In the dusty, Joshua tree–speckled desert of southwestern San Bernardino County, the town of Adelanto almost blends into the landscape with its unlovely grid of colorless, low-slung buildings. The remote town was founded in 1915 by Earl Richardson, who is best known for inventing the toaster and an electric iron. Much like the nearby colony of Llano Del Rio — the failed Antelope Valley utopian commune that existed from 1914 to 1918 — Adelanto was intended to be one of Southern California’s prototypical planned communities. It was home to orchards and farms. But after the George Air Force Base — a large area employer since it opened in the 1940s — shuttered in 1992, the city never recovered.
Today, Adelanto’s population is around 33,000. It is 50 percent Latino and 30 percent African-American, and roughly 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Adelanto’s first prison opened in 1991, and since then it’s been known — to the extent that it’s known at all — as a prison city. The for-profit prison company GEO Group has opened facilities there, housing more than 3,000 inmates. Last year, Adelanto reportedly collected only $160,000 annually from these businesses.
On a desolate inbound road, a welcoming sign calls Adelanto “the city with unlimited possibilities.” Beneath the slogan are badges for Rotary International, the city’s Chamber of Commerce (founded in 1956), and the American Legion. There’s also a new logo on the sign, for the Adelanto Growers Association, a marijuana industry group striving to revive the city’s fortunes.
When Mayor Rich Kerr was elected in November 2014, he says Adelanto was “$2.6 million in the hole.” A year later, the city welcomed marijuana cultivation, and its economy is on the upswing. Kerr says the deficit is now half a million dollars. “By June we’ll be in the black,” and after that, he expects pot taxes to start delivering undreamed-of millions to city coffers.
“No one wanted to live in Adelanto — it was a drive-through town,” Freddy Sayegh, an entertainment and cannabis lawyer, says. Around January 2015, Sayegh, who is based in Altadena, started pitching the city to allow marijuana growing. Months of talks followed. Opponents included the elementary school district superintendent, but in November 2015 Adelanto became one of the few California cities to allow medical marijuana growing on an industrial scale. “We had a city to save,” City Councilman John “Bug” Woodard Jr. says.
In 2015, there were still relatively few cities where a business could acquire land and legally start a commercial marijuana farm. Desert Hot Springs, another depressed desert town, in 2014 became the first Southern California city to allow large pot farms. Recently, it’s seen large-scale operations move to town, tapping into the underground aquifers that give the town its name. Other desert cities are considering the marijuana option, too.
Adelanto is still a sleepy place, but it appears to be on the cusp of becoming a boomtown. In the previous 15 years, the town had added only two new Dollar Stores, according to Kerr, which earned the city $7,000 a year. But by allowing commercial marijuana growing, Adelanto ignited a land rush. Plots that had been worth $300,000 suddenly sold for $3 million, according to Sayegh, who represents several Adelanto growers.
Home values skyrocketed, and construction on more is underway. Yet the Adelanto green rush has barely begun. In a few weeks, one or two growers will harvest their first plants, but the city has already licensed more than 40 new facilities. Driving around town, every empty lot in the grow zone appears to have a “for sale” sign on it.
L.A.’s recent economic boom has not extended to San Bernardino County, where the poverty rate hovers around 20 percent, well above the national average; only 20 percent of adults have a bachelor’s degree, compared with about a third in L.A. It’s home to working-class populations that have been left behind. And marijuana is a rare opportunity to create thousands of well-paid jobs for workers without college degrees.
When California voters legalized recreational marijuana in November, they set the stage for an economic bonanza. Eight states have fully legalized pot, and 29 allow medical use, but as the world’s largest legal market, California is likely to define legal weed’s structure and culture globally, much as Silicon Valley and Hollywood do for their respective industries.
According to Arcview Market Research, last year in North America, legal weed sales reached $6.7 billion. By 2021, that figure is expected to triple, with California leading the growth. Paired with the destigmatization of cannabis use — a 2016 study by the Pew Research Center found that 57 percent of U.S. adults say the use of marijuana should be made legal — California has the recipe for a major economic engine. Barring federal intervention by President Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, the state’s future is green.
