Vista’s Cannabis 3 – Legged Race

By Benjie Cooper

IG: @nuglifenews

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As October begins, and the 2017 year starts to make its way toward the exit, many cities throughout California still have not implemented local marijuana business regulations in preparation for January 1 when the new state cannabis laws go into effect. The first nine months of the year proved to be an often fierce tug-of-war between city officials and pro-cannabis camps who can have differing ideas as to how the cultivation, processing, and distribution of cannabis should be handled in their locale.

The City of San Diego, Lemon Grove, and La Mesa are currently the only San Diego County cities that have enacted any form of cannabis laws allowing for cultivation, processing, and retail. Though initiatives to allow for commercial cannabis operations are being circulated in Carlsbad, Encinitas, Oceanside, Vista, Chula Vista, and Santee. An Oceanside Ad Hoc Committee is at-present considering provisions to allow for medical cannabis delivery in the city while the Encinitas City Council recently voted to continue their ban on marijuana agriculture. Carlsbad approved a measure in October which bans commercial cannabis activity, regulates personal cultivation, and classifies violations of the code as misdemeanors.

The City of Vista is in the midst of their own struggle, trying to figure out a solution to the legal cannabis issue at-hand. And while the state has adopted medicinal and adult-use regulations, the city has continued the practice of shuttering unzoned dispensaries through police raids, though many continue to reopen. Since the beginning of 2014, the city has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in the raiding of around 40 dispensaries. In light of current state marijuana laws and strong public opinion, Vista is cautiously searching for a way to integrate.

Vista’s Proposal

At a meeting in March, the Vista City Council directed their staff to prepare a complete report as well as a proposal regarding the allowance of dispensaries and delivery services and present them for the council’s review in late April. Once they had reviewed the proposal, the council voted 3-1 (Rigby opposed, Green absent) in May to allocate up to $35,000 to commission a public opinion poll regarding medical cannabis access in Vista. The California-based Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates research firm conducted the survey.

On June 27, the council directed staff to prepare a report containing their findings, and draft a proposal to permit medical marijuana sales and evaluate cultivation and testing. The proposal is in competition with two citizen initiatives that are also currently vying for the attention of the Vista voters.

The survey data showed that the majority of the people polled were unaware of Vista’s regulations prohibiting the operation of dispensaries, and were unsure if there any illegal ones were currently doing business in the city. The poll results showed strong support for medical cannabis among residents as 57% of respondents indicated that it was very—or extremely important for medical marijuana patients to have access to their medicine. 56% responded that should be available for them in Vista.

The city staff’s proposal recommends that allowances be made for the operation of two medicinal retailers in the commercial zones under a special use permit. Requirements are detailed in the document, including a list of proposed fees, proof of property ownership or owner’s consent, and proof they’ve not previously run an unpermitted business in the city. Should deliveries be allowed at some point, the staff also included a list of various recommendations including their hours of operation, fees, and driver and vehicle regulations.

As requested, the staff included their recommendations regarding commercial cultivation within city limits. While they state that grow operations could be authorized for the Business Park area in southern Vista, they express concerns that, due to the nature of cannabis businesses, they would “garner far higher rental rates while requiring far fewer employees.” They say that the area has maintained low vacancy rates and an employment rate boasting around 24,000 jobs, about 30% of them belonging to Vista residents. The staff does not recommend pursuing outdoor cultivation.

Should the city decide to allow cannabis cultivation, the staff included a list of recommended requirements including business location, floor plan, business plan, security, alarms, lighting, LiveScan fingerprint analysis for all employees, and seed-to-sale tracking. In the interests of keeping marijuana products in-line with state quality standards, guidelines for possible cannabis testing facilities in the industrial zone are also listed in the proposal. Marijuana testing regulations are still in development, but when they reach the implementation stage, labs will be required to conduct testing under the existing Business and Professions Code Section 26100-2106.

California will impose a sales tax on recreational cannabis, but not medical. Because the city’s proposal only includes medicinal use retailers, they would not be collecting any sales tax. The staff suggests that funds from a use tax could be used to help compensate costs related to law enforcement and city staff time and resources used to monitor and regulate marijuana businesses. Any tax proposal made by the city will require placement on a general election ballot for the voters’ consideration whereas a citizen initiative can qualify for a general or special election. Vista’s next general election is in 2018.

