Along a hot, dusty stretch of freeway in California's Coachella Valley, a green rush is booming that not even the coronavirus pandemic can slow.
Desert Hot Springs, once a sleepy retirement community overshadowed by its more glamorous neighbor, Palm Springs, to the south, is transforming into a cannabis-growing capital as businesses lured by tax incentives and a 420-friendly local government pour into the small city.
"It's fun times right now to be the mayor," said Mayor Scott Matas, who has been in city government since 2007 and once voted to implement a moratorium on cannabis businesses.
Last year the industry contributed more than $4 million to city revenue, overtaking real estate as the biggest generator of tax profit, Matas said. City officials anticipate an even higher revenue stream from cannabis businesses this year.
Deputy City Manager Doria Wilms said: "It's been incredible to see the transformation. We don't see it slowing down."
A new industry blossoms
It took Gold Flora CEO Laurie Holcomb only 48 hours to decide to open a cultivation business in Desert Hot Springs after it began to allow large-scale operations. She already owned a real estate development company and saw an opportunity to expand into the growing industry.
In eight growing rooms inside Gold Flora's cultivation facility, insulated metal panels similar to those in walk-in coolers shield more than 9,000 cannabis plants from the unrelenting sun. Even without air conditioning, the building will never heat up beyond 80 degrees inside despite triple-digit temperatures outside, facilities manager Adam Yudka said. Plants are stored atop rolling benches that use an internal irrigation system to water crops individually.
Gold Flora owns and operates five warehouse-size buildings, some of which are rented to other cannabis businesses. The sprawling campus, covering about 23 city blocks, was built from the ground up.
"Most people, when they think about the desert, they think they're going out in the middle of nowhere," Holcomb said. "It made sense that if you build it, they will come."
A city brought back from the brink
Gold Flora and other companies like it represent a major shift for the desert economy. Matas, who was re-elected to a third term in November, remembers a time around 2011 when the city had just "$400 in the bank." City officials froze salaries, cut programs and considered filing for bankruptcy protection, Reuters reported. The city had previously filed for bankruptcy in 2001.
The tax revenue has already helped to pay for a new City Hall, a library and roads, as well as more police officers. Housing developers eye the area as jobs attract more people to the desert. Residents also benefit from the boom — of about 29,000 residents, at least 2,300 work in the cannabis industry, Wilms said.
Desert Hot Springs, about two hours east of Los Angeles near Joshua Tree National Park, boasted more than 200 spas throughout the 1940s and the 1950s that were fed by a natural underground aquifer, which still provides water for much of the Coachella Valley. But the city had fallen on hard times financially in the last 20 years.
In 2013, the city declared a fiscal emergency to avoid filing for Chapter 9 for a second time, the Los Angeles Times reported. The city had emerged from its first bankruptcy filing in 2004, but less than 10 years later its reserves were dwindling again after an economic downturn and decreased development.
A city building in the town of Desert Hot Springs, Calif.Maggie Shannon / for NBC News
Only medical marijuana was legal in California at the time, but city officials decided to take a risk on what appeared to be a growing industry as states like Washington and Colorado legalized recreational cannabis. Adult-use recreational marijuana became legal in 2016.
A French court on Monday threw out a lawsuit brought by a French-Vietnamese woman against more than a dozen multinationals that produced and sold toxic herbicide Agent Orange, used by American troops during the war in Vietnam.
The landmark case, filed in 2014, has pitched Tran To Nga, a 79-year-old who says she was a victim of Agent Orange, against 14 firms, including U.S. multinational companies Dow Chemical and Monsanto, now owned by German giant Bayer.
Tran To Nga confirmed to Reuters earlier media reports that the case had been thrown out. She added she would appeal against the ruling.
The former journalist has described in a book how she breathed some Agent Orange in 1966, when she was a member of the Vietnamese Communists, or Viet Cong, that fought against South Vietnam and the United States.
“Because of that, I lost one child due to heart defects. I have two other daughters who were born with malformations. And my grandchildren, too,” she told The Associated Press.
A protest at the Bayer headquarters in Leverkusen, Germany, in 2016.Jannis Mattar / picture-alliance / AP file
Tran is seeking damages for multiple health problems, including cancer, and those of her children in legal proceedings that could be the first to provide compensation to a Vietnamese victim, if the French court rules in her favor, according to an alliance of nongovernmental organizations backing her case.
So far only military veterans from the U.S. and other countries involved in the war have won compensation. The justice system in France allows citizens to sue over events that took place abroad.
U.S. forces used Agent Orange to defoliate Vietnamese jungles and to destroy Viet Cong crops during the war.
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Between 1962 and 1971, the U.S. military sprayed roughly 11 million gallons of the chemical agent across large swaths of southern Vietnam. Dioxin stays in the soil and in the sediment at the bottom of lakes and rivers for generations. It can enter the food supply through the fat of fish and other animals.
Vietnam says as many as 4 million of its citizens were exposed to the herbicide and as many as 3 million have suffered illnesses from it, including the children of people who were exposed during the war.
“That’s where lies the crime, the tragedy because with Agent Orange, it doesn’t stop. It is passed on from one generation to the next,” Tran said.
Bayer argues any legal responsibility for Trans's claims should belong to the United States, saying in a statement that the Agent Orange was made “under the sole management of the U.S. government for exclusively military purposes.”
Tran’s lawyers argued that the U.S. government had not requisitioned the chemical but secured it from the companies through a bidding process.