There is now a ban on marijuana shops in nearly every community in Kern County.
But it’s going to take a lot more than words on an official-looking piece of paper to remove the scores of dispensaries selling cannabis across Kern.
“We left the public with the idea that by banning this,(shops) will all go away. We know that’s just not going to happen,” said Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood. “If there are no consequences then there’s nothing we can do.”
In the past decade both the City of Bakersfield and the County of Kern have struggled, with mixed success, to bring enough criminal and financial pain to bear on the people who run dispensaries in order to shut them down.
They haven’t kept that pressure up.
And they have never removed all the shops. When one shop closed, another popped up down the street.
Now, with the renewed commitment of a ban, can city and county officials change that history?
They say they’ll try.
City of Bakersfield officials are leading the current charge.
Two weeks ago city code enforcement officers and Bakersfield Police Department officers conducted two days of raids on central Bakersfield marijuana dispensaries.
They arrested 20 people. They seized more than 1,200 pounds of marijuana. They closed their shops. They tagged some as uninhabitable for building code violations.
And they sent out civil penalty charges against the shop operators and the landlords who rented to them.
Then they sent out the press releases.
But will all that prevent the owners from simply moving to a new location and starting up again?
Shops on H Street, Chester Avenue and 17th Street remained shuttered this week.
But everyone arrested has bailed out of jail, said Bakersfield Police Department spokesman Ryan Kroeker.
Actually, according to the Kern County Sheriff's Department, 19 of the 20 people arrested by police were issued citations for misdemeanor charges of possession of cannabis for sale and operation of a marijuana dispensary without a permit.
Only the single person charged with a felony had to post $22,500 in bail, according to Sheriff's reports.
And the District Attorney's office reported that it declined to submit the charge for prosecution in that case, instead sending it back to BPD for further investigation.
That felony had nothing to do with marijuana, guns or other drugs. It was for “theft of utility” at a shop that had tapped into the electrical supply of another property to power its operations.
While the BPD press release trumpeted the seizure of 15 grams of rock cocaine and four firearms, those were all found at a single location on Golden State Avenue.
That’s the location where the single suspect locked himself in a back room and – according to police – took his own life with a gunshot.
Will those arrested in the city’s raids pay dearly for flouting the law?
Charges against three of the people arrested last week are still under review.
The remaining charges have been issued against 16 defendants.
But, said both Green and Youngblood, recent changes in state law have gutted the county’s ability to make misdemeanor charges anything more than a slap on the wrist.
The penalties that can be leveled against the defendants will likely be light.
And Green has had to fight, during the last two county budget cycles, for funding to prosecute misdemeanor crimes at all.
Bakersfield City Council members and Kern County supervisors backed a ban on commercial cannabis, they said, because of their commitment to keeping children and communities safe from the scourge of pot.
But dispensaries have existed in Kern County for more than a decade.
They are located near schools, churches and other places where state and local laws supposedly ban them.
Every so often the political winds move at the local, state or federal level and a burst of enforcement drives down their numbers.
Now is such a time in Kern County.
But, when the pressure eases, shops have popped up again like daisies.
Earlier this year, according to city and county estimates, there were roughly 120 medical marijuana dispensaries in Kern County.
City Attorney Ginny Gennaro said the number of dispensaries in the city – which has rocketed up in recent years to more than 60, according to city reports – has now decreased to 23.
Gennaro is leading the city’s charge against marijuana.
In April the Bakersfield City Council passed a new rule that created a $1,000 a-day penalty against the operator of a shop and the property owner who rented that shop space.
Then the council approved a full ban of commercial marijuana earlier this month.
And the Kern County Board of Supervisors did the same on Tuesday.
Gennaro said civil penalties against both the marijuana shop operators and especially the people who lease them space are the “lynch-pin” of the city’s plan to keep shops from re-opening over and over again in an unending game of whac-a-mole.
The city has in the past had a softer touch on the enforcement side, she said.
For years, Gennaro said, state courts hadn’t ruled on whether a ban was legal under the state’s medical marijuana laws.
