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Crowdfunding campaign for Northern California fire victims shut down due to cannabis ties

An online payment company has shut down a fundraising campaign set up to support cannabis cultivators who’ve been impacted by the deadly wildfires in Northern California, saying marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

WePay, which processes payments for the crowdfunding site YouCaring.com, is refusing to pass along more than $13,000 in donations the California Growers Association has raised for affected families.

“We’ve got folks who have needs who we would like to start like to start helping,” Hezekiah Allen, director of the growers association and organizer of the fundraising campaign, said Tuesday. “We’re still hopeful that they’ll process those payments. We’re waiting with fingers crossed.”

Dozens of people remain missing after a series of wildfires scorched more than 200,000 acres in Northern California over the past week, killing at least 41 people and destroying an estimated 6,000 homes and businesses.

While he hasn’t heard of any deaths within the cannabis community, Allen called the impact to the industry “unprecedented” — all while farmers are already scrambling to comply with evolving state laws that will kick in Jan. 1.

He said they’re aware of a few dozen cannabis growers facing “devastation,” as they’ve lost their homes, their farms or both. And he expects that number to grow substantially as evacuation orders are lifted and people are able to assess the damages.

The growers association launched its first fundraising campaign a week ago on YouCaring called MendoFire: CalGrowers Wildfire Relief Fund, and they quickly blew past the initial goal of raising $5,000 to support impacted Mendocino County farmers.

A screen shot of a blocked crowdfunding website set up for wildfire victims.

As they learned that growers in at least six counties had been affected, Allen said they decided to launch a second campaign with a broader focus. The CalGrowers Wildfire Recovery Fund went live six days ago, with $13,335 raised from 88 donors.

The MendoFire campaign is still up and going. But on Monday, Allen received an email from the company letting him know that his CalGrowers campaign “violated their terms of service” and wouldn’t be allowed to continue. Soon, he heard from a few donors who said their contributions had been refunded.

YouCaring spokesman Austin Kapur said his company “supports all forms of treatment and most fundraiser types.” But he said in an email that their payment providers, WePay and PayPal, “do not allow fundraisers for anything marijuana-related, including for medical reasons” due to federal law. He said that includes anything cannabis-related, even in states where the industry is legal.

WePay is handling the growers association campaign. Company spokesman Jeremy Milk emailed this statement: “To comply with federal law and related government notices, WePay’s bank and card association partners prohibit us from processing payments related to marijuana. This means we can process payments for campaigns to support growers’ families, but not to support their cannabis crops.”

Allen said his association has formed a committee with representatives from different counties to help determine how funds will be dispersed. But while they intend to help farmers make mortgage payments, replace damaged equipment, rebuild their homes and more, Allen said there is no plan to use donor funds to buy marijuana seeds or plants.

The cannabis industry has long struggled with access to banking services thanks to the plant’s federal status — a challenge that Allen, as a former cultivator, has dealt with first hand. But he said he didn’t imagine an effort to raise money to support farmers and their families hit by fire would face the same roadblocks.

On Tuesday afternoon he said he was still waiting to hear back from YouCaring and WePay. The second campaign can’t accept any donations. But Allen said he also can’t withdraw those funds, while only a handful of donors have had their payments reversed.

Kapur and Milk said all of the donations will be refunded. And they both said they’ve had to do it for other cannabis-related campaigns in the past.

Though he was surprised by the ban, Allen said everyone who works with cannabis is used to being flexible.

“This is sort of par for the course in our industry,” he said.

He immediately got to work building a fundraising page directly through the California Growers Association website, where he said payments will be processed using PayPal.

While he suspects the widespread loss of crops might drive up the wholesale cost of cannabis in coming months, Allen doesn’t believe such increases will be passed along to consumers. But even if they are, he said it will likely be impossible to link any market impacts to the fires, since prices are already expected to be volatile as state regulations take affect and recreational cannabis sales start in 2018.


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