The two Kern County towns that have dipped their toes into California's newly legalized cannabis trade are going about their shared civic adventure slowly, cautiously and with an eye on each other's back.
California City and Arvin, at nearly opposite ends of this Delaware-sized county, share two significant attributes: They have fewer than 20,000 residents each and they both hope to fortify their treasuries with marijuana money. Other than that, they're as different as they can be: With 203 square miles of Mojave Desert scrub, Cal City occupies more than twice Bakersfield's area but has 3 percent of its population. Arvin, meanwhile, comprises five modest square miles of some of the world's most verdant soil.
The road they've embarked on isn't exactly uncharted; scores of other towns in other states have already embraced the legal cannabis trade with differing degrees of success and appreciation. But, for the two local towns, there's comfort in knowing that some neighbors share your challenges.
Officials in Arvin and California City have both extensively researched the issues they'll confront as they roll out nearly identical ordinances. Both are focusing exclusively on medical cannabis: its cultivation and distribution, as well as the manufacture of THC-based products and, in at least one city's case, potency testing. Neither city permits recreational retail sales and, although that could theoretically change, neither city is seriously debating it.
Per city ordinance, cannabis grown in Cal City can't even go to recreational retailers who operate elsewhere, and local police officials track its distribution to make sure that's the case.
Robert Stockwell, city manager of California City, has hosted Arvin City Manager Al Noyola for a couple of sit-down sessions, and Cal City Police Chief Eric Hurtado has been a resource for Arvin Police Chief Jerry Breckinridge.
Cal City is further along in the process, having passed an ordinance in September 2016 that cleared the way for legal cultivation; Arvin passed its ordinance only last December.
The desert community 65 miles east of Bakersfield approved about 160 commercial cannabis applications in 2017 alone and, Hurtado says, now has about 200 businesses — cultivation, manufacture, distribution or some combination — waiting to move in and open up.
The first of them opened a week ago: Big Flower Grow Co. will cultivate cannabis inside a 1.7-acre indoor facility on Neuralia Road. "There's been a lot of hoops to jump through, but the city has been more than fair," said company rep Gary Marsh, who says he first broached the subject of legalized commercial activity with Cal City's city council in 2016.
Hurtado says the process of permitting and regulating cannabis businesses, which on its face might seem awkward or counterintuitive for a cop, has been smooth.
"For the most part, most of the businesses here have been open and eager," he said. "'What regulations do we need to follow?' They have to make themselves available for inspections without notice and other (operational transparencies), whatever is required. If someone was throwing up roadblocks that would be a concern, but that's not been the case."
One of the requirements is that cannabis businesses must have surveillance cameras in place that are rolling 24/7. With 200 businesses apparently set to move into Cal City in the coming months, that's a lot of cameras; one can envision LAX's air traffic control.
"Not exactly," Hurtado admits. "Maybe in the next year. Right now it's (footage from) one business on one computer."
We're living in a different world. Hurtado hasn't merely been transformed into an authority on security cams; he knows his cannabis chemical composition, too.
"Eric talks like a doctor sometimes," laughs Breckinridge, the Arvin police chief.
Even as the chiefs discuss the finer points of THC content, they've maintained vigilance against illegal activity. Cal City cops have demonstrated apparent zero tolerance, having recently busted dozens of illegal house-grow operations. One day alone — with help from a couple of Arvin police officers who drove in just for the occasion — they served 14 warrants for illegal cannabis cultivation.
Stockwell, who started his career in municipal government as a Utah police officer, says the recent busts aren't a reaction to the unwanted perception that California City is a "cannabis city." He says the Cal City police are just doing their jobs. But there's a side benefit.
"Legalizing the industry is eventually going to kill off the illegal activity," he said. "You're seeing the death throes of an industry. ... Once these illegal operations are gone we'll have a better situation. It's not the pro-cannabis environment that attracts the illegal stuff. It's the low rents and the isolation."
All valuable lessons for Arvin, which could license its first legal cannabis cultivation operation as early as April.