NEPHI, Utah — The wide metal barn on the Utah alfalfa farm owned by Russell and Diane Jones will host their youngest son’s wedding next month. By September, they hope the structure will be full of marijuana plants.
The Joneses are fourth-generation farmers, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and among 81 applicants for one of a handful of coveted spots as a licensed medical marijuana grower in conservative Utah.
Though leaders of their faith once opposed the bid to legalize medical marijuana, Russell Jones says he researched the drug’s pain-relieving benefits as he battled Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Now he and his wife want to be part of an emerging industry that some doubted would ever come to the state.
“This is groundbreaking for Utah,” Diane Jones said. “Who doesn’t want to make history?”
Others hoping to win licenses include larger operations that grow hemp, and a handful of out-of-state growers. State officials are expected to begin awarding up to 10 licenses later this month.
The state recently opened the licensing process to out-of-state growers, a change that makes locals like hemp processor Darren Johnson nervous.
“Does it bode well for me? No, but they want it to be seamless. They don’t want hiccups. And I get that,” he said.
Some applicants worry the process stacks the deck against local growers in favor of “Big Weed,” or companies that have successfully grown cannabis in other states where the crop is legal. The application requires a $2,500 fee, and submissions are hundreds of pages long. Those who get a license pay $100,000 every year to keep it, in addition to buying tools and facilities that can cost millions.
Department of Agriculture officials said they are awarding extra points to applicants with community ties as they review applications. Eight applications came from out-of-state growers. The state is looking for farmers able to expand operations as demand increases while keeping costs low and growing plants free of mold and pesticides.
At an indoor facility in North Salt Lake, Troy Young tends to rows of hemp plants under the harsh, purple glow of LED lights designed to nurture growth. Young grows industrial hemp, a nonpsychoactive cousin of marijuana legalized in Utah last year.
He is among a number of ambitious growers who have invested in equipment and set aside money hoping to receive a license to grow medical marijuana.
Cannabis in its various forms is challenging to grow and requires a lot of experimentation, he said.
“It’s fun for me. I get to be a mad scientist,” said Young, 52. He has a personal stake in marijuana legalization. Young lost his mother to an opioid addiction. If she had access to a less destructive pain-relieving drug, like marijuana, he said, maybe she’d still be alive.