As a ban on marijuana dispensaries continues into its second year, the few remaining legal medical storefronts have had to contend with a collection of illegal shops that have sometimes proven difficult to close.
Dispensary owners say the illegal medical dispensaries can charge cheaper prices because they do not have to comply with state and local regulations, undercutting the legal market.
Additionally, it can be difficult for law enforcement agencies to identify the illegal shops, allowing illegal businesses to reopen even after they have been shut down by the Kern County Sheriff’s Office.
“It definitely takes a lot of my staff’s time,” said Adam Plugge, commander of the Investigations Division at the Sheriff’s Office. “It’s not just merely simply identifying and going out into the shops and saying, ‘we are going to take all of your marijuana.’”
In the last round of closings that occurred late last year, Plugge said the Sheriff’s Office received a list of illegal dispensaries from the Kern County Planning and Natural Resources Department, and worked to shut down the shops that department identified.
But in some cases, the dispensaries reopened the day after being shut down.
Of the 15 dispensaries raided by the Sheriff’s Office, half have remained closed, said Angela Monroe, public information officer for the department, while the others have reopened.
Plugge said the Sheriff’s Office could conduct another sweep of illegal dispensaries later this year, and the department would focus on locations that received many complaints.
The officers in the narcotics division have many duties, he said, of which closing illegal dispensaries is one.
“The bottom line is, if it’s a crime, we try to address it,” he said. “We put it on our list of priorities to be able to deal with and handle.”
Only about 30 dispensaries were allowed to legally remain open after the Kern County Board of Supervisors voted to ban marijuana sales at the end of 2017.
The ostensible reason for allowing exemptions for certain dispensaries was to allow those business owners to recoup costs associated with bringing their shops up to code.
The county had said those dispensaries must close by Nov. 24, 2018, but that date has been extended to May 24 of this year.
Many of the dispensaries are asking for further time in an ongoing appeals process, saying they have not fully recouped their costs yet, which the Planning Department disputes.
But legal dispensary owners say illegal shops are preventing them from earning back their investments.
In a recent statement to the Board of Supervisors, Fausto Gonzalez, co-owner of the legal dispensary Therapeutic Health Center on North Chester Avenue, said four illegal shops existed within a quarter mile of his business.
“These are the shops that have given all of us a bad name,” he said.
He questioned why he had bothered to obtain a costly state permit while the county seemingly did nothing about the illegal shops that took potential customers away from him.
“What was the point of doing everything, and keeping my promises to the county, if the county won’t do the same for us?” he said, referring to the illegal shops.
On March 18, county supervisors are scheduled to hear the appeals of eight legal dispensaries requesting more time to stay open to recoup costs.
Supervisors have already denied the appeals of two other dispensaries that sought extensions to the May 24 closure deadline.