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State-licensed growers in Washington have already grown vast amounts of marijuana under blinding lights in non-descript warehouses and on fenced-off fields in Eastern Washington. But how those plants are cared for, who these growers are and how this industry shakes out is all in question.Our multi-media series entitled “First Cut: Washington’s Freshest Crop, and the Wild-[North]West Farmers Giving It A Grow” is a collaborative effort between the Northwest News Network's Anna King and The News Tribune’s Jordan Schrader. The series will examine Washington state’s newest high-value crop and the wild-west personalities it attracts."First Cut" is a reference to the hay industry. "First cutting" means the first crop of hay of the year. It's often a very quality product that is sold for the highest prices of the entire season. Later hay goes for a lesser price. Haying, like pot grows, is a risky business. One rain, or the wrong bugs can wipe out a farmer for the season.From the Yakima Valley to the Columbia River to the Cascade Foothills, we will look at profit margins, security issues and some interesting collaborations. We will look at the pros and cons of growing outdoors versus indoors, pesticides versus organics and why not everyone growing this newly legal crop is going to be a winner.First Cut will also feature companion stories in The News Tribune, based in Tacoma, Washington.

Safety First: Are Security Requirements For Legal Pot Grows Enough?

Joe Barrentine
The News Tribune
Even though the grow area at Black Dog Acres in Goldendale, Washington, is in the middle of a 20-acre lot, regulations mandated that the fence and all the other security protocols be followed.

Washington state’s new pot grow operations have state-required alarm systems, dozens of cameras and tall fences. But some growers said they aren’t worried about theft and violence.

Should they be?

Pot farmer Susy Wilson doesn’t like keys and locks much. Wilson’s farm is in the Columbia Gorge. She’s not too security driven in her life, but at her pot farm she doesn’t have a choice.

Credit Joe Barrentine / The News Tribune
The News Tribune
Hayden Woodard, of Wow Weed in Dallesport, Washington, talks about the security system the regulations mandated as he checks his camera array.

First, there’s the bear-sized German Shepard named Zeus. And every window and door has an alarm. Cameras are everywhere shooting video that can’t be discarded for 45 days. Everyone on the premises must wear a name badge.

Wilson said her business partner is a little more concerned with security than she is. So she said he’s taken extra precautions like. “a bull horn over there by the door with a big siren on it.”

And that’s not all. Wilson sounds a little frustrated as she describes his big Taser wand.

“My feeling is that if people are coming in with guns a blazing then I need to get out,” Wilson said. “Otherwise, what is it that I have to worry about? Someone crawling over the fence and stealing a bud?”

Rigid Security Rules

Wilson, her partners and her spouse underwent state-mandated background checks and had to report their criminal histories dating back to their youth.

Credit Joe Barrentine / The News Tribune
The News Tribune
A marijuana plant tagged with a 16-digit tracking number hangs in the drying room of WOW Weed.

“I think the Liquor Control Board treats it less legal that the general public does quite frankly,” she said.

The state rules are meticulous. A 16-digit bar code follows the pot from sprout to sale, ensuring that none of it goes out the back door. After it’s packaged, the marijuana must be quarantined for a day before it’s shipped to a buyer. On the road, it must stay in Washington. That means Wilson’s shipments must travel the twisting Washington State Route 14, instead of the speedier I-84 just on the other side of the Columbia River in Oregon.

Still, Wilson said she’s hoping her remote, small town location will aid her some. And she added she’s going to run her pot farm like she has her life -- smart, but without fear.

“I moved to the South Pacific for a few years, and did massage therapy,” she recalled. “And traveled around Micronesia, and learned to scuba dive.”

This woman has done a lot. But is she being cavalier about this latest adventure? What about gangs, cartels, kids with guns, dishonest employees?

The Fort Knox Of Pot

One company has basically built a fortress to protect its pot.

“We have a 70,000-square-foot warehouse that is surrounded by physical security including barbwire fences,” said Brendan Kennedy. He heads Tilray, which operates one of the world’s largest legal pot grows.

If Seal Team 6 broke into the building and got access to the vault, they'd still need three semi-trucks to carry the cannabis away.

But this farm is not in the U.S. It’s just across the border in British Columbia where it produces weed for Canada’s legal medical marijuana customers. This “fortress” on Vancouver Island doesn’t keep its harvested marijuana in a barn.

“There is a vault inside of it that’s as sophisticated as any bank vault that you’ve ever seen,” Kennedy explained. “We have a security team that’s former RCMP members, Mounties, on staff. We have about 70 high-resolution cameras.”

But Kennedy said the sheer volume of pot plays in the farm’s favor too. It’s not like stealing a work of art, or a gold bar.

“If Seal Team 6 broke into the building and got access to the vault, they’d still need three semi-trucks to carry the cannabis away,” Kennedy said.

Still, he said Washington’s new growers should pay the most attention to those closest to them -- on the inside.

“Security starts before you hire someone,” Kennedy warned. “So I would spend a lot of time on background checks and reference checks.”

'If The Dogs Don’t Get You, The Guns Will'

In Wenatchee, Washington, the owners of a major indoor grow operation there say they still aren’t too worried about break-ins.

Credit Anna King / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
Eric Cooper and his daughter Katey are part owners of Monkey Grass Farms.

“You know, you walk into an operation like this and for most people it’s really kind of breathtaking,” Eric Cooper said. “They sort of go, ‘Ohhhhh. Never seen a grow like that before, especially all indoors.’”

Cooper and his daughter Katey are part owners of Monkey Grass Farms.

“You know, over here we still all own guns and we still have dogs,” he said. “So if the dogs don’t get you, the guns will.”

“We don’t have guns here, though,” Katey added. “Not on property.”

“No, but close by,” Eric noted.

Some growing operations and pot stores are hiring their own security teams. Still, at least for now, there appears to be no obvious need. Over the last five months there’ve only been handful of minor break-ins. One thief got caught after vaulting over a fence and setting off an alarm. Another stole a couple of plants but was soon turned in by a family member for a $500 reward.

One thief did get away. The haul though wasn’t too much -- just a couple of energy drinks.


This project is a collaboration with Jordan Schrader of The News Tribune in Tacoma. Read his companion piece to this story. For more photos see our slideshow on Flickr.

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.