Carla K. Johnson AP Medical Writer
A skunky aroma fills the room in which hundreds of lush marijuana plants grow, some nearly ready for harvest. Grower Ashley Thompson, a former high school agriculture teacher in this rural part of southeastern Illinois, takes the scent of weed home with her.
She doesn't mind. It's the fragrance of money and jobs.
"My family says I smell," said Thompson, who quit the classroom to work for Ataraxia, one of a handful of cultivation centers in Illinois, which is one of 23 states with medical marijuana. "I can't tell though."
The Associated Press recently gained an exclusive look at Illinois' first legal marijuana crop, and the new farmland ritual beginning amid surrounding cornfields in the historic town of Albion: the harvest of medical marijuana that will soon be sold in dispensaries around the state.
Ataraxia is the first center to make it to the finish line after running a gantlet of state requirements. For the company to find a home in Albion — where grain trucks rumble past the sleepy central square, cicadas drone in the trees shading a century-old courthouse and a breeze touches an empty bandstand — is paradoxical. Stores can't sell package liquor, but marijuana has been welcomed as a badly needed source of employment.
A comical T-shirt for sale says the town is "High and Dry."
Cheryl Taylor, who sells the shirts at her shop on the square, said the marijuana facility has everyone curious: "It's brought our little town to life."
Down a country road, tucked behind the New Holland tractor dealer and the Pioneer seed plant, the history-making cannabis crop is being cut and dried behind the locked doors of a giant warehouse. By mid-October, strains with names like Blue Dream, OG Kush, Death Star and White Poison will be turned into medicine in many forms: oils, creams, buds for smoking, edible chocolates and gummies.
It's been a twisting path to harvest, marked by delays and a secretive, highly restrictive program meant to avoid the creation of easy-access pot shops seen in other states. Until Illinois gave approval in late September for the AP's tour, only company workers and government inspectors had been inside the warehouse.
Thousands of cannabis plants — some in full bud, coated with cannabinoid-rich fibers — filled two large rooms at the facility on the day of the AP's tour. Mother plants and young plants started from cuttings had their own, smaller rooms.
The 1,900-person community of Albion, which is closer to Louisville, Kentucky, than Chicago, has embraced all this, sight unseen.
"It's a good thing for the local economy," said Doug Raber, who sells insurance. "This is a pretty conservative area. Any kind of revenue we can have here is good."
Local developers sold a cornfield to Ataraxia for $5,000 an acre, which real estate agent Randy Hallam said is a 50 percent discount. The city also paid to build a road and extend water and sewer lines. The company hired locals to build and outfit the warehouse.
But only seven people, aside from managers, have been hired permanently. With only 3,000 approved medical marijuana patients, the company can't expand yet. CEO George Archos said he wants to hire 50 to 60, and meeting that goal will go a long way to keeping the community's support.
"Albion needs to diversify its employment," said Duane Crays, editor of The Navigator, Albion's newspaper. Chief employers regionally are agriculture, oil and gas production, and an auto filter plant.
Albion might seem an unlikely place for pioneering a marijuana crop, but it is no stranger to controversies, large and small. A few years ago, residents were at odds over whether to restore the historic brick streets or pave them over. The current debate is whether to sell alcohol in stores or keep the city dry, as it has been for decades, except for clubs.
A love triangle was the city's first rift. Albion was founded in 1818 by an Englishman, George Flower; a former rival for the affections of Flower's wife founded his own settlement 2 miles away. The two men did agree on abolition, and the rival, Morris Birkbeck, penned essays credited with keeping Illinois free of slavery.
Traces of that settler spirit remain today, Ald. Arrol Stewart said. "As the sign says when you come into town: 'Progressively Independent since 1818,'" Stewart said.
Residents' excitement over the health benefits of marijuana — from stimulating appetite in cancer patients to easing stiffness for people with multiple sclerosis — may also have historic roots. The bandstand marks the spot where a mineral spring once drew patients with a host of ailments; it was said the water could cure.
"My wife has MS," Hallam said. She doesn't have her patient card yet, he said, "but she has a doctor's appointment coming up."