In action that firmed up a radical departure from a policy steadfastly adhered to over the last quarter of a century, the Fontana City Council voted on January 23 to grant a permit to a business trafficking in marijuana and other cannabis products.
On occasions too numerous to recount, both past and the current Fontana City Councils refused to entertain or abruptly denied efforts by entrepreneurs to obtain licensing to operate medical marijuana dispensaries in the 43.07-square mile city in the years after Propositions 215, the Compassionate Use of Marijuana Act of 1996, was passed or permits to sell marijuana or marijuana-based substances to be used for intoxicative effect following the 2016 passage of Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act. At several points, members of the city council vowed that Fontana would remain a commercial Marijuana free zone, no matter what liberalizations of the law there were or changes in societal norms.
Last week’s 4-to-1 vote, with Mayor Acquanetta Warren and councilmen John Roberts, Phil Cothran Jr. and Pete Garcia prevailing and Councilman Jesse Sandoval dissenting, was all the more remarkable, given the political affiliations of the council members. Warren, Roberts, Cothran and Garcia are all Republicans. Sandoval is the panel’s lone Democrat.
Historically, and at least until quite recently and in many cases up to the present, it has been the Democrats who pushed for marijuana legalization and the Republicans who have consistently maintained that the drug is antithetical to a moral and decent existence and a productive, practical and meaningful way of life. As then-Senator and later U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a committed Republican, stated, “Good people do not smoke marijuana.” Closer to home, as recently as this week, some six days after the Fontana City Council opened the city’s door to the pot shop, San Bernardino County Sheriff Shannon Dicus referred to the proliferation of marijuana that has inundated the county since the passage of Proposition 64 as a “plague.” Dicus opined that the fashion in which Proposition 64 allowed for the use and sale of recreational marijuana and the cultivation of the plant within registered operations and reduced the crime of illicitly producing marijuana from a felony to a misdemeanor has ushered in a “black” market and “cartel activity,” which he said has triggered an upward spike in violence, including murders.
The approval of a proposal by an outfit calling itself Fontana Responsible and Compliant will allow it to market marijuana of all types, both medical and recreational, as well as a multiplicity of cannabis-based products in a 4,865-square-foot building on a 37,026-square foot (.85 acre) lot at 9132 Sierra Avenue, within a commercial zone on the west side of the avenue south of Athol Street.
Fontana Responsible and Compliant’s operation is the first actuation of the policy approved by the city council on July 12, 2022, when, by the same 4-to-1 margin with Sandoval dissenting, it ended Fontana’s prohibition on the sale of the drug to become the sixth San Bernardino County city to legalize the sale of marijuana. The council’s action approved a set of rules relating to commercial cannabis businesses, which included confining the number of those operations to three, one north of Baseline Avenue, another between Baseline and Valley Boulevard and another south of Valley Boulevard. Fontana Responsible and Compliant’s 9132 Sierra Avenue store qualifies as the one that is to occupy the plum spot between Baseline and Valley Boulevard in the city’s primary commercial district.
All commercial marijuana or cannabis-related businesses in Fontana are required to hold a state license to traffic in marijuana.
Fontana Responsible and Compliant is a limited liability company registered with the State of California, which gives a principal address of 1616½ Webster Street in Alameda, California 94501. It has a management structure that consists of a single individual, according to a document filed with the California Secretary of State’s office on December 28, 2022 signed by Eric Lichtman.
For more than 15 years following the passage of Proposition 215, no municipalities in San Bernardino County nor the county itself consented to allowing medical marijuana dispensaries to operate. The City of Needles broke the ice in 2012, when it permitted five dispensaries to set up shop in the county’s easternmost city along the banks of the Colorado River and moved to allow the drug to be cultivated in indoor facilities as well. Three years later, Adelanto undertook to allow cultivation of the plant in enclosed warehouses within a specially zoned portion of its industrial district. With the passage of Proposition 64 in 2016, the city liberalized its approach to capitalizing on commercial cannabis activity subject to zoning limitations, permitting all order of cultivation with the single restriction that it take place indoors, and allowing medical marijuana and intoxicative marijuana to be sold along with cannabis products. The city also permitted and courted marijuana/cannabis product manufacturers, as well as researchers and marijuana product innovators to locate within its confines as a deliberate effort to transform what was then the county’s eighth-smallest or 17th largest municipality in terms of population into, in the words of one city official, “the marijuana capital of California.” Over time, two of Adelanto’s elected officials at that time would be indicted, convicted and sent to prison for accepting bribes from the cannabis industry business applicants that flooded the city. A third narrowly avoided indictment. Thereafter, the cities of San Bernardino and Barstow moved to permit commercial marijuana and cannabis operations. Hesperia chose to allow businesses that delivery marijuana products to customers to function out of a limited portion of its industrial zone, without allowing direct sales to take place from any premises within the city.
