All photos by Chase Hall

Damian Marley Told Us About the Massive Weed Operation He’s Starting in a Former Prison

Damian Marley, reggae icon and the youngest son of the world's most famous smoker, is partnering with a cannabis company to turn a 77,000-square-foot former prison into a legal grow op. "The statement speaks for itself," he told us.

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Oct 22 2016, 1:20pm

All photos by Chase Hall

When asked about the significance of converting a prison that once housed people locked up for possessing, selling, and growing marijuana into the headquarters of a legal cannabis empire, Bob Marley's youngest son, Damian, simply says, "It speaks for itself."

"Many people who got locked up have sacrificed so much for the herb over the years," Marley said. "If this helps people and it's used for medicinal purposes and inspires people, it's a success."

Along with his partnering company Ocean Grown Extracts (OGE), Marley plans to bring 100 new jobs and an annual tax revenue of over $1 million to the city of Coalinga, California in the grow house's first two years of operation—on par with the revenue and jobs lost when the prison Claremont Custody Center was shut down in 2011. Starting in January, the former Coalinga prison will be used for growing, extracting, and packaging cannabis, with a focus on concentrates like wax and oil. The team will also grow Speak Life, a flower strain Marley developed with OGE (and also the name of a vape he's branded).

As California attempts to reign in its previously unregulated medical marijuana market, which claimed just under 600 million in taxable revenue last year, and move toward legalizing recreational use with a likely-to-pass ballot-referendum in November, some activists worry that the green rush might leave those who created the market behind.

"We think the Marley project is a good symbolic step toward restorative justice in the cannabis industry," said Tsion "Sunshine" Lencho, lawyer and co-founder of Supernova, a non-profit dedicated to representing people of color in the cannabis industry. "But we're worried that it might be just that. Symbolic. We want to see people of color and people with criminal records, in other words, people who were directly impacted by the drug wars and created the market, not just hired as employees but also represented on the executive level. We want to put the ownership in the hands of people who created market."

The Drug Policy Alliance estimates that less than 1 percent of legal cannabis grows are owned by people of color.

"I hadn't really been thinking about it," Marley said when asked about the racial makeup of his legal herb business partners. "But now that you mentioned it, yes. A lot of the people I'm dealing with are white."

Ocean Grown Extracts partner Casey Dalton mentioned that the contract negotiated with the City of Coalinga allows the company to hire former felons.

"We absolutely believe in redemption," Dalton said. Though the company has no specific plans to encourage people with criminal records to apply, both Dalton and Marley admitted they were open to the idea.

I sat down with Damian Marley in a New York hotel to get the reggae star's thoughts on business and equity in America's budding legal herb business, and how his involvement could shape its evolution.

VICE: Where are you based out of?
Damian Marley: Jamaica and Miami.

When was the first time you smoked?
[laughs] I can't even remember the first time... I've been smoking since I was quite young still. For us as Rastas, it's a religious sacrament. And even in Jamaica it's always been a big part of our culture, our music. I'm still going to make a statement, say, for young people who don't smoke and want to experiment; I would encourage them to eat it. Smoking is not the healthiest choice, regardless of what you're smoking. If you're not a smoker, it's always better to eat it.

Do you find smoking spiritual? Is it attached to your creative process?
It's a big part of my life. It's hard to put it any which way. Basically, I smoke every day regularly. I can't say I've really done much recording without smoking.

How did the Ocean Grow Extracts partnership come about?
I became aware of them through Dan, my manager. His brother and sister run the business. It came about by trying some their herbs, which I liked a lot actually. That was the original interest in terms of wanting to be involved. While getting involved with them, the opportunity came up to purchase the prison.

What's the significance to you of having a legal pot grow in a converted prison?
I think it speaks for itself in terms of the statement. A place that perhaps housed individuals who were locked out for herb is now a grow, y'know what I'm saying? Of course herb is a big part of our culture for Rastas and Jamaicans and all of that, and we've always advocated for it to be legal. For us to be partners in this venture...what was a prison is now a grow? Again, the statement speaks for itself.

The plan is also to help revitalize the economy of the town of Coalinga, which lost one of its revenue streams when the prison closed in 2011.
That's one of the benefits of herb being decriminalized and legalized in various states like California. For us to help that city, Coalinga, is a given benefit.

Does OGE have any plans to hire or encourage people with former marijuana convictions to apply for jobs with the company?
To tell you the truth, that is not an active thing happening at this moment. That would definitely be great and that is something that is very important to me, at least. That is something I've been thinking about recently. One of my main concerns as marijuana becomes legal in more places and accepted in more places is that the people who originally sacrificed and were able to feed their families from growing the herb or selling the herb will still have the opportunity to do so. Because now it's an American corporate system where you need permits and such, and if you're not careful you can muscle the smaller man out, which would be sad to see happen. It would be very sad to see the small person muscled out of this game because of the profit situation. Even to go about obtaining those permits is not something that is common knowledge. We're not lawyers. We're farmers and growers. [The legal weed business] is a very corporate structure.

Some activists have suggested corporate and/or tax revenue from this growing $6.7 billion industry should be funneled back into communities directly impacted by the drug war. Do you think the cannabis industry has any responsibility to pay reparations for the drug wars?
That's great. That's a positive. Overall, it's less great. I think it's up to somebody's will if you want to donate money. People need to earn for themselves. That's how it was in the beginning and that's still the best way. Being able to involve these people without [traditional] business backgrounds is good. We need the culture and moral spirit of the people who traditionally grew herb and smoked herb in the first place. That [their] moral spirit remains there is really the issue.

As legalization moves forward in the state and marijuana becomes more mainstream, are you concerned about corporatization with weed? Are you worried weed will become like tobacco or big pharma?
This is exactly what I'm saying. It's very concerning. Even in my dealings with people now involved in the herb industry, they don't even smoke. But they're seeing it's going to become profitable. People from the original culture of it don't really operate the business or understand business in that way. Yeah, I am concerned. As we get more involved, we'll definitely try to come up with our own ways in the nature of what you're saying—in making sure it goes far with the original community.

Have you ever been hassled by the cops for marijuana?
In Jamaica, I've been pulled over and they found herb in the car. And they wanted to carry us to jail. Luckily, my stepfather is a real popular criminal lawyer and he had a relationship with some of the officers, so I was able to not have to spend time in jail that night.

It not being illegal is one of the greatest issues, though. Besides all this business we were speaking about before. Just being able to have a joint and know that I'm not going have to spend time in a jail cell is the greatest feeling of all. Being a part of the industry as a user and knowing you don't have that headache anymore.

Moving forward, as legalization gathers steam across the states, do you think the president should pardon people with criminal records for non-violent drug convictions?
It's a case-by-case basis. To be locked up or have a criminal record for something that is now legal—how fair is that? That's not really fair. You still have to look at cases individually, though. Someone who was moving tons and tons of herbs across the country, versus someone who was just selling a few ounces. There's a difference there.

You have a new album coming out named Stony Hill. It's also the name of a dispensary you run in Colorado.
Yeah, it had the name of the album for a while. Stony is a place in Jamaica where I grew up. Tends to be one of the nicer parts of town. It's been the name of the album for a while. When we had the opportunity to become involved in the herb business, to me it made perfect sense. The name lends well to an herb brand. Stony Hill... you know?

Ocean Grown Extracts plans for the Coalinga facility to be fully operational by January. The partnership with Ocean Grown Extracts isn't the reggae star's only venture into legal herb. Marley also sponsors Stony Hill, a Colorado dispensary named after his forthcoming album.

Follow Julia on Twitter and visit Chase's website to see more of his photo work.

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