By David Buckley
Although the City of Needles established itself as the early leader among San Bernardino County’s 24 incorporated cities in the development of the burgeoning California cannabis industry, the Needles City Council at its November 14 meeting voted 6-0 to ban recreational marijuana businesses in the City of Needles. In it next action, however, it voted 4-2, with Dr. Robert Richardson and Tona Belt dissenting, to reduce the required distance from schools for cannabis cultivators from 1,000 feet to 600 feet.
On the agenda there were three new cannabis rules lumped together in a single item relating to “distance requirements for marijuana businesses, prohibition of commercial recreational marijuana businesses” and “adding regulation related to personal use cultivation.”
Decrying the conflation of the three issues, Robertson said, “This is very confusing and creates representational issues,” adding “All my constituents want it [the distance of marijuana-related establishments from schools] maintained at 1,000 feet.” During the debate on the distance from schools issue, a quasi-justification for the reduction surfaced in which it was asserted that the Needles Unified School District was being operated as a business and not as a school district, and was allegedly preparing to sell a parcel of school district property on Eagle Pass Road to a cannabis business.
Some in attendance evinced in their attitudes elements of the past stigmatization of cannabis. On the adult recreational use issue, Needles City Manager Rick Daniels said “I refuse to call it recreational.” The Needles City Council voted unanimously to prohibit recreational cannabis businesses in the City of Needles. It was unclear whether that prohibition extended to the four existing medical marijuana collectives already established in Needles. Recreational marijuana is readily available in nearby Laughlin, Nevada.
On the personal cultivation issue, which also passed unanimously, the Needles City Council voted to enact restrictions tougher than state law, allowing only six plants per household, instead of six plants per adult resident as allowed by state law.
Needles City Council Member Louise Evans, who proclaimed that she had undergone a “whole change of perspective” on cannabis issues and cited the medical benefits of cannabis, yet voted for the City of Needles to be more restrictive than the state with regard to personal cultivation of the plant.
Concurrent with these developments, the city council has referred to the planning commission a proposal to prohibit cannabis businesses from operating in the downtown area by creating a Downtown Needles Improvement Zone, but has not yet delineated the area to be subject to the proposed restrictions. There are, however, already in the downtown district two permitted retail cannabis collectives, three doors up the street from a large cannabis growing operation. It appears these already existing or scheduled operations will be grandfathered in under the new regulation, but that issue has not been explicitly addressed by city officials.
Thus, the concept of prohibiting cannabis businesses in downtown Needles after the Needles City Council has approved or is ready to approve at least six cannabis businesses in the proposed zone of exclusion stands as something of a paradox, lending weight to the suggestion that the proposed prohibition is prejudicial toward landowners who have not already locked in arrangements with City Hall. At no previous point was there any mention of the downtown Needles cannabis business restriction zone by either the Needles City Council or the planning commission.
During the meeting’s public comment session, it became apparent that the prohibition on marijuana-related concerns downtown was going to have a collateral impact on some of the closest associates of some members of the Needles City Council.
Larry DeAtley, owner of Deco Foods, who has buildings on West Broadway, stands to lose a small fortune if he is not allowed to proceed with the prospective sale of his buildings to a cannabis business. Said councilwoman Evans, “Larry, I am sorry if you have taken a bid for your building, but I will never vote for it.”
DeAtley repeatedly asked the city council the reasoning behind the proposed reduction in distance between cannabis businesses and schools. No one volunteered an answer. What has been suggest is that the driving motive for the reduction in distance to schools was to facilitate the complete usage of a lot in downtown Needles, part of which was within 1,000 feet of a school facility. This was the “nursery project,” owned by real estate developer Dino Defazio.
More than a generation ago, Needles city officials failed to anticipate the impact of the early 1970s bisection of the city by Interstate-40, which exacerbated the decision made the previous decade to strip downtown Needles of both the local hospital and police station. This led to the deterioration of the downtown area into what locals came to regard as “Needles Skid Row.”
The neglect continued for decades, with city officials failing to come up with plans for the improvement of the once proud city, which had long served as the gateway to the Golden State to overland travelers. By the early 1980s, the “Needles Elite” class – the Needles City Council and its circle – administered the city through a series of afterhours cocktail parties, with the Needles City Council meetings being purely window dressing. The marriage of that benign neglect by Needles’ elected officials with the advent of the methamphetamine era nearly destroyed what was left of “Old Needles.” Soon, a contingent of wraith-like zombies – so-called tweakers – were wandering the streets of Needles. Soon, the residents of the downtown Needles area were obliged to fortify their homes against burglaries by drug-crazed street people searching for an easy score to facilitate their intake of another needlefull of liquidized crystal meth.