Supporters argue that legalization will shift control of the marijuana market from violent criminal cartels to law-abiding businesses that pay taxes and create jobs. There’s already evidence from Colorado and other states that legal weed has benefited state economies.
A struggling town such as Adelanto has an incentive to bet its future on marijuana. But for a nascent industry encumbered by pot’s legal baggage, what happens over the next few years in Adelanto, and other down-on-their-luck California cities counting on cannabis, will have broad implications for the industry’s future. The fate of Adelanto will help determine whether the green rush is another boom-and-bust California dream, or an industry that’s sustainable for decades.
Adelanto’s Starbucks is in the corner of a modest strip mall complex. On a recent morning, Mayor Kerr and Councilman Woodard, his political ally, held court on the patio outside, chatting with locals who passed by.
Kerr is a 22-year Marine veteran who has a business installing telecom systems for Motorola. His mayoral campaign was the first time he’d run for office. He swears constantly and smokes off-brand cigarettes. In January, he punctured a lung and broke some ribs and his collarbone in a dirt biking accident. He’s 60 years old.
Woodard is in real estate and printing, the latter of which helped when he self-financed his $700 City Council campaign. With his longish hair and biker mustache, he resembles singer David Crosby. Woodard says they are both “very conservative Republicans.” They receive small stipends for their government roles.
Kerr and Woodard won election in 2014, shaking up the local order. Woodard ran opposing a new prison, though he told the Victorville Daily Press, “I’m not totally against it. But what I imagine is people build prisons here without doing anything extra for our community. What a disgrace.”
Woodard moved to Adelanto from Pismo Beach in 1998 after betting a friend that he could find an affordable house in California. His first home in Adelanto cost $28,500. He now owns four houses there, and says all of them have increased in value since the city welcomed pot growers.
Together, Kerr and Woodard beat back opposition to growers from the sheriff’s office and other interests Woodard says are “paid by the government.” They argue that marijuana cultivation was the only choice Adelanto had and, unlike the city’s prisons, the marijuana companies would contribute a fair share. “This city was almost gone,” Woodard says. “We’re business people, let’s get this city fixed.”
Adelanto does not seem to have much, but Kerr and Woodard try to work with what resources they have. The city’s real asset is what Kerr calls “53 square miles of dirt,” just a two-hour drive from L.A.
Space is all the growers need. One company is building a series of warehouse-sized buildings expected to total 630,000 square feet. Woodard believes it’s the largest indoor grow under construction in California.
In a few months, Kerr and Woodard expect to have more money to spend than Adelanto has seen in many years, and they’re exhilarated. They ticked off what’s in store: new housing, new shops and a new concrete plant to support construction, which could create 500 jobs.
“We’re like little folk heroes to the community.” — Sammy Sayegh
This January, Adelanto hosted its Grand Prix, a motorcycle racing event that Kerr boasted won the city a big spread in Dirt Bike Magazine. Kerr couldn’t participate this year, due to his own dirt bike injuries. Adelanto held its second annual rodeo last October. During his military career, Kerr rode in the Marine Corps Rodeo.
Plus, the main highway through Adelanto is due for widening and “all we have to do is reap the benefits,” Kerr says. He and Woodard have gained a feel for the intricacies of government. Kerr says the city needs to raise water rates. “The citizens aren’t going to understand, and they’re going to be pissed, but you gotta do what you gotta do.”
One reason to do it now, the increasingly politically savvy Woodard says, is that “next year we gotta run for re-election.” Adelanto also made 2016 the last year it would be home to the High Desert Mavericks, the minor league baseball team that paid the city $1 a year to rent the local stadium. “What’d we ever do with that check?” Woodard wisecracks. The warehouses in Adelanto’s industrial area betray little of what’s inside.
Adelanto’s prisons resemble all the other warehouses but are surrounded by fences topped with cyclone razor wire. Driving around town in an enormous white pickup, Sammy Sayegh — brother to Freddy, the lawyer who helped convince Adelanto to allow commercial growing — points out a building that makes specialized cars for movies, “like the Batmobile,” he says. While some businesses will stay, he says many have found the buyout offers from growers irresistible.
