan added, “and during their meetings with Coalinga they learned that this property was available and just couldn’t believe it.” The location happened to be a 77,000 square foot abandoned prison that had previously been an emblem of despair, in so many ways. “It was just the most ideal location where it’s secure safe and contained,” Dan explains while also conceding that there weren’t exactly a ton of options for the dilapidated enclosure. “It’s not like someone was gonna buy it and live in it.”
After much deliberation by the players involved and the city of Coalinga, the lot was sold for $4.1 million, instantly wiping out the accumulated debt while raising the spirit of a town that sorely needed it. It wasn’t an easy choice for the predominantly conservative town, which made it all even more impressive. “Some people might look at Coalinga and not think they’re very progressive, whatever their opinion may be, this town just made a smart, aggressive move that probably will be in the history books.”
Originally the prison wasn’t even in the picture in terms of what led them to Coalinga. It all started when Casey came on board to help expand on what Kelly had already started at Ocean Grown Extracts. Casey immediately realized that looking at options outside of L.A. County was a much more viable alternative than staying put. “We were trying to find a city that will embrace us more than trying to bust down the walls at City Hall in LA with 20,000 other similar artists,” explained Kelly, who refuses to call other growers anything except artists. They starting scouting and contacting locations. “There’s about 525 municipalities in California and I believe half of them objected to Cannabis in their towns,” Kelly continued, “but there was a list of towns that were open to it or at least haven’t dismissed it yet, and Coalinga was one of the first ones that made news.”
The news was about how Coalinga’s council had passed the California Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act – a bill, which went into effect on January 1st of this year, that would effectively open the door for growers and distributors providing they abide by a strict set of rules and regulations. Still, it didn’t necessarily mean that the community was going to be receptive to such a massive operation, but they had other, more immediate problems that were plaguing them. “Going to these meetings (in Coalinga) every Thursday, we would see them talk about not having the money for fireworks or for drawing a mural or putting in an extra stop sign,” Kelly explained. It wasn’t hard to see the struggles of a small, blue-collar town that was in need of some good luck, but in order for that to happen, they needed to be willing to open their minds, particularly the more influential townsfolk, for example, Coalinga’s Police Chief Michael Salvador. But after having a chance to talk him through the process and how it would benefit the small municipality, it looked much more promising. “Speaking to Chief Salvador, we got along, I mean I never… going to an authority’s office and shutting the door and sitting down, it’s usually not a good thing in my life,” joked Kelly. “At first he was like ‘ok, let’s see what these guys are who want to come into my town’ and at the end of it he shook my hand, he goes ‘I had all these questions and you answered those to a T.’”
It was integral for the team to continue going to the small town every Thursday to talk with the citizens and let them know and understand what was at stake for all parties involved. When time came to sit down and discuss more specifics, that’s when the prison came up. “I said do you guys own any property and they said oddly enough we have this prison that’s been empty and everybody’s eyes lighting up like…” Kelly beamed. Finding a location was one thing, but to find an available building of that magnitude was almost too good to be true.
The prison itself had been vacant for five years, yet still continued to accumulate debt for a town already drowning in it. At first the plan was to try and lease out the massive space, but because it was owned by the city and because of Cannabis still being a schedule 1 drug, the only option was to purchase the building outright, which they did for $4.1 million.
Not only did the purchase immediately put the city in the black, but the endeavor promised to generate 100 new jobs, primarily for locals. Combine that with the estimated annual tax revenue of over a million dollars and for a town struggling with a high unemployment rate (8.7%, well above the national percentage of 5.5%), it was a boon. When they held their job fair, over 200 applicants showed up in the sweltering heat for an opportunity. “I talked to (my sister) and she was very emotional coming back from the job fair,” added Dan. “ ‘they were saying this is the job i’m applying for, but if you have anything for me to do, I’ll do it. I just want to provide for my family.’ ”
“We would ask, ‘which position are you hiring for?’ They’d say security guard. ‘Are you open to being a trimmer and learning how to do this for a living and doing this full time?’ And this guy works at Taco Bell eight hours max a week, that’s all he gets, and he’s like ‘I will gladly do it.’ ” Kelly explains, emphasizing just how important the project was to the community.
Added Dan, “(W)hen you think of a father who wants to provide for their children and how embarrassing it must be, I mean i’m a father of two and that’s what’s kept me driving every day and working hard and thankful that I have a job and not taking it for granted. The idea of not being able to provide has got to be embarrassing and humiliating and so I’m really proud of that part of it.”
It would, however, be foolish to discount the significance of something this important on the cannabis movement and for all those who have spent their lives fighting for its legitimacy. “I know that people’ve served time,” Dan acknowledges. “Fathers were taken away from their families. They’ve put their lives on the line for this plant and what they believed in and to also provide a living for their families, so I don’t take that for granted either.”
But at the same time, this isn’t the time to draw a line in the sand by letting emotion get the best of him, a trait he admits comes with the territory of being an old school punk. He wanted to make sure he had the opportunity to clear the air for some off-the-cuff remarks he may have made in the past. “I don’t want to be insensitive to the people in Coalinga or people in law-enforcement because I really respect law enforcement,” Dan reiterated. “If anything I want to tip my hat. I think the world needs more understanding, especially right now.” And while some can’t help but view the symbolism of this venture as a stab at the war on drugs, Kelly would rather use the opportunity to show how it’s bridging the gap between the two sides. “We’ve got our foot in the door now and we’re starting to make authorities agree with what we’ve been saying for so long,” he decrees. “It’s time to work together and look at the future.”
