How Recreational Weed Transformed A Small California Town

From the outside, Jose Rivas’s gray, one-story office building seems just as unassuming as Woodlake, the small Tulare County City where it’s located. But once you’ve been escorted inside the wrought iron gate and checked in at the security desk, you’ll see a chemistry lab of so many potheads’ dreams: bubbling evaporators, storage tanks of liquid nitrogen, and trays and trays of drying marijuana buds.

But Rivas isn’t a pothead – he’s the CEO of a cannabis company known as Premium Extracts that squeezes, distills and steams everything it can from the flower. “Essentially what we’ve developed here is a methodology to isolate the components and molecules of the cannabis plant, which are responsible for its taste, its flavor, and all the nuanced aroma that comes from each individual cannabis strain,” Rivas said.

In one room, Rivas showed me jars full of nearly pure THC, thick and oozing like tree sap. In another, freezers packed with vials of sloshing yellow and orange oils known as terpenes. “Have you ever smelled refined terpenes before?” he asked. When the answer was no, he fetched a dozen of the tiny vials and a glass dropper, setting us up for a smell-test. “It’s going to be a cool experience,” he said knowingly.

Terpenes are kind of like essential oils of cannabis. They add natural flavor and fragrance to products, without any of the active ingredients THC or CBD. “We have some that are heavy, like I would describe as a far waft of burning sugar and skunk,” he said. Others are fruity, like Pineapple Pez and Banana OG. And then there was the vial simply labeled Mimosa. “This one for me smells like, if you could imagine, a purple tangerine,” he said. I, sadly, could not imagine a purple tangerine.

a smiling man wearing gloves and a hair net holds up a large glass jar filled with a yellow liquid
Premium Extracts CEO Jose Rivas holds a jar of pure THC, the main psychoactive compound found in cannabis. It’s one of the many cannabis extracts his Woodlake-based company produces. Credit: Kerry Klein

The language may be goofy, but Rivas isn’t messing around. His company has patented its terpene extraction process—it involves microwaves with holes cut out of the bottom to make way for glass tubes—and each chap stick-sized vial of oil is worth a few thousand dollars. Rivas said they’re used in high-end vaporizer pens.

“Of course everybody enjoys the euphoric feeling associated with recreational cannabis, but there’s much more to this plant and that’s what we’re trying to show the world,” Rivas said.

High-end is a theme throughout Woodlake’s cannabis world. Down the street, Wayne Bishop showed me a warehouse with an up-scale barn aesthetic: Think hardwood floors, antique tractors, and decorative mason jars full of marijuana buds. “Hopefully this year we’ll get an on-site consumption permit. So we’re trying to turn this into like a winery experience,” he said. When I suggested he could host weddings here, he said, “That’s what we’re going for.”

two men stand outside the doors of a warehouse. inside are rows and rows of growing marijuana
Wayne Bishop, right, CEO of 7 Points, and operations manager Ryan Clark look in at some of the 16,000 cannabis plants growing at their warehouse in Woodlake. Credit: Kerry Klein

For now, however, Bishop’s cash flow comes mostly from the plants themselves. His company’s called 7 Points—for the plant’s distinctive formation of leaves—and it’s a cannabis cultivator and regional delivery service. In vast, sprawling rooms, 16,000 plants grow under blazing artificial sunlight. “We produce somewhere between 100 and 150 pounds of flower a week,” he said.

Whatever stereotypes you associate with illicit weed, these companies are trying to shake them. Their facilities are clean and professional, and they prefer the term “cannabis” to “weed” or “marijuana.” They view themselves almost like winemakers, only instead of chardonnay or pinot noir, they deal in Cherry AK-47 and Obama Cush. “We’re hoping to actually get to very much the wine industry where people will join our club,” said Bishop, “and every quarter we’ll send you a really cool wood crate with some flower in it and maybe some hand-blown pipes, maybe some of our edibles, just kind of a nice package to show up on your door.”

an arching town sign that says woodlake
Woodlake residents approved a city-wide 5 percent cannabis sales tax in 2017, shortly after recreational cannabis was legalized statewide in 2016. Credit: Kerry Klein

These are among the seven cannabis businesses currently operating in Woodlake, which was the first San Joaquin Valley city to embrace recreational cannabis back in 2017. By contrast, Fresno, a city 60 times its size, wouldn’t approve its first dispensaries for another four years.

So how did this recreational revolution happen in Woodlake, a town of 7,500 people, one fast food chain, and zero stoplights? As soon as California voters legalized recreational cannabis in 2016, city leaders recognized an opportunity. “This seemed like something that, based on our outreach, that a lot of people in town were in favor of, and city council was open to it, and staff was open to it,” said Community Development Director Jason Waters, “so we said ‘hey, let’s give it a shot.’”

Waters and other leaders welcomed new businesses while establishing a 5 percent sales tax on all cannabis products, limiting dispensaries so that only two could operate at a time, and mandating safety measures like employee background checks and round-the-clock video surveillance. “You really need an extensive set of rules,” said Waters. “That was really the first step, the first thing that we did.”

a smiling balding white man stands in front of a children's playground on an overcast day
Woodlake Community Development Director Jason Waters stands in front of one of the many parks that received renovations thanks to the city’s 5 percent cannabis sales tax. Credit: Kerry Klein

Waters spent an afternoon driving me around the town, showing off the lush green grass and jungle gyms at the many parks that have been upgraded thanks to the cannabis sales tax. So far, parks have been the beneficiaries of two-thirds of the roughly $2 million in tax revenue the measure has brought in since 2017. “The big one…is Castle Rock Park. It went from a vacant field,” he said. “It had grass on it, but we have soccer goals, baseball fields, we’re putting a restroom in. Those things happened because of the increase in revenue we had through this tax.”

The sales tax was approved by two-thirds of voters, but not all residents are happy. Many tell me they still feel conflicted about the industry, and others worry about being inundated by out-of-towners.

And with a dearth of recreational cannabis dispensaries in the region, people have flocked from all over. Managers of Valley Pure, the first recreational dispensary to open in the Valley on Woodlake’s main drag, told me hundreds of people stop by each day.

a smiling bald white man with tattoos stands behind a counter in a weed shop, the glass display case is filled with marijuana products
Assistant Manager Tommy Fields shows a handful of the cannabis products on display at the Valley Pure dispensary in Woodlake. Credit: Kerry Klein

“Here we have all our gummies, they’re $10 a pack,” said sales associate Monica Fields, also known as a “budtender,” gesturing to brightly lit shelves full of vape pens, vacuum-sealed flower, and a plethora of edibles. “Pretzels, brownies, cookies, you name it, we probably got it,” she said.

Assistant manager Tommy Fields—married to Monica Fields—said they’ve got niche items too, like CBD suppositories. “From what I’ve heard, from a friend…his wife used it for her menstrual cramps and they went away. It completely killed her period symptoms,” he said.

The afternoon I’m there, I meet a 20-something couple stocking up for a vacation, as well as Jared Rosson, an Air Force vet who injured his back while on duty. “Unfortunately hospitals want to give you all the pain meds, and it’s not good, this is a much better route,” he said.

Rosson, who drives 25 minutes to Woodlake from Three Rivers, said he can’t believe it took so long to legalize recreational cannabis. But although the rest of the Valley has been slow to catch on, he’s happy Woodlake, at least, was ready.

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