He drives past a factory where the defense company General Atomics makes Predator drones. Kerr says the company is “all for Adelanto,” though he says it doesn’t support marijuana growing. (General Atomics declined L.A. Weekly’s request for comment.) Woodard says he’d like to see the company show off one of the drones, which are 27 feet long and have wingspans twice as wide. For events such as the rodeo, he says, “We’ll turn it into a parade float.”
Sammy Sayegh, who’s head of the growing company California Biotechnology Center and a board member of the Adelanto Growers Association, moved to the high desert to oversee construction on his company’s grow. A general contractor by profession, he dwells on the details as he points out the big silver rolls of insulation and water trenches in the floor of his under-construction facility. He’s even planning for earthquakes in this city not too distant from the San Andreas Fault. “If a million dollars’ worth of lights hits the floor, we got a problem.” Some of his crop will be sold under a brand developed by one of his brother Freddy’s clients, reggae singer Ky-Mani Marley, through a licensing deal.
The industry has contributed to local charities with food drives, but, more important, the city recognizes the new opportunities pot growing brings to Adelanto. Sammy Sayegh says old women mischievously ask him if the medicine will help with their knees. “We’re like little folk heroes to the community.”
Adelanto’s Mayor Pro Tem, Jermaine Wright Sr., owns the Fat Boyz Grill sandwich shop. A retired pastor, he was a reluctant marijuana supporter. “It had to be biblically sound for me to do anything,” he says. Eventually he made his peace with it, though he’s still “not anywhere close to saying recreational is fine.”
A big, bald African-American man, he sits behind the lunch counter on a quiet afternoon. Indicating two men in a booth, he says, “They’re high. They’ve got the munchies. I’m making money.” He maintains that Adelanto is “not a weed city, we’re a city that’s found a legal mechanism to generate much-needed funds.”
For a place like Adelanto, the rationale for becoming a pot town is straightforward. Endless demand for marijuana can fund the city’s growth and create solid middle-class jobs. This new industry can pay twice what fast-food jobs pay, Mayor Kerr says. He says his constituents “don’t even know what $15 an hour is.” While the industry still carries a reputation — even Kerr says, “Our city’s not down with the free use of it” — growing appears to be low-impact compared to other boomtown industries such as fracking.
Adelanto’s boosters tell the story of marijuana arriving in Adelanto as the kind of blue-collar revival Americans are so hungry for. But it’s still far too early to know what a weed boom will mean for small towns.
In 2015, Turk McBride, a former NFL defensive end who lives in Riverside, applied for an Adelanto growing license. He received one and is now CEO of a growing company called Global Research Ventures.
McBride, 31, isn’t new to cannabis. He credits it for the relative longevity of his journeyman, six-season pro career, which ended before the 2013 season. In the NFL, cannabis users are “almost like a secret society,” he says. Now McBride says medical marijuana helps with mood swings, dizziness and other reminders of his pro football days. Medical marijuana has been discussed more openly in football circles of late, as some believe marijuana is a safer alternative to players’ painkiller regimens. McBride, who expects his 90,000-square-foot building to be growing plants by the fall, says he thinks he’s one of the few African-Americans to have a grower’s license in Adelanto.
“I don’t want to be greedy,” Kerr says, but he’d like Adelanto to grow 20 percent of California’s pot supply. That would amount to roughly a $1.5 billion crop by 2020, more than the state of Colorado consumed last year.
In the scenario Woodard and Kerr envision, marijuana taxes build schools, parks and infrastructure while cannabis workers re-establish the city’s economic base.
But success for Adelanto isn’t a sure thing. There’s the threat that when vast grows come online, they will glut the California market and cause a price collapse. If that happens, cities like Adelanto, which bet everything on weed, could be forced to undercut one another to keep companies from leaving. If that “race-to-the-bottom” scenario plays out as it has in so many other industries, Americans soon could be importing their weed from China.
Adelanto is defined by its past; it’s a former orchard, a former Air Force city. If the town leaders aren’t careful, Adelanto could become a former weed city. But at the moment, there’s reason for optimism. As the marijuana industry moves into town, Adelanto may have control over its future. “The good Lord was looking out for the city of Adelanto,” Woodard says.