Santa Ana City Council Tuesday night unanimously adopted a stringent plan to shut down medical marijuana shops deemed to be illegally operating, while strictly regulating other stores that comply with a voter-approved ordinance allowing some locations in industrial zones.
Under the plan, city officials will begin shutting down illegal stores after Feb. 5, which is when city officials are scheduled to have sorted out which shops will be allowed to continue operating.
According to city staff, the property and business owners will receive city notices to close within 48 hours, and, if they fail to comply, their water and power will be disconnected. Then another notice will be posted on the building saying that it is a misdemeanor crime to continue occupying it. As a last resort, police can also make arrests for trespassing.
Santa Ana has become a pot hub for Orange County, with dozens of medical marijuana businesses -- known by the green crosses they display on their signs -- operating throughout the city. Despite the plethora of shops, they have been banned for years under the city’s land use laws.
Tuesday's action regarding the pot shops was the first since Election Day when Santa Ana voters passed a new ordinance that allows the city to tax and tightly regulate the businesses. With the law, city leaders hope to gain some control over what has been a near free-for-all.
“This is exciting,” said Councilman Sal Tinajero, the council’s most vocal proponent of the new ordinance. “We get to shut them