The city was slipping into a near coma, with the hospital being the only flourishing enterprise, made profitable – or semi-profitable – by the dangerous environment and the unhealthy lifestyles of many of the city’s inhabitants, and whose penurious status qualified them to have their medical bills satisfied by Medi-Cal, Medi-Care or other forms of welfare. The downtown area became a ghost town, replete with its own brand of ghoulies, as shop after shop went out of business until there was very little left, to be followed by the coup de grâce in the form of the Crash of 2008. The next five years marked Needles’ lowest level, with the city council cluelessly going about its well-scripted charade, until in 2013 the City of Needles teetered on the brink of insolvency.
According to a Cal-Trans traffic study, forty thousand people a day travel through Needles, the “East Coast of California” on the west shore of the Colorado River, that figure being the sheer number of tourists and local commuters. That did not seem to be a formula for bankrupting a city, but years of neglect and the manifestation of what locals termed the “Needles Attitude” had seemingly doomed the city. The Needles Attitude is a description of the elitist, self aggrandizing world view professed by a few long time Needles residents, ones who had land, wealth and power, and who had burnished a reputation for engaging in a series of petty clique battles, warfare in which they had prevailed but which had created a successive set of destructive scandals driving wedges even further into the community, compromising justice and ensnaring both local and San Bernardino County officials at the highest levels. An element of this ethos was a marked anti-competitive business environment that catered to the few remaining businesses in town and excluded any new businesses. This anti-competitive environment was furthered by the Needles City Council itself, which in 2008 created three 501 corporations, one being a legally questionable anti-competitive trust, the Needles Downtown Business Alliance. Also created were the now defunct Needles Economic Development Corporation and a 501 created to facilitate the sale of alcohol in downtown Needles.
Large numbers of Needles youth, usually upon graduating from high school or shortly thereafter, abandoned Needles for greener pastures. With the flower of Needles’ population leaving, no new residents willing to move to a drug-infested ghost town, its business community contracting and fifty percent of its ever declining population on some form of government subsidy, the city council in 2012 embraced the dreaded concept of profiting off medical marijuana.
But even the desperate move of permitting four medical marijuana collectives in Needles did not alter events, and the City of Needles continued to deteriorate, as if the ghosts of the city’s journey through the 20th Century – replete with its links to mobster Hollywood, bootleggers, dead bodies buried in the desert and the quiet acceptance and assimilation of varied forms of vice – were hovering like specters above, about and within it. Needles was haunted as well by the legacy of it having reacted during the Great Depression of the 1930s to being the gateway to California where droves of refugees fleeing westward on the Route 66 “Mother Road” by slamming the gate shut on those great unwashed masses clamoring to come in. The tradition of telling would-be transplants to Needles that they are not welcome in the city fomented the original Needles Attitude: “We don’t take trash in, so we don’t have to take trash out.” The City of Needles never saw fit to retire this sentiment, which lingers on in the hearts of the Needles Elite.
At the far remote end of the largest county in the lower 48 states, well removed from other population centers and across the border from Arizona, Needles fell outside the gaze of prying eyes and free from media scrutiny. This furthered enabled those – the elite – who had locked up authority in the town and were intent on getting ahead by victimizing their fellow men.
It was into this troubled background that the eleventh and twelfth new residents of Needles arrived in 2013. The growth rate in Needles was so slow that the city staff actually numbered the new arrivals. But there was something decidedly different about these folks, something very threatening to the Needles Elite, who reacted as they always had to newcomers by various manifestations of the “Needles Attitude.” In this case the usual tactics of social ostracization and bullying backfired on the purported “Needles Elite.” Needles will never be the same.
The month of January 2016 proved to be a major month in the history of Needles and saw a miraculous 180 degree shift in the closed market, anti-competitive economic policies of the Needles City Council, which in a two-week interval between meetings, suddenly shifted to an open market policy on cannabis cultivation. The heretofore unexplained shift to an open market economic model was a sea change in Needles. Its economic policy over the previous three decades prior to that vote had always been based on exclusion, limiting the market and directing profits to a few businesses.
Until that point, Needles’ remote geographic location, 200 road miles from the county seat of San Bernardino, and the paucity of media attention had granted the Needles City Council a free hand to operate as it sees fit without fear of exposure by traditional media coverage. It was into this closeted environment that the new Needles residents mentioned above moved into town. It took a while for the ramifications of complete censorship of local news to sink in, but when it did it was in the worst way imaginable. The case that fully revealed the degree to which Needles is a closed system where what happens in Needles stays in Needles was that of the serial rape of multiple young boys at the Needles Skate Park by Willie Thompson et al, Thompson was a pedophile on the run from charges in Las Vegas, a chickenhawk who swooped down on Needles in search of additional victims. When agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Willie Thompson at gunpoint in the parking lot of Needles Lilly Hill apartments, it garnered little attention. What media coverage was given to the arrest omitted that a number of young boys had been viciously sodomized at the Needles Skate Park, or left the erroneous impression that the crimes had occurred elsewhere and not in Needles. This case, according to prosecutors, was the most heinous human trafficking case in memory.