The Adult Use of Marijuana Act permitted adults to grow marijuana for personal use, with a six-plant cultivation limit at any given time. Fontana burnished its reputation for being zealously anti-drug and anti-marijuana by overstepping its authority in both regulating and preventing its residents from growing marijuana on their residential property or within their homes. This effort was so draconian it resulted in legal action being taken against the city, which ultimately resulted in a court ruling preventing the city from enforcing those regulations.
For that reason, among others, the city council’s July 2022 vote to allow marijuana sales within the Fontana City Limits was widely seen as extraordinary.
Following the passage of Proposition 64 in 2016, Mayor Warren and her ruling coalition on the city council were adamant: Fontana was not going to jump on the marijuana legalization bandwagon. One of the provisions of Proposition 64 was that local jurisdictions retained autonomy over questions of marijuana availability and commercial licensing, and she vowed that Fontana was not going to traffic in the human misery that marijuana represented. Selling marijuana in Fontana and growing it for commercial purposes was to remain illegal.
In 2021, former San Bernardino County Supervisor Bill Postmus, who in his time as an elected official was a strident opponent of the legalization of marijuana but who upon being convicted on political corruption charges and being banned from again holding public office in California reinvented himself as a political consultant and marijuana entrepreneur, set his sights on Fontana. He began lobbying Warren, holding a fundraiser for her and Councilman Cothran in April of that year. By the spring of 2022, Fontana officials signaled that maybe marijuana use isn’t all that bad of a thing after all. Warren was soon pointing out that when Proposition 64 passed, it had been approved by a higher margin in Fontana than everywhere else in the county.
Penultimately, city officials entrusted Assistant City Manager Phil Burum to come up with a program by which marijuana sales might take place in the city. Burum, in consultation with state officials as well as with those in cities where legalization/liberalization/permitting/licensing of marijuana sales has taken place, came up with the regulations that have now been layered into the Fontana City Code relating to making it so the products can be sold and the city can realize a modicum of tax revenue now that people are permitted to blow some grass if they feel like it.
Those seeking a permit must submit with the application a non-refundable $25,000 filing fee. Burum said forcing an applicant to put up that kind of money would ensure that those competing for the permits were serious and willing to meet the criteria the city was specifying.
After Warren and her council colleagues had stridently asserted for more than five years that marijuana would not be made available commercially in the city, Burum said city leaders had at last come to the conclusion that cannabis liberalization entailed “community benefits in the form of income to the city generated by legally authorized cannabis retailers.” Those benefits would include, Burum predicted “additional police officers… social services… [and] general community benefits,” which he said would extend to funding “park maintenance and upgrades” and city “operational expenses.”
Ironically, given that for so long Fontana officials had vowed not to allow marijuana legal entry into the city because of the threat the drug represents against youth, Burum said sales of the once-outlawed weed would generate tax revenue that would pay for “drug counseling [and] youth programs.”
Burum simply called upon the city council to enact a “zone change to remove the current prohibition against cannabis sales.” The council did so.
The process Burum designed for selecting who among the applicants for a commercial marijuana establishment operating permit in Fontana would get the nod calls for an evaluation of the requests to be carried out by the city manager or his designee, who is tasked with evaluating the integrity of the individuals seeking the permits, their ability to perform and the propriety of the operations they seek to license. The mayor and city council do not directly participate in the selection process of the eventual licensees, other than to ratify the determinations once the city manager’s selection of the three operators is made.
That is what occurred with one of the three available permits last week, when the council signed off on the approval of giving the mid-city location permit to Fontana Responsible and Compliant, which has agreed to provide the city with 5 percent of its annual gross sales – calculated at around $700,000 each year – and another community benefit fee of one percent of gross sales on top of that, in addition to carrying out minor interior and exterior tenant improvements to the existing building at 9132 Sierra Avenue, including refurbishing the exterior façade, re-landscaping the property and repainting the lines for the stalls in the parking lot. The permit given to Fontana Responsible and Complaint sunsets in three years but can be renewed at the discretion of the city manager.