If the city council decides to move forward with allowances for any of the items in the proposal, staff members are ready to prepare the necessary documents and return to the planning commission and city council for final approval. They estimate that the process will take 3-4 months and dispensaries could submit applications approximately 31 days following council approval.

For the time being, the Vista City Council is not going to make allowances for any marijuana businesses in the city until all of their questions can be answered. They are looking to postpone any further discussion on the matter until after the first of the year when the new state regulations go into effect.

VSCA’s Initiative

In early 2017, citizen group Vistans for SafeCommunity Access (VSCA) submitted an initiative that would allow for one dispensary per 10,000 residents to operate in Vista. With current population estimates, up to ten dispensaries could be licensed for business. But when a city clerk noticed that there was a titling discrepancy on pages of the measure, all of the signatures that the group collected were consequently disqualified. Not to be deterred, the team began gathering new signatures for the initiative. After VSCA re-submitted their measure, it did not have enough valid signatures to hold a special election, but it did have enough to qualify for the general election ballot in November 2018.

The qualified initiative from VSCA would repeal Vista’s prohibition on dispensaries, with its stated purpose being to “set restrictions, protocols, and prohibitions guiding the permitted operation of medical cannabis dispensaries in the City.” In addition to outlining zoning requirements, the measure requires the city to issue a certificate of occupancy and a business license to the applicant automatically upon meeting the set conditions. Dispensaries would be allowed to operate between 9 am and 10 pm, security would be required, and consumption of marijuana products on the premises would be prohibited. Patients under the age of 18 would need to be accompanied by their primary caregiver, licensed attending physician, parent, or a legal guardian.

Under the VSCA initiative, a permanent special use tax equal to 7% of all gross sales would be placed on commercial cannabis businesses with the monies being placed in the City’s general fund. Though according to the staff’s report, “It is currently unclear that this tax can lawfully be imposed at a special election.” If this ordinance is adopted, none of its provisions can be altered without having another election.

The ACP Initiative

The Association of Cannabis Professionals (ACP) is currently gathering signatures for a third initiative which would legalize commercial recreational and medical marijuana businesses in the city of Vista by providing for “…the zoning of retailers, cultivation, manufacturing, and distribution…”

Businesses would be allowed to operate from 7 am to 9 pm daily, and would be required to be located at least 1,000 feet (door-to-door) from other cannabis retailers and sensitive use facilities such as day care centers, playgrounds, and schools. Commercial cultivation would be limited to indoor operations in the Research Light Industrial and Industrial General land use areas and would be required to operate completely incognito. No signage or visual clues as to the nature of the business would be allowed, and public release of the address would be prohibited.

Onsite consultations for medical cannabis and the dispensing of doctor recommendations would be prohibited at retail outlets under the measure. In addition to retail outlet vending, retailers would also be allowed to make offsite deliveries. Requirements for security, lighting, signage, employee background checks, state licensing, and personal cultivation are included in the initiative, but it is the only one currently in the running that does not suggest imposing a tax on cannabis businesses. Instead, the document suggests that Vista charge “a reasonable application fee and reasonable annual fee to regulate the cannabis businesses.”

Rules for personal cultivation are covered by the ACP initiative and require that qualified patients or adult use growers be in compliance with state and local codes. As detailed in correspondence submitted to the city regarding the current situation, the U-Grow Rentals company is looking to reach an agreement with Vista where they would be allowed to set up personal cultivation centers there. They state that they can “supply all solar power, security, and oversight to ensure compliance with all city ordinances. Our plans include giving employment priority to veterans, disabled, and single moms who are under some form of welfare.” Under the company’s plan, they would rent out 10 x 10 rooms as an alternative option to in-home setups for patients and other citizens who would like to grow cannabis within their 6-plant limit as set by state law.

The social, political, and legal tide for cannabis has changed dramatically over the past decade in the Golden State as well as the rest of the country. This is largely due to a strong resurgence in the many medicinal uses of the plant in recent years and tireless legalization efforts by countless individuals. There are less than three months left before California enters 2018 and retail sales are allowed in the state for both medicinal and adult-use customers. While some cities are not as quick to enact appropriate legislation as others, there is a strong push for regulation in San Diego County, and it is likely that ones without some form of cannabis regulation on the books will be in an ever-shrinking minority as time goes by.

Edit: Changed VBCA to VSCA