SB Council Gave Commercial Cannabis Operation A Permit Without It Having A Physical Location

In front of man, God and everyone else, the San Bernardino City Council this week gave everyone a clear demonstration of the degree to which the city’s marijuana-related business permitting process has been tainted by graft, corruption, favoritism, misrepresentation, bribery and every unsavory influence imaginable.
Like virtually the rest of San Bernardino County’s reactionary civic leaders of the late 1990s, throughout the first decade of the Third Millennium and well past 2010, San Bernardino’s mayor and members of the San Bernardino City Council refused to yield to the liberalization of California law pertaining to cannabis when California’s voters passed Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use of Marijuana Act, in 1996. Proposition 215 allowed marijuana to be used for medicinal purposes in the Gold State, conditional upon a user obtaining a prescription from a licensed physician.At the discretion of a jurisdiction’s political leadership, a county, city town or district could allow marijuana dispensaries to operate. Despite that, from 1996 until 2012 in San Bernardino County, neither the county government nor any cities or incorporated towns would permit a dispensary or dispensaries to locate within their borders. That changed with the decision by the Needles City Council to permit dispensaries in 2012. That was followed in 2015 by the City of Adelanto consenting to marijuana cultivation operations within enclosed facilities in that city’s industrial park district.
In the meantime, in the county seat of San Bernardino, one after another venturesome entrepreneur tested the gauntlet, setting up unlicensed and unpermitted marijuana shops at various spots throughout the sprawling 59.65-square miles city’s commercial areas.
Incensed city leaders and the police department and code enforcement division sought to close the facilities, but a population determined to have marijuana access supported the spirited show of one or two dispensary operators leaping into the breach to open up a facility or facilities in place of the one most recently shuttered.
In 2014, then-City Attorney Gary Saenz expressed the view that it was “futile” for the city to continue its ban on dispensaries. The following year, city residents in favor of cannabis availability began gathering what proved to be a sufficient number of signatures on a petition calling for the permitting of dispensaries in town.
True to its collective reactionary mindset, the council responded by placing its own dispensary permitting measure before the voters, one that was far more restrictive than what the proponents of the original marijuana dispensary permitting proposal were offering voters. Ultimately, in 2016, the city’s voters embraced the citizen-authored measure. In the same election, California’s voters statewide legalized the use of marijuana for its intoxicative effect.
Faced with the inevitability of legalized marijuana in the city, San Bernardino’s officials still resisted, dragging their feet repeatedly in formulating the ground rules by which commercial marijuana activity – from cultivation of the plants, to processing of the plants into cannabis-based products, to packaging, to distribution, to wholesaling, to retailing – could take place in the city.
Inevitably, members of the city council who had so vigorously resisted the marijuanification of the city came to realize that there was money to be made in the sale of the long-banned substance, and several of them sought to cash in on the bonanza. Those seeking permits soon learned that in the competition for permission to operate, those who greased the city’s politicians had an advantage over those who did not.
Simultaneously, city officials began working into the permitting process a set of conditions and requirements that provided them with the discretion to grant or withhold the prized licenses and permits to engage in commercial marijuana/cannabis activity so they could make maximum exploitation of the situation and get a piece of the action for themselves.
Among the hoops that marijuana/cannabis entrepreneurs had to jump through was offering the city an assurance that each had a physical location to operate out of and that the location met a host of conditions, including proper zoning and being a minimum distance away from existing land uses and operations with which the sale or availability or presence of marijuana and cannabis would be incompatible, such as schools, daycare centers, churches, residences, establishments at which liquor is sold or served, and the like.
This introduced a wrinkle into the equation, and increased the value of certain properties that met the various criteria relating to a legal location for a marijuana/cannabis-based commercial or industrial operation.
Many would-be marijuana/cannabis-related businesses failed to get permitting or licensing because they could not secure a location out of which to operate. Time and again, when a business applicant could not secure an acceptable location from which to run his or her business or if he or she made some misrepresentation about having ownership or a lease with regard to the location where the business was to operate, the city denied the permit. On some occasions, those who did manage to snag a license for a certain location sought to exploit their good fortune and never actually made good on opening such a business but rather sold the entitlement they had for the business and location to someone willing to pay an exorbitant price to get it.
The process had become corrupted, and everyone close to the situation or even casually observing it knew that was the case.
This week, the level of corruption became obvious for all to see.
Previously, the city had provided Ashe Society SB, LLC with a commercial cannabis business permit based upon its representation that it had secured the property at 590 South E Street to carry out its operations. On Wednesday night, Councilman Juan Figueroa officiated over the council meeting in the absence of Mayor John Valdivia. Over the past three years, a number of cannabis business applicants have said they have been shaken down by Valdivia and Figueroa, who requested money from them in return for facilitating their permit applications.
The irregularity of one cannabis company having applied using another’s location almost did not come up during the discussion of the item, as Stephanie Sanchez from the city’s community and economic development department rushed through the issue, as if to usher the city council into taking a quick vote on the matter. “They [Ashe Society SB] met all the requirements,” Sanchez said. “Everything is in line. It is very straightforward. Staff is recommending approval of the change in location.”
When City Councilman Fred Shorett delved into the matter, however, it was revealed that not only does Ashe Society SB not have a lease for the 590 South E Street location, at present 590 South E Street is occupied by another company that has a functional commercial cannabis business permit.
No real explanation was given as to how the other company had assumed the location that Ashe Society SB previously said it had tied up or how the other company was able to obtain its licensing and permit at a location Ashe Society was presumably leasing. In the discussion, the name of the company now in the 590 South E Street location was not provided.
“Another retailer had taken the spot for which they originally applied,” City Attorney Sonia Carvalho said. She did not give an explanation as to how that occurred beyond saying the other company swooped in “because there was a delay in processing their [i.e., Ashe Society SB’s] permit.”
While Carvalho said that Ashe Society SB’s loss of its lease – if indeed it ever had one – at 590 South E Street was “beyond the control of the operator [i.e., Ashe Society SB],” she gave no explanation of how “another operator” was able to kipe Ashe Society SB’s location nor why and how the city allowed that to occur.
When Councilwoman Kimberly Calvin made an effort to question the Ashe Society corporate officials as to why the change in location to 444 N. H Street was being requested, an attorney named Tin Westen moved to speak at the public podium, and no explanation was given as to how Ashe Society’s E Street location was taken away from it or how it was able to secure a permit without having an actual location to operate from. The closest Westen came to such an explanation was when she said, “Ever since the implementation of the cannabis ordinance, real estate has become limited for cannabis operators because the city has designated certain zones that these cannabis businesses have to operate within the zone. The applicant [i.e., Ashe Society SB] did receive a zoning verification letter from the city that passed all the requirements. The reason why this property was chosen was because of availability.”
The council went along with the location move, prompting many to remark upon how dozens of other applicants had been shut out of the process for not having a verified location that they were able to maintain throughout the application process.
There remains a widespread impression the city is playing favorites with certain cannabis business applicants. Because of the known instances of payoffs to city officials by cannabis-related business applicants in the past, the reputation of the entire council and the city is suffering.
-Mark Gutglueck

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