I went back out to California City recently to catch up on what it is doing that no other city in Kern County dares to do. Chiefly, legalize the cultivation, manufacturing, distribution and testing of medical marijuana for commercial purposes through a permitting process.
City leaders passed an ordinance late last year to regulate it. There's been no shortage of applicants rushing to this desert city in hopes of cashing in. They are a varied lot. Among them is a group owned and operated by military veterans.
"California City enables us to cultivate marijuana on a legal basis and do it on a larger scale," said Raj Milian, a senior airman serving in the U.S. Air Force Reserve.
He's also vice president and CEO of Whole Greens California. This group has big plans. Currently based in Temecula, Whole Greens operates dispensaries in Los Angeles and Orange County. Milian envisions cultivating and manufacturing marijuana in a giant warehouse of up to 22,000 square feet. The first year of operation will have 50 to 100 employees. In five years, that number is expected to multiply dramatically and Milian said he plans to hire and train as many locals as he can find with a salary that pays twice the minimum wage.
He's quick to point to the main reason behind this venture.
"The number one goal is to help the veterans," said Milian. "We can come out in the open to help them and others who suffer from PTSD and other ailments."
This veterans group was one of dozens of applicants that faced a crowd of California City residents at a public comment presentation. Each one had to publicly pitch what, how and why he or she wanted to come to California City and grow marijuana.
Some gave coherent presentations. Some stumbled a little bit. All gave it their best shot explaining why they would be a good fit with the community.
Local support for this venture is overwhelming, with 75 percent of residents here giving it a thumbs up.
"I as a businessman can see what's coming," said David Stafford, who is also applying for a manufacturing permit. "It's a win-win situation for the city."
All this is possible because the state gave local governments such as cities and counties the right to regulate or ban marijuana as they see fit.
Local leaders are relying on the marijuana industry to help this cash-strapped city. Remember, this is the largest city never built.
Located in the Mojave Desert in eastern Kern County, it is the third largest city in the state — by area. It consists of 203,631 square miles of mostly dirt roads, with names such as Cadillac Boulevard, Volvo Drive and Dodge Street. Thing is, though, it remains vastly undeveloped. The intention was to make California City a sprawling metropolis in the desert that would rival Los Angeles.
Incorporated in 1965, the idea never caught on. Today, it is home to about 14,000 residents. But if projections for the cannabis industry hold true, California City has more than enough room to handle the influx.
The city recently did away with a special $7.5 million tax that funded public safety. California City Manager Tom Weil said the city expects to raise that amount in two years from taxes on the marijuana industry.
"We're going to try to ride this as best as possible and see where it takes us," said Weil.
The Kern County Planning Department just released its environmental impact report on large-scale marijuana operations in the unincorporated parts of Kern County. A separate fiscal report shows the proposed land uses, at build-out, have the potential to generate between $34.6 million and $43 million in annually recurring revenue.
Should the Kern County Board of Supervisors decide to follow California City's lead, it has lots of catching up to do. Or the county can simply say, "We'll pass up on millions of dollars."
Just last week, California City awarded the coveted temporary permits to the second round of applicants. The last step is a background check with the Department of Justice and the FBI.
Among the recipients was the veterans group Whole Greens California. The outfit will be moving its base from Temecula and establish headquarters in California City. It has already bought land and expects to break ground on a new facility at the end of the month.
"I feel great!" said Raj Milian. "I'm totally ecstatic!"