The number of medical marijuana dispensaries open in Bakersfield and unincorporated Kern County has ballooned to around 70 despite their longtime illegality, leaving officials scrambling to catch up.

The problem is exacerbated by the nature of the businesses, which sometimes attract criminals who have robbed, tortured, threatened and killed employees.

Kern has closed down some 60 shops since making them illegal, but more keep coming, said Deputy County Counsel James Brannen. There currently are 16, he said, and the county is pursuing injunctions “against each and every one of them.”

Bakersfield has shut down about 33 dispensaries since August 2013, Deputy City Attorney Richard Iger estimated. He believes as many as 54 are operating in city limits now.

The city has eight active cases against offenders in Kern County Superior Court and will likely file up to six more soon.

“I think for every one I shut down, it seems like two open,” Iger said.

The city and county prosecute offenders somewhat differently, which could account for the wide variance in their numbers of active shops.

COMPLICATED LEGAL LANDSCAPE

The federal government considers marijuana a Schedule 1 controlled substance with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. It’s on the same schedule with harder drugs such as heroin and the psychedelic LSD.

But California voters passed Proposition 215 in 1996, which lets people with cancer, AIDS and other chronic illnesses grow and use marijuana for medical purposes.

State law also gives dispensaries immunity from criminal prosecution, meaning “the police can’t just go in and raid,” Iger said. So cities and counties have to go after them in civil court using zoning laws.

 Bakersfield and Kern have zones for houses, industrial plants, farms and shopping centers, but strategically, none for medical marijuana dispensaries.

Bakersfield’s terms are spelled out in a medical marijuana ordinance, which was approved in 2013 and survived a legal challenge last year.

In the County of Kern, the 2012 voter-approved Measure G permitted dispensaries in certain unincorporated areas. But when a judge overturned the ballot measure in 2014, Kern was left with no zone where dispensaries were permitted. 

DIFFERING PATHS TO COURT

When the county learns of a new shop, Brennan said, it sends out code enforcement officers to inspect the business. If the shop owner allows them in, they can move forward quickly. Otherwise they have to get a search warrant.

Inspections take one to two weeks, Brennan said, and then he takes the case to the Kern County Board of Supervisors. With supervisor approval, county lawyers file a civil suit to shut the business down.

Filing can take a couple weeks and the county uses an ex parte application to speed things up. Add in another couple weeks to get the case in front of a judge, where an injunction can force the owners to close up shop.

Altogether it can take up to six weeks to get the business shuttered.

Bakersfield targets pot shops on a “complaint-driven basis,” meaning if no one complains, the businesses can escape notice. That’s the situation with V&G Collective, 2309 Chester Ave., which moved there from the county in 2012.

Rather than using ex parte applications and seeking preliminary injunctions to close pot shops, Bakersfield typically waits for a judge to issue an injunction at the case’s end.

“We’ve had enough luck just resolving them without going that route that we’ve kind of left it alone, so to speak,” Iger said.

The longest a case has taken to resolve is about 18 months, Iger said, but the average is about six months. Recently he’s been able to move more quickly due to familiarity with the process; five cases filed in December are nearing resolution, he said.

Bakersfield has eight active cases against dispensaries, five with signed settlement agreements and three with unsigned ones. One more case will likely be filed soon and another five are imminent in the next month.

“My goal is to try to keep filing five or so every month,” Iger said.

Beverly Hills attorney Jamie T. Hall, who successfully challenged Measure G, said the continued high numbers of dispensaries in city limits “highlights the fact that a ban is not the solution.”

“Responsible regulation is what the residents of the City of Bakersfield deserve,” Hall said.

“Jamie’s right,” said local attorney Phil Ganong, who often represents marijuana cooperatives and collectives and organized the effort to strike down Measure G. “It’s a really, really unhealthy environment and the city should know better. I’m really hopeful that they’ll come to their senses and they’ll start enacting regulations.”

Something else might happen. A state referendum to legalize marijuana for recreational use could make it onto the Nov. 8 ballot.

DISPENSARIES CAN DRAW CRIME

Authorities are so concerned about dispensaries because they see them as magnets for crime, though Ganong pointed out two studies done in the last six years — one by The RAND Corp., one by UCLA — that found areas near dispensaries to be safer.

The area’s most heinous dispensary crime happened in 2013, when Bakersfield resident Aaron Patrick Burris gunned down two men during the robbery of First Reliable Collective in central Bakersfield.

Last September, two people were held captive and sexually assaulted for five days because they owed money to one of the operators of Tender Leaf Remedies, a dispensary in the southeast.

Brennan said many of the operations reportedly have roots in organized crime, pointing to this case as proof.

“The dispensary had hostages on the property — that screams criminal enterprise to me,” Brennan said.

In January, a man in dreadlocks wearing a jacket with a Batman logo robbed the Green House Farms dispensary, 1313 Niles St., at gunpoint, and fired at an employee before fleeing with cash and marijuana. The employee was not injured.

Bakersfield Police Department Sgt. Gary Carruesco said he was unaware of any connections his agency has uncovered between organized crime and dispensaries, but the businesses do “attract violence.”

“They pose a significant threat to people in the community who live there or may just be passing through,” Carruesco said.

HELP IS ON THE WAY

The County of Kern has identified an unsettling trend, Brennan said: dispensaries aren’t advertising as much as they used to.

“Websites like WeedMaps don’t have county listings,” Brennan said, and storefronts are “going more incognito” with maybe only a small green cross to mark them as a source for medical marijuana.

Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood said many shops are operating out of the back of other storefronts — like those that sell tobacco and other legal products.

“They are not making money as a smoke shop,” Youngblood said.

This was the case Thursday at Green Cross dispensary on Niles Street in central Bakersfield, which a reporter found to be located behind a house with a banner on its fence directing patrons to enter the business through the alley behind.

At Green House Farms, which had been robbed last month, a man who appeared to be in his 30s sped up and down Niles Street on a minibike, and a man who said his name was Mike appeared to be back in business.

Iger said a settlement agreement was in progress with Green House Farms that would force it to close.

A distinct note of frustration creeps into Youngblood’s voice when the subject of medical marijuana dispensaries comes up in conversation.

He’s certain the shops are, and have always been, fronts for criminal drug trafficking.

But right now he has to watch from the sidelines. His deputies provide security during the initial investigation of the shops but the investigation is run by Kern County code enforcement officers.

Brennan, though, said whenever he suspects dispensaries are not operating under state medical marijuana guidelines, “we file complaints under the California drug den abatement laws.”

The scene will likely change substantially in 2019, however.

Assembly Bill 266, one of three bills that comprised last year's Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act, established a state Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation and will allow for dispensaries that don’t obtain state licensing to face criminal prosecution.

“It’s more teeth. Arresting somebody for a felony is a lot scarier than a civil lawsuit,” Iger said. “2019 is three years away.”

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