Why Artists Are Growing Wary of Weed Industry

  • Rising rents because of urban cannabis production are forcing artists out of cities like Oakland and Seattle.
  • Many artists had supported the legalization of cannabis.

At its peak, arts incubator Nimby hosted more than 300 artists at its 80,000-square-foot space on Amelia Street in East Oakland. Many were preparing work for display at the Burning Man event in Nevada. “We had everything in there from hot rods to full-scale projects,” Michael Snook, its founder, says.

That changed after California legalized recreational marijuana in 2016. Overnight, cannabis cultivators, including out-of-state corporations, began seeking out properties in industrial neighborhoods that had served as artists colonies for years. Nimby’s space is now rented out to a cannabis company. A real estate firm that focuses on marijuana businesses bought out a hub used by the Oakland Cannery, a work-live space for around 30 artists. 

After the six-acre American Steel Studios was sold to a developer in 2016, rents for the more than 200 artists working there shot up, forcing out all but half a dozen. While the buyer wasn’t a cannabis grower, founder Karen Cusolito and others say cannabis growing and “sheer greed and lack of understanding” have left her and dozens of others without workspaces.

And it’s not just Oakland. In Seattle, Sheryl Andrist found her She Metal fabrication business forced from its former workspace after her landlord raised the rent by 50 percent amid a surge in cannabis growing activity on the city’s Harbor Island. In Sparks, Nevada, the Generator art space — home to 300 members — had its lease terminated early after the landlord decided to divide up and sell the space amid a similar cannabis boom. 

We were under the impression that [the growers] could work with [us] and that we could both benefit. … We haven’t seen any of that.

Michael Snook, founder, Nimby

It’s a cautionary tale for states with large, urban-based artist and creative communities that are now embracing legalized weed, such as Illinois, Nevada, Michigan and Massachusetts. Nimby members were initially supportive of the shift toward legal access to marijuana. Other artists were too. Famed artist Alex Grey celebrated California’s legalization by unveiling live on Facebook his Cannafist print painted especially for the occasion. They hadn’t foreseen the consequences. Unable to meet rocketing rents, Nimby shuttered last October.

“We were under the impression that [the growers] could work with [us] and that we could both benefit,” Snook says. “But we haven’t seen any of that.”

A similar impact is evident elsewhere too. When Canada became the second country to legalize pot in 2018, studies reported that the country’s eight largest cannabis producers would need more than 8 million square feet of industrial space by 2020 — the equivalent of 139 football fields. In Denver, Colorado, where pot was legalized in 2014, rent prices for industrial spaces in 2017 had risen by 40 percent compared to five years earlier. Today, Denver is home to 249 registered growing facilities, mostly concentrated in locations that often coincide with spaces where artists live and work.

It’s a lucrative business — and not just for growers. When Oakland announced permits for marijuana dispensaries in early 2018, 116 businesses applied for just eight available spots. Between May 2017 and August last year, 124 businesses approached the city to open indoor growing operations. Rents for industrial properties rose 70 percent in 2017 alone. And while Alameda County, which includes Oakland, made around $12 million in cannabis sales tax last year, none of that is earmarked for arts or culture programs.

The rising rents are also hurting cannabis planters. In British Columbia, growers are looking to retrofit buildings or move to rural areas. Red tape is another deciding factor in Canada. “You can’t just go and rent a unit in a warehouse and start growing,” says Darcy Bomford, founder of pet cannabis supplements firm True Leaf. The restrictions — in the U.S. and Canada — include maintaining a minimum distance from schools and hospitals.

To be sure, the cannabis industry has also created hundreds of thousands of jobs where weed has been legalized. In Denver, Terrapin Care Station sponsors the nonprofit Art District on Santa Fe. Cannabis marketing agencies such as Grasslands fund their employees’ donations to a variety of organizations, some of which are in the arts.

Meanwhile, in March 2018 the city of Oakland passed legislation that “prohibits the approval of local cannabis permits for spaces that contain live-work space,” says Kelley Kahn, director of special projects for the city of Oakland. “This helps protect our arts and maker communities by removing the ability of investors to use these spaces for cannabis.”

But for many, that hasn’t made any difference since the law only applies to spaces where artists both work and live.

Artist Clody Cates had lived in Oakland for almost 20 years, but when Nimby closed, she lost the place where she both worked and lived since she also worked as a security guard at the incubator. “I decided to pack everything, all my tools, into storage,” she says. “I’m working on my computer, doing graphic designing now. It’s not cool. I cannot make art right now.”

Today Cates lives near Nevada City, a town of 3,000 people 140 miles from Oakland. Other artists, she says, have been displaced to Lodi and Santa Rosa in California and to Reno in Nevada. Snook is now based in Doyle, a tiny community close to the California-Nevada state line where a friend put down roots and bought a bar.

“Basically, we had to run to where we could afford,” he says, while adding that it’s not all bad. Burning Man, where he helps out every August and September, is now just 90 miles away. “The locals [in Doyle] are very nice.”

Snook recently returned to East Oakland to pick up some things and found that much had changed. “I tried to get my generator fixed, but the repair guy was gone. I tried to get my oil changed, the oil change guy was gone,” he says. “Everything I tried to do, they’ve been pushed out as well.”

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