Cannabis plants in Monterey County are dying, resulting in millions of dollars in damage.

Its asymptomatic nature makes it difficult to catch and its effect on cannabis plant yield and potency goes unknown until the end of the growing process. The plant disease, called the hop latent viroid, has joined the ranks of unforeseen obstacles plaguing the Monterey County cannabis industry.

County officials still have much to learn about the hop latent viroid, but say it harmed several cannabis cultivation operations over the last year. According to 33 cultivators that responded to a county survey, the viroid, which is smaller than a virus, has had varying impacts. Individual cannabis cultivators reported as many as 2.9 million plants infected. Testing cost individual growers between $15,000 and $100,000, and lost revenues for individual growers reached as high as $5.9 million.

Bob Roach, executive director of the Monterey County Cannabis Industry Association, says aside from the county’s survey, there is little data on the impact of the viroid across the industry; however, he says its prevalence has increased, as has the industry’s awareness of it.

“We don’t totally understand it. There’s nothing you can do, there’s no treatment, there’s no cure. Growers just have to try to totally eliminate it from their stock,” Roach says. According to crop science company Phylos, the viroid creates dud cannabis plants and often doesn’t show itself until the end of the growing process. For growers, Roach says this means a lot of money is wasted on the cultivation of impotent crops.

The impact has been significant enough that the Monterey County Board of Supervisors cited it among the reasons behind their unanimous decision to cancel an automatic tax increase on cannabis operations for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1.

“The pandemic has created difficulties, but also this new viroid, which we hadn’t even heard of in the last several years, certainly was a challenge for many growers this year,” Supervisor Luis Alejo said during the board’s May 11 meeting, when the tax freeze was first proposed.

Roach says the viroid has been just one obstacle to the county’s still-budding cannabis industry. He says the high cost of compliance that has come with legalization has also slowed growth. According to county staff, only 23 percent of cannabis land-use applications and 12 percent of cannabis business permit applications have been approved.

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