Marijuana farms and retail shops could bring thousands of jobs and at least $30 million in new revenue to Kern County government.
But Kern County supervisors are struggling with serious concerns that if they permit commercial cannabis, they would compromise public safety in unincorporated areas despite their best attempts to regulate it.
They have only weeks to decide which way to go.
On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors will hear a briefing on cannabis in advance of a detailed public input process before the Kern County Planning Commission next month.
Supervisor Mick Gleason said he’s been talking to people in McFarland, Delano, Ridgecrest and other cities in his district about this issue.
“I’m trying to build context in my district about how my folks are feeling about this. I’m trying to do the best I can for District 1,” he said.
What he’s hearing is concern, he said.
“There are issues people have with how it impacts public safety. There’s concerns also – how best do we regulate?” Gleason said. “The driving issue for me is public safety and the cultural health of the community. Do we want to be a community that wants to have increased exposure to a recreational drug?”
Other supervisors said they, too, will gather more information.
Supervisor Mike Maggard said his constituents see clusters of dispensaries, people loitering around them, and the assaults, robberies and murders that have happened there.
He said he will ask county staff for detailed information about the crime that occurs at dispensaries.
“You would not want this next door to where your children sleep,” Maggard said.
The supervisors' ultimate two options are simple. They can ban all cultivation, processing and commercial distribution of cannabis in unincorporated Kern County. Or they can allow marijuana businesses but limit the number and test and regulate the products they produce and constrain where they can locate — then collect property and sales taxes.
Permitting and regulating marijuana is clearly the more lucrative option. According to the briefing document for Tuesday’s meeting, it would cost the county $1.2 million to $2.7 million to enforce a ban on marijuana.
Without that aggressive enforcement, county planners write, growers, processors and sellers would simply set up shop and thumb their nose at state laws and county ordinances.
The county’s experience with medical marijuana dispensaries bears out that statement. County lawyers and code enforcement officers fought for years to uphold a de facto ban on dispensaries but never succeeded.
Shops would appear and, when the county came to bust them, would close. Days or weeks later, they would open in a new location.
On the other hand, regulation of commercial cannabis, the planning brief states, could generate a lot of revenue for county coffers.
It would cost around $524,000 to enforce the new regulations. But the county would bring in nearly $1.6 million in sales and property taxes.
And that’s not taking the ballot box into account.
According to planning documents, voters could approve – with a simple majority – a tax on the marijuana industry that could produce $35.9 million to $47.9 million. Planners estimate the new industry would add 8,750 full-time jobs to the Kern County economy.
For Gleason, the money is a shiny, attractive bauble. But he said that’s not what’s going to drive his decision.
“How much of that money is going to be spent on remedies — fixing the problems the drug creates?” he asked.
Maggard said he’s not sure the county should focus on the money conversation.
“It’s a slippery slope to begin to talk about what vices should be made legal so we could tax them,” he said.
For Supervisor Zack Scrivner, the struggle is minimizing the impact marijuana and the people who make it their business have on Kern County residents.
He recently helped pull together an enforcement task force in Rosamond where nine illegal dispensaries operate alongside seven legal ones in a city of 18,000 people.
Warrants were issued against three illegal dispensaries, he said, and the District Attorney’s office is pursuing misdemeanor charges.
His constituents there feel inundated, he wrote in an email.
“This is not an acceptable situation,” Scrivner wrote.
But the state made cannabis legal, tying the county’s hands on the possession and use of the drug.
The question for Scrivner, he said, is which path to handling commercial marijuana is the right one.
“While I have not made up my mind on which is the best path, I will acknowledge that our efforts to enforce a ban, and the current moratorium, have not been effective, as the civil court process takes too long to close down illegal dispensaries, and new ones open up every day,” he stated.
Before he decides, Scrivner wrote, he needs to know if there will be resources from county coffers and the state to aggressively enforce that ban.
Then he’ll weigh those resources against the funding a regulatory scheme could provide to pay for enforcement of the regulations suggested in planning documents.
For Supervisor Leticia Perez, the county’s financial future is a very, very serious issue.
She has to consider the potential for the county to add thousands of jobs and a stable stream of revenue.
“One-third of our workforce hasn’t gotten a raise in nine years. Our deputies are the lowest paid in the state. We have a retention and morale problem that is troubling,” Perez said. “This is serious.”
This is an opportunity for the county to do it right and replace a revenue source — oil property taxes — that she isn’t sure is ever coming back, she said.
Kern County knows how to grow and ship agricultural products and it’s located in a critical logistical location in Southern California.
“The potential for a new and ongoing revenue source for Kern County is very exciting,” she said.
But there has to be a serious effort to make sure the county can effectively regulate cannabis operations, Perez said.
“There is frustration from the community about what seems to be confusion about where we are with this — (there is) frustration about illegal operations,” Perez said.
THE SHERIFF AND THE ADVOCATE
Heather Epps and Sheriff Donny Youngblood, unlike supervisors, have clear ideas of which way the county should go.
Youngblood has fought against the commercial distribution of marijuana since he became sheriff in 2007.
He said he’ll have nothing to do with any plan to approve and regulate marijuana shops, farms and processing centers.
“If the board decides to regulate it, they can regulate it. What they can’t do is make the sheriff regulate it,” he said. “This is not a fix. But I don’t have a vote on this. If I did have a vote it would be ‘No.’”
Epps is a leader with Kern Citizens for Patient Rights, the group that blocked an attempted Kern County ban on medical marijuana dispensaries in 2011 with a referendum.
She said regulation is the only effective path forward for the county — a message she and other cannabis advocates have tried to impress on supervisors for years.
Banning the commercial cultivation, processing and sales of marijuana won’t stop fly-by-night operators from cluttering Bakersfield with block after block of shops.
She often drives along Niles Street, she said, and there are 15 dispensaries in a short stretch of that east Bakersfield road.
Enforcement can’t stop them, she said, because the operators never intend to stay in one location for long.
They grow marijuana, or pool several grows, then open a shop and sell it until it’s gone.
“They pop up and they close and then they pop up again,” she said.
The solution is to regulate.
Force growers to limit pesticides. Test for contaminants. Implement felony statues in state law for illegal operations. Keep kids out of dispensaries. Collect taxes. Force employers to comply with workers compensation laws.
Once legitimate shops are in place, Epps said, their operators will help the county fight shady dealers.
But for Youngblood, nothing about marijuana is legal or legitimate.
Federal law still considers the drug illegal and, because so much money is involved, there will always be a black market offering more powerful strains of the drug and growing in Kern County for export to states where cannabis is still illegal.
In his mind, supervisors are considering whether to ban marijuana or to enter into a criminal conspiracy to grow and distribute a federally banned substance.
– This story was corrected to reflect the year that Youngblood first became Sheriff.