Reggae superstar Bob Marley liked to say that “herb is the healing of the nation”. Now his youngest son, Damian Marley, is putting that claim to the test with a marijuana venture that promises to transform a decaying California prison into a huge medical marijuana manufacturing plant.
It also promises to revitalize a depressed rural town that long depended on a prison economy, but is now turning to pot.
“It’s a statement,” Marley told the Guardian, “to grow herb in a place that used to contain prisoners locked up for herb.”
The business venture signals a growing confidence in the cannabis industry, which has been rapidly spreading across the country as a result of state referendums that are legalizing medical or recreational marijuana.
California, the first state in the US to approve medical marijuana in 1996, appears to be on the cusp of voting for full recreational legalization in a referendum in November.
Recreational weed is already legal in Oregon, Colorado, Washington and Alaska, but California’s referendum is potentially hugely significant, opening up a new market in an economy that this week overtook the UK to become the fifth largest in the world.
It also comes as American politicians are working to roll back tough-on-crime policies that have for decades forced low-level drug offenders to serve lengthy sentences for nonviolent actions.
Against this backdrop, Marley’s project has emerged as a potent symbol of shifting views on pot and incarceration in American society.
The empty prison in Coalinga, California, has remained frozen in time since its closure in 2011. Behind the heavy doors of the solitary prison cells are small metal bed frames, thin mattresses, steel toilet bowls, and old shoes of inmates past.
Casey Dalton, co-owner of Ocean Grown Extracts, the company behind Marley’s project, toured the former prison with the Guardian.
The old dining room, she said, will be used for cannabis oil refinement and large dorm halls will be converted to plant cultivation centers.
Ocean Grown, which is manufacturing Marley’s new “Speak Life” cannabis products, will use the facility to sell products wholesale to dispensaries. Other rooms in the 77,000-square-foot facility eventually will be used for transportation, distribution, and testing operations. “This is a different kind of rehabilitation,” she said.
“Jails aren’t really rehabilitating people. They’re developing young criminals into more experienced criminals,” said Marley, who is also a world-renowned reggae artist. He said the marijuana factory would turn “a negative place with a negative vibe into something positive”.
Dan Dalton, Marley’s manager and Casey Dalton’s brother, said he also hoped the public would view the Coalinga project as a kind of protest of the criminal justice system. “This is symbolic and a big middle finger to the drug war and to a broken system that hasn’t worked for a long time now,” he said.
The concept of turning facilities that once incarcerated drug offenders to production plants for newly legalized marijuana is taking root elsewhere.
In a small desert town called Adelanto, 230 miles south of Coalinga, the transformation from prison economy to marijuana has been rapid, said Freddy Sayegh, a lawyer who brought cannabis projects to the city.
Officials have issued roughly 30 marijuana business licenses in the town, and the resulting economic boom has extended far beyond weed, with thousands of new jobs expected.
He said the city was once “the armpit” of the desert region. “Now, it’s become the jewel.”
In Coalinga, which is 60 miles from a major city and has a population of 17,000, marijuana has emerged as the solution to crippling debt and bankruptcy.
The Claremont custody center closed in 2011 when California began efforts to reduce its prison population, which has long contributed to the US having the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
The closure was financially devastating to Coalinga, which emerged in the 1890s after miners discovered a petroleum field.
Standing inside the dark prison entrance on a recent morning, city manager Marissa Trejo said the Claremont custody center had beds for more than 500 inmates and employed roughly 120 workers.
“Anything in Coalinga with over 50 jobs is considered a large employer.”
Next to her, dozens of keys to various prison wings were hanging in the abandoned security office, and old documents and supplies were scattered throughout the prison grounds.
By 2016, the city’s debt from the prison closure had ballooned to nearly $4m, and Trejo said there was no way to balance the budget without laying off half of the city’s workforce.
“We have no new money is coming in,” said Patrick Keough, the city’s mayor pro-tem. “It’s a doomsday recipe.”
When the city couldn’t find a private prison corporation to take over, it seemed Coalinga was out of options.
“I was going to have to sell my house and move,” said Shawn Deal, a 40-year-old resident who worked as a correctional officer at the prison. If the project is a success, he added, “it could save the town”.
When Ocean Grown approached Coalinga about the prison, it became apparent to city leaders that marijuana could be their key to prosperity – a natural plant that could eliminate their debt, provide new jobs, and revive the town for generations to come.
But it hasn’t been easy to convince residents that weed is their savior.
Coalinga is located in the heart of the conservative San Joaquin Valley, where highway signs celebrate Donald Trump and mock politicians for restricting agricultural water use during the drought.
Even faced with the harsh reality of Coalinga’s deficit, some residents have been wary about allowing cannabis within city limits.
“I don’t believe in marijuana,” said 51-year-old Kristin Welch who works for the school district. “It seems like they’re breaking the law.”
Cannabis remains illegal under US federal law and criminal prosecutions for pot have continued, even in states with legal weed. But Coalinga’s leaders and Ocean Grown have tried to persuade skeptical residents that the new operation will be safe and follow strict regulations.
In the wake of heated backlash, councilman Nathan Vosburg said he has advertised the imminent employment gains – 100 full-time jobs at the facility, plus a thousand more in construction and ancillary businesses.
“People here are literally begging for jobs,” he said.
Vosburg said he has also grown frustrated with criticisms of weed, noting that residents have no qualms about a store selling liquor and cigarettes, which are arguably more dangerous. On the contrary, he said, Ocean Grown will be making medicine.
“This is not giving somebody a handout,” said Marley. “This is actually helping people to help themselves.”