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Turning Prisons into Pot: How Cannabis Saved a City from Crushing Debt

Picture a site where people were once locked up for selling marijuana, among other [arguably more pressing] crimes: an abandoned prison where lives ended, health was lost and freedom was painfully transformed into a long-forgotten memory.

Now imagine the deserted structure’s walls and cells now provide shelter to thousands of thriving cannabis plants, nurtured to heal the ill and injured; Imagine softly swaying green plants as far as the eye can see, carefully cultivated to comfort the sick, and the sick at heart.

It’s a green dream becoming a reality for the roughly 14,000 residents of Coalinga, Calif., where the city council last week voted 4-1 to allow a long-abandoned prison to be transformed into a commercial grow operation, bringing the financially floundering city into the black, and the green.

Ocean Grown Extracts, the cannabis company which purchased the property from the city for $4.1 million will grow and process cannabis into concentrates inside the former Claremont Custody Center.

It’s a place where once prison community message boards were flooded with the posts of frustrated and confused relatives of inmates who had driven hours to visit their incarcerated loved ones, only to be turned away in tears after being informed the prison would be on lockdown for weeks. Now, it’s the site where local legislators hope to have spawned the start of an economic windfall for the city of Coalinga.

City Manager Marissa Trejo told The Fresno Bee that Coalinga was $3.3 million to $3.8 million in debt. She’s done the math.

The facility is also expected to create more than 100 jobs: Ocean Grown was flooded with more than 200 resumes after their first job fair.

“It’s like what the Grateful Dead said: ‘What a long, strange trip it’s been,’ ” Coalinga Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Keough told The Bee. “We listened to the citizens and created a package that was reflective of our population.”

Changing the site of so much negativity into what could be the brightest future the local economy has ever seen wasn’t exactly a no-brainer, however. It took nearly six months of raucous debate to rally the citizenry behind the idea.

Marijuana is, after all, still illegal at the Federal level — the mental leap from marijuana leading to prison, to prisons producing marijuana wasn’t the easiest one.

Even through the Not-In-My-Back-Yard campaigns of local church groups, the Fresno County Sheriff, and even the Coalinga-Huron Joint Unified School District, months of educating residents about the benefits of medical marijuana was ultimately successful.

“We appreciate Coalinga taking a chance not only on us, but on the industry,” Ocean Grown co-owner Casey Dalton told the media.

Perhaps, for Coalinga, the truth became clear: ultimately, marijuana is less deadly than life lived in prison.

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