Two former Marines have emerged as San Bernardino County’s most vociferous exponents of allowing large scale marijuana cultivation operations locally.
Late last year, the City of Adelanto, under the stewardship of Richard Kerr, who was elected mayor of that city in 2014, legalized the cultivation of medical marijuana growing operations within the city of 31,765.
Under the regulations contained in the city’s ordinance, the cultivation facilities must be located only within the city’s industrial parks. Furthermore, applicants to operate such a facility are subjected to and must pass a background check; the cultivation facilities must have adequate security setups, including an alarm and security cameras in use 24 hours per day, seven days per week; the facilities must be used strictly for the cultivation of medical marijuana and not distribute, sell, dispense, or administer marijuana out of their premises to the public and shall not be operated as a medical marijuana dispensaries; onsite smoking, ingestion, or consumption of marijuana or alcohol is prohibited at the site, in near or around the medical marijuana cultivation facilities; the marijuana farms cannot be located within two thousand five hundred feet of a school, public playground or park, child care or day care facility, youth center, or church; the facilities must be marked with a green cross and have the marijuana plants fully enclosed indoors within secure structures inaccessible to minors so that from a public right-of-way, there shall be no exterior evidence of indoor medical marijuana cultivation.
Adelanto’s ordinance also specified an application, land use and permit protocol that involved fees to offset the city’s processing, inspection and enforcement costs.
A key supporter of Adelanto’s medical marijuana initiative was Mayor Rich Kerr, a former Marine. He was undeterred by the stance of previous city officials, who had long resisted the efforts of entrepreneurs to set up cannabis clinics – i.e., marijuana dispensaries – that would market the end product – i.e., doses of marijuana sold by the gram or ounce – to patients who under the 1996 Measure 215 Compassionate Use Act can purchase the drug with a prescription. Kerr and three of his four colleagues, while keeping the door shut on the nickel and dime retail aspect of the medical marijuana trade, went for the big enchilada, permitting massive scale production of the substance by means of cultivation factories.
Forty-six miles away, in 213,000 population San Bernardino, which is also the county seat, the welcome mat has yet to be put down for the marijuana industry. Since 2010, that city has had a ban in place against cannabis related businesses of any type.
In July 2014, San Bernardino City Attorney Gary Saenz, taking stock of the number of pot shops sprouting up in the county’s largest city, offered his view that the cost and difficulty of shutting down dispensaries made the city’s ban on the enterprises “futile.” The council formed a legislative review committee composed of three council members to study the issue and promised to reconsider the ban. Saenz said the city was contemplating allowing some dispensaries to function under a strict set of guidelines that would include significant licensing fees. Meanwhile, a proponent of licensed clinics, Karmel Roe, undertook an ultimately unsuccessful effort to gather enough signatures to get a dispensary permitting initiative on the ballot. A Redlands-based attorney who had previously been the city manager of Adelanto, James DeAguilera, threatened legal action against San Bernardino over its continuing enforcement of the ban.
During the discussion of the concept of legalizing medical marijuana sales in San Bernardino, many entrepreneurs were emboldened, and some took the risk of opening dispensaries in the belief that in the liberalizing atmosphere, they would be able to operate unmolested. That ultimately proved to be a fallacy, however, as they were able to stay in business for a short time but were slapped back when the city rejected the idea of allowing some dispensaries to operate legally. In March 2015, the police department and city code enforcement division embarked on concerted operations to close them down, seize their wares and cash on hand and serve them with court orders enjoining them from persisting in their operations.
While San Bernardino continues to take a hard line against pot shops officially, the marijuana industry has made a convert out of one San Bernardino city official.
Benito Barrios, a member of the city council since he was elected in November 2013, recently spoke out in favor of the city permitting marijuana to be grown there. Like Kerr, Barrios served in the U.S. Marine Corps. At a recent council meeting, Barrios made a pitch for his council colleagues to take up the concept of emulating Adelanto in allowing the big ticket production of the drug by the ton, seemingly eschewing the less lucrative aspect of selling small quantities of the product.
Pregnant in the approach of both Kerr and Barrios is that their cities might see a significant influx of money from cultivation and that by limiting the city’s commercial relationship to cannabis to growing it and selling it wholesale to cannabis clinics and medical marijuana dispensaries up and down the state, the prospect of seeing its consumption dramatically increase locally might be avoided.
It is no accident that Kerr and Barrios have latched onto the grail of medical marijuana as an economic panacea, as San Bernardino and Adelanto are two of the most financially challenged cities in San Bernardino County. In August 2012, San Bernardino filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection. In 2013, Adelanto declared it was in a state of financial emergency.
As the titular head of Adelanto’s government, Kerr found himself under attack for embracing the money-generating potential cannabis represents. A case in point was last month, when Steve Hunt, the editor of the largest circulating daily newspaper in the High Desert, The Daily Press, penned an editorial with the heading, “When drugs cloud your vision.” Hunt took Adelanto to task, calling its ordinance “foolhardy” and “wrong.” He railed, “Nothing good comes from drug use. If you’re trying to escape, it’ll only be temporary. Why the city of Adelanto feels the need to allow cultivators in its business parks is beyond me. No city needs 25 cultivators. What the city is really doing is looking for a quick buck. And what’s a quicker buck than the drug trade? But that’s precisely why the city shouldn’t have allowed cultivators in Adelanto. Isn’t that just telling kids to go for the quick buck and who cares if that buck comes from the drug trade?”
Hunt continued, “Adelanto leaders have complained for years that the city has been stigmatized. Well, why do you think that is? If you create a stigma, don’t complain that you’re stigmatized. You created your own reality. It will never change unless you take steps to change it. Bringing marijuana cultivators to town isn’t going to do that.”
This elicited a response from Kerr.
“Why not an ‘industrial park’ for cultivators when these companies are legitimate businesses that will operate in stealth in areas of the city that don’t and won’t generate pedestrian traffic or over-the-counter purchases, and operate far removed from the general population and other retail businesses?” Kerr asked. “As for the notion that Adelanto is ‘looking for a quick buck,’ [this] shows how little Mr. Hunt has researched what the city council is doing to live up to its obligation to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars and to ensure that the city remains solvent to serve its residents and businesses.
“It’s time to draw attention to the positive aspects of the council’s decision, and talk about the value and benefit the decision will bring to the city of Adelanto and its residents,” Kerr continued. “The city council thoroughly weighed the pros and cons of allowing marijuana cultivation, and only after careful and deliberate consideration, discussions and debate chose to move forward believing that the positives outweighed the negatives, and, that steps would be taken to mitigate any potential negative consequences.”
Kerr acknowledged that Adelanto is behind the eight ball financially, but said the revenue-generating potential that marijuana cultivation represents is only one part of the formula for the city’s economic recovery. “It’s no secret that Adelanto has had its fiscal challenges,” Kerr said. “But contrary to popular belief, allowing for marijuana cultivation may be seen by some as a pot of gold, in reality it is just one part of an overall strategy that involves aggressive economic development to address the city’s fiscal challenges. While the ultimate financial impact of allowing marijuana cultivation is unknown at this time, allowing for cultivation is anticipated to create a financial benefit for the city. At a minimum each applicant (there have been 29 to date) will:
• Pay a $7,000 application fee for a permit to do business in the city,
• Pay a yet-to-be-determined impact fee to mitigate impacts to fire, police and governmental oversight, based on the size of canopy area for each facility;
• Pay a $2,735 conditional use permit application fee to allow the planning commission to impose conditions that protect both citizens and cultivators;
• Construct facilities to accommodate new businesses, thereby creating temporary construction employment along with purchases of supplies and building materials in Adelanto and throughout the High Desert;
• Create jobs to work in the business created, whose employees will spend and support not only the Adelanto economy but also the High Desert as well;
• Likely purchase products, supplies and services to be used to support the business in Adelanto or other High Desert communities;
• Hire local security personnel who around-the-clock will protect the businesses and reduce calls for service for Adelanto’s Police;
• Pay taxes already required by the IRS, Franchise Tax Board and Board of Equalization.”
Kerr averred that “The ‘stigma’ Mr. Hunt claims will come from allowing marijuana cultivation would only happen if the new businesses lived up to the negative impressions that people sub-consciously associate with marijuana and other street drugs, such as, crime-ridden, rundown neighborhoods and drug dealers. Not one marijuana cultivation business has opened shop in Adelanto, and research done on the companies that have applied reveal no record of negative or criminal activity that could lead to stigmatization. In fact, the majority of applicants have been scientists, doctors, attorneys and other reputable professionals with extensive backgrounds as respectful leaders, teachers and honorable members of the community.”
Kerr suggested there was a level of hypocrisy and inconsistency in the condemnation of marijuana as a medical product. “There are literally thousands of different prescription drugs on the market in the U.S. that aid millions of people,” Kerr said. “It’s odd that Mr. Hunt only seems to believe there’s a stigma if Adelanto allows for marijuana cultivation. If Eli Lilly wanted to locate in one of our industrial parks to produce Prozac—would allowing the company to do business stigmatize Adelanto because Eli Lilly is a drug manufacturer?”
The characterization of him and the council as a collection of besotted potheads who can’t clear the smoke out of their brains long enough to think clearly is an unfair one, Kerr said. He obliquely referenced an element of the Marine Corps’ ethos – courage – in summing up what it took to be at the forefront of the societal evolution with regard to the acceptance of marijuana. “The lesson our youth and others can learn from Adelanto’s decisions is to not be paralyzed by fear of being condemned, ridiculed or criticized and therefore do nothing to improve one’s circumstances,” Kerr said. “The city council has demonstrated bold, courageous leadership and will continue to make decisions that best position our city to fulfill the responsibilities we have chosen to uphold.”
On February 29 in San Bernardino, Barrios was engaged with his council colleagues in a discussion relating to closing out the City of San Bernardino’s 137-year-old fire department and annexing the entire city into a county fire protection district so that the county’s fire department could serve from here out as the city’s fire department. That move was hatched in large measure because of the city’s precarious financial position. Barrios said he was not willing to support the dissolution of the fire department until the city had considered all of its funding options. At that point, he suggested the city make a serious consideration of licensing marijuana cultivation operations, referencing as he did so Adelanto’s willingness to consider that option.
“We have this plan presented to us,” Barrios said with regard handing the fire department over to the county. “The big concern I see is there is no money to pay for these services, for our fire department, and we need the money. We need revenue to pay for these services. Where is it going to come from? It’s not going to fall out of the sky. But I think we haven’t exhausted all of our options. I don’t think we have looked at all the different ways that we could generate revenue because there is an industry out there that is very controversial. It challenges our morals, our standards, our way of living, our religious beliefs. For the city of Adelanto, they’ve made the decision to generate $10 million to $12 million with this industry that we refuse to even entertain a conversation about. I think now may be the time to really look at that if the city is serious. I just want to point that out: because being the Mecca of Southern California if not the Western United States – San Bernardino – a lot of people have their eyes on us. I had a consultant come to me a few months ago and say ‘We’re willing to drop $25 million right now into San Bernardino if you guys will work with us.’ But at this dais not too many people are open to having that conversation and learning. It’s taken me over a year to accept what I have learned and advocate for the industry. I just wanted to point that out because many people in my ward have come to me and who grew up against this industry and said ‘It happens already. Why don’t we just tax it so the city can generate revenue?’ I just think it’s time for us to take advantage of this industry, for the opportunities it offers.”
Barrios again cited the long-held social strictures that inveighed against tolerating the use of marijuana, adding to that his own personal experience in the Marines, where marijuana is considered anathema to the acceptable ethos. But he, asserted, such restrictions are neither progressive nor productive. “Our religious beliefs, our morals, our standards, the way we were brought up, even myself in the military where illegal substance abuse was not tolerated at all, holds us back. It s a new time, a new day.”
Two former Marines have emerged as San Bernardino County’s most vociferous exponents of allowing large scale marijuana cultivation operations locally.