By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor
Two tiny marijuana seedlings poke out of the soil in pots outside of Patrick Fritz’s home in Broadway. For him, they represent more than just relaxation – both the act of growing and smoking marijuana have been deeply healing.
When Fritz got out of the Navy in 2011, he was suffering from PTSD, anxiety and chronic pain from a back injury that later exposed an underlying autoimmune disorder. Fritz said there were not enough doctors – not to mention mental health professionals – through the Department of Veterans Affairs to meet everyone’s needs.
“I was on 120 milligrams of Oxycontin a day. Another 60-80 milligrams of Percocet a day. Klonopin for anxiety,” he remembered. “Now I am taking two, three medicines, as opposed to the 15, I think, I was taking beforehand.”
He said moderate use of marijuana allowed him to break his reliance on so many pharmaceuticals.
“I truly hate sounding hyperbolic about it, right? But it legitimately saved my life,” Fritz said.
Since the state’s new cannabis legislation went into effect July 1, Fritz has started growing a few plants of his own. The new laws allow Virginians to grow four plants at home for personal use, as long as they can’t be seen from the road and are protected from “unauthorized access” by those younger than 21. Selling marijuana won’t be legal until Jan. 1, 2024, under the legislation passed earlier this year.
Chris Monahan, a lieutenant with the Harrisonburg Police Department, told The Citizen he expects marijuana dealing to decrease as more people start growing their own.
“Especially when you look at the smaller amounts for personal use, if the user has the ability to grow and consume their own it’s less likely they would be looking for a supplier,” Monahan wrote in an email. “It’s unclear at this point how it will impact the larger level dealers of a pound or more which is illegal to even possess. With much stricter enforcement guidelines, it’s likely we will see a major decrease with numbers related to dealing at all levels.”
Fritz was eager to start his own cannabis plants both because he values self sufficiency and because of his deep love for gardening and its therapeutic nature. His yard is bursting with flowers, pollinator-friendly plants, young trees and vegetables.
With anything he intends to consume, “if I know how it’s grown … I know exactly what I’m getting,” Fritz said.
He first learned how to grow cannabis when he lived in Connecticut, where medical marijuana has been legal since 2013. He’s since honed his methods: germinating the seeds in damp paper towels, transferring them into small pots filled with a light soil mixture full of pearlite, and progressively replanting them in larger pots as they grow.
He chooses to grow outdoors, so that he keeps the plants out of the way of his kids and pets. But he said an indoor setup would be preferable to avoid the stress that unpredictable weather puts on plants.
Cannabis consultant Anna Cubbage said aside from the benefits of actual sunlight, it’s advantageous to grow indoors.
“Especially here, the weather is very extreme,” Cubbage said.
The Bridgewater native has worked as a consultant since 2013, living in California and Colorado before returning to the Shenandoah Valley two years ago. Her primary area of expertise is warehouse design for commercial indoor growers. She consults for companies in western states and New York but doesn’t work with individual clients.
When you grow marijuana outdoors, the growing season only gives you one harvest per year, she explained.
“How I run my warehouses is we have a nursery and we have a dry room,” Cubbage said. “Once you get into your cycling, they’re in constant use. It’s like a machine – you can get six harvests a year if you time it and do it properly. So that’s the advantage to doing things inside, is that you have a little more control over your environment.”
And while Cubbage expects to see large commercial operations starting up in Virginia in the next few years, she said the new laws are prohibitive for small or cooperative growers to get into the industry. The application fee for a cannabis cultivation license is $10,000. And if a permit is actually granted, that costs another $60,000. Then there’s an annual permit renewal fee of $10,000.
“Colorado probably got it right more than anywhere else,” Cubbage said. “For instance, a lot of the tax revenue from legal marijuana [in Virginia] is going to go to law enforcement, which is not what they did in Colorado. It goes to infrastructure and education. Also, we’re just making things really hard on people, on the average person, to succeed in this industry.”
Plus, limiting individuals to four plants for personal use is “ridiculous,” she added.
Another quirk of the legislation is that it’s still illegal to sell marijuana seeds in Virginia, and it’s against federal law to move any type of marijuana across state lines. So the only above-board way to get ahold of seeds is through swaps and giveaways, like those the group Virginia Marijuana Justice organized in Henrico, Arlington and Charlottesville on July 1.
For those who want to try their hand at growing marijuana at home, Cubbage advises reading books like The Cannabible (Penguin Random House, 2001); using preventative methods including a filtered ventilation system to keep your plants healthy; and being open to learning from others.
“Also, not to get discouraged,” she said. “I’m still learning to this day – it’s ever changing. It’s always evolving. I think that’s a big issue for a lot of people. Sometimes they feel like they’re getting left behind … I don’t want people to feel that way, because, to me, it’s really important that people are self reliant in this industry.”
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