Because of the unique angle, Coalinga is getting the majority of mainstream attention, but, “this is not the only grow going on right now,” says Dan. “This thing is going wide and it’s getting everybody’s attention and, the grow that’s going on in Palm Springs isn’t… but because it’s at a prison and what it’s doing is sparking conversation and maybe friendly debate.” What happened in Desert Hot Springs is the opening of a large-scale cannabis cultivation facility, the first of its kind in Southern California and is considered a pioneer because of how it represented an early shift in conviction. The same applies to Adelanto, a small California town of roughly 32,000 whose economy also relied heavily on incarceration centers and whose unemployment also hovers well above the national rate. Last November, Adelanto became one of the first to legally allow commercial cultivation of medical marijuana, and almost immediately, reaped financial benefits. For a city on the verge of bankruptcy, it’s not hyperbole to say that cannabis saved them.
As of now, the team is still going through the long and arduous process of making sure all applications are filled out correctly and everything both inside and outside the confines adheres to both the law and to what was agreed upon with the city, but all involved are confident that it will transition smoothly and quickly enough and they will be growing by the new year. Only once everything is up and running will they truly be able to appreciate what they have achieved and where the momentum has taken them. “It’s nice to know that we’re gonna have a place where we don’t have to look over our shoulder and we’re gonna be able to be completely creative and do the things that we usually couldn’t do before,” admits Kelly. “We’re all very proud that there’s a medicinal side to this that has yet to be explored and we’re really excited about that,” Dan adds. “To me it’s a plus on both sides, because, of course, the medical properties that the plant has, that we’re now able to do more research, we’re learning a lot from the research that’s being done, and then, of course, it’s helping the economies that need help and I cannot see nothing wrong with that,” concludes Damian.
Even with the fears of big corporations dipping their toes in the warm waters of the cannabis pool thanks to the potential new gold rush brought on by Prop 64, the cannabis community has been extremely supportive of what they are doing – one of the perks of having been commited to the marijuana movement for as long as they have, and no one has been more supportive than Damian himself, who encapsulates everything that is pure and virtuous about the movement. “Dan’s sister and his brother did some diligent work in putting all of that together. So i’m grateful to be a part of all of that.”
There is no doubt this project will be a prosperous one, but why shouldn’t it be, providing that’s not the sole focal point? “I have zero shame in being a business person and making money,” insists Dan, “but I’ve never made money without having integrity and standing behind my work. I care about people. I care about humanity.”
And the bottom line is exactly that. It is about the people. Not only is this another massive step in the right direction for the cannabis movement, it’s also a golden opportunity to help out a small community that would have never considered cannabis as a way to help move forward after struggling for so long. Proof of just how far this journey has taken us all.
A FEW WORDS WITH DAMIAN MARLEY
Seth: Why was this an important venture to get involved with?
Damian Marley: From the standpoint of what herb really means to me personally and what it means from where I come from, my culture, as a Rasta it’s a part of all, really the sacrament and it’s something that, personally, I use herb on a day to day basis. So it feels good to be involved in an industry that’s been a part of your life since the beginning.
Seth: You’ve been heavily involved in the cannabis world as a spokesperson, activist, with Stony Hill, this venture etc. You also have a new album coming out. Where do you find the time?
Damian: Well you know i’m partnered with other people so it’s not like I have to do everything myself personally, you know? Which is great! So we have some very strong partners like TruCannabis out in Colorado and Ocean Grown (Extracts) in California. So because we have a strong team, everyone can kind of do what they kind of do best, including myself, which is really music, so, you know, I still have time to concentrate on what I need to do.
Seth: Is it frustrating that it takes the monetary benefits to convince people to believe in cannabis?
Damian: No it’s not frustrating. It’s cool with me. I mean people benefit from it any which way that they choose by what is benefit to them. You cannot ignore the fact that for years, even before it became legal, people sold marijuana and fed their families and took care of themselves through selling and growing the herb. There’s definitely a side which is helping communities and that’s something to be proud of.
Seth: Tell me a little bit about the new strain Speak Life and how you got involved in that?
Damian: It really was because I was a fan of the OG Kush. It’s really like my favorite strain. I know it quite well. I got involved because I was a fan of the Speak Life when basically they were getting this thing together and getting ready to start doing business with the strain. I was introduced to it and I said I cannot pass on this opportunity because I love the strain so much.
Seth: Are you happy with how far the movement has come up to this point or has it moved way too slowly with the amount of information available?
Damian: Look, i’m not complaining. It’s been years that we’ve been saying that we want herb to be legal so we’re really grateful and feel very rewarded that it’s now happening because we’ve always been advocates of that. Reggae music, there’s so many fans in reggae music that seek towards legalizing herb, you know what I mean? And for me, again, as somebody who uses, I don’t need the headaches of having to worry if i’m gonna get locked up for months because of having a joint or something of this nature. So i’m not gonna complain. Of course there’s more work to be done and, you know, we’d like to see it become legal everywhere, but we’re feeling very good about what’s happening so far.
Seth: After the album comes out in January, are you finally gonna take a little time off to reflect on all that you’ve done?
Damian: No. Actually, when the album comes out we’ll be hitting the road. It’s been quite some time since i’ve had a tour. So we’re really looking forward to releasing the album and then going out and touring the album and playing the music live across the globe.
Seth: The name of the album is Stony Hill, you have a track on their called Speak Life, are there any other tracks on there related to what you’re working on?
Damian: Well the whole album is related to the project because that’s my project that i’m about to release (laughs). So every track is related. In terms of related to herb, you know we’ve got another track called Medication that’s really about Marijuana so that’s to be released soon, and, we have a few more things that are about marijuana.