Bans were eventually made possible by a case out of Riverside County, she said. But then the city was sued on environmental grounds over its regulatory stance.
“Was the enforcement at that time as aggressive as it is now? No.” Gennaro said.
When the city won that case in an appeals court, Gennaro said, the path was clear to ramp up enforcement. And the city has been gradually, systematically, been doing just that, she said.
“It would appear as if we’re getting there,” Gennaro said.
Some of the city’s recent success has been achieved by aiming the $1,000-a-day penalty at the property owners who rent to marijuana operations.
Several owners have initiated evacuation proceedings against shops on their own initiative, Gennero said.
But isn’t it confusing for property owners when the shops, hoping to sign a lease, present them a copy of a City of Bakersfield business license to show they’re clear to operate?
The City of Bakersfield finance department stated that eight of the 10 shops raided by police last week, according to names provided by police, had business licenses issued by the city.
Six of them were good through June 2018. Two more had only recently lapsed.
“The City of Bakersfield issues business tax certificates to any business operating within city limits. Business tax certificates serve solely to raise revenue for municipal purposes and are not intended for regulation. The Bakersfield Municipal Code explicitly states that unlawful businesses are not authorized and that the issuance of a business tax certificate shall not be construed as authorizing the conduct or continuance of illegal business,” Gennaro wrote in an e-mail.
But why would the city ever issue any sort of certificate to a business called “Herban Legends” or “Fish’s Green Collective”?
“Cities want to collect taxes, even if based on illegal businesses, and the law allows us to do that under a revenue generated ordinance,” Gennaro wrote.
Gennaro said the “business tax certificate” does not authorize a business to operate in the city of Bakersfield.
And any property owner who doesn’t know that medical marijuana dispensaries are illegal in the city of Bakersfield is ignorant or openly defiant.
“They either know or should know,” she said. “Wake up people, you can’t do it in the city of Bakersfield.”
A short drive around central Bakersfield shows that the city’s efforts to close down marijuana shops is far from over.
Fish’s Green Collective on South Chester stands padlocked next to the Iglesia Pentecostes, its front room empty.
But a print shop just north of there still sports the green and purple paint from its previous incarnation as a dispensary.
Will another shop find a home nearby, people wonder.
Bakersfield Organic Theraputic, further north on Chester, was tucked behind a modest duplex. It stands closed. But right across the street, Best Choice Theraputic, is open for business in a converted home, a neon green cross in the window and a sandwich board sign on the concrete path to the front door.
Can the city really shut all the shops down?
Gennaro admits it takes time to bring the city’s enforcement tools to bear.
Preparations for the raids last week took months of letter writing to the businesses, legal preparation and planning, she said. But she is committed to an aggressive campaign against dispensaries.
“I can only do so many in a day. But assure your readers more is on the way,” she said. “If you’re operating we will find you and we will close you down.”
Kern County, which has struggled aggressively to limit, ban and close shops for more than a decade, is now gathering its strength for another try.
Health officials, code enforcement, Sheriff’s and District Attorney's office leaders will be meeting with the County Counsel’s office to brainstorm an enforcement task force.
Doing it right, according to the environmental impact report approved by the Kern County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, will require that task force and an annual investment of between $1.5 million and $2.7 million.
Youngblood is passionately opposed to marijuana shops, which, he said, are simply fronts for gangs and other criminal organizations.
But he’s not sure how much impact criminal penalties will have.
“I believe we can participate,” he said. “I have a group in the office working on this.”
But the county’s best tools are civil in nature, he said.
Kern County Counsel Mark Nations said that the County has had a system of civil and administrative penalties similar to the City of Bakersfield’s new one in place for years.
Those penalties, increased by supervisors Tuesday from $500 a day to $1,000 a day, have been leveled on both property owners and dispensary operators.
Sometimes it works, Nations said. Sometimes it doesn’t.
“I can’t say it’s a cure-all,” Nations said.
Ultimately, government can’t move as fast as the dispensary business can.
“I have to file a lawsuit and ask a court to enjoin them from operating,” Nations said. “If they close down and move next door I have to start again. Injunction is property specific. That’s why they call it whac-a-mole.”