But the incident did not elude the attention of the burgeoning electronic media. It seems new arrivals 11 and 12 from 2013 had an on-line blog, and they brought a spotlight to Needles. To say that the Needles City Council was highly susceptible to outside media coverage, and was fully cognizant of the source of this new attention and its ability to throw the entire town under an unfavorable light, would be an understatement, so when the blog’s focus shifted to medical marijuana, the impact of coverage was tremendous.
A series of articles published online on the proposed Needles cannabis ordinance, which triggered further coverage in some regional media outlets, resulted in a shift by the Needles City Council away from its traditional closed market, anti-competitive model. The Needles cannabis market had been limited to four retail collectives, the only city permitted retail operations in all of San Bernardino County. The Needles City Council originally had been adamant that the proposed new ordinance would enable only the four existing collectives then operating in Needles to engage in cultivation. When the concept of an open market was broached at a meeting, Needles City Councilman Shawn Gudmundson tabled the item, allowing no further discussion of what had been a foreign concept. The night of the vote on an open market actually saw the hierarchy from the San Bernardino County Republican Party drive out to Needles. It was represented as a truly momentous occasion and the salvation of the nearly insolvent City of Needles.
But was it? There are indications that the city’s readiness to welcome a fifth cannabis operation to Needles was actually a ploy by city officials – or some city officials – to clear the way for an entrepreneur who would kick back a portion of the profits he stood to generate through his lucrative cannabis operation.
It was during the development and ensuing promulgation of the proposed cannabis ordinance that the tactics of the Needles City Council in providing favorable treatment to a select few became readily discernible to all observers, especially so to owners and management of the four existing Needles collectives. Suddenly, it was alleged that there were not four but five collectives in Needles and it was revealed online that the Needles City Council had been holding exclusive meetings with Paradise Wellness, an Arizona based collective formerly doing business in Needles, but barred from reopening by the then current ordinance as it had been closed for more than ninety days.
Paradise Wellness is owned by Curtis Devine, who operates a string of Arizona collectives including Mojave Green Collective, located across the river from Needles in Mohave Valley Arizona. Curtis Devine had at the time recently purchased a large commercial property in Needles, in an attempt to establish a 20,000 square foot cannabis grow operation to supply the Arizona collectives under Devine’s control.
Needles City Manager Rick Daniels and City Attorney John Pinkney held numerous private meetings with Curtis Devine and his attorney, Sarah Presler, seeking input on the proposed new cannabis ordinance, but failed to meet with any owners or management of the four legitimate Needles collectives. Sarah Presler repeatedly stood at the podium and thanked the city for these exclusive briefings.
During the public hearings on the proposed new cannabis ordinance, the issue of prohibiting felons from participating in the Needles cannabis industry was repeatedly raised. In the new atmosphere brought on by the online media scrutiny in the wake of the Willie Thompson arrest, references were publicly made to the potential of the criminal underworld utilizing the marijuana industry to establish a toehold in Needles.
A review of Paradise Wellness’ history in Needles followed. Needles City Manager Rick Daniels, perhaps inadvertently, released the entirety of the 2014 Needles cannabis tax schedule. That schedule documented that Paradise Wellness was closed for more than ninety days, a violation of a provision in the Needles City Code pertaining to cannabis operations which by ordinance should have triggered the revoking of its license and prohibited it from reopening in the City of Needles. Thrown into stark relief was that Rick Daniels had been militating to preserve Paradise Wellness’s license to operate, despite the business having forfeited its licensure by its extended closure and despite the readiness of other applicants to step up to take its place in competing within the highly profitable stable of locally-based cannabis-related businesses.
Deeply placed sources in the Needles cannabis industry in positions to know the details of this case have alleged that Daniels allowed Paradise Wellness to utilize the address of a private residence to operate a cannabis collective and that a bogus address was also submitted to the State of California. Daniels now contends that previously public tax schedules are confidential.
Last week the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the U.S. Attorney’s Office moved forward with action against Adelanto City Councilman Jermaine Wright, arresting him on a bribery charge in the aftermath of a nearly year-long probe by the FBI into allegations that Adelanto officials were seeking to personally profit from their city’s adoption of ordinances allowing for the commercial cultivation and sale of marijuana. Word on the streets is that federal officials are now sniffing around Needles.
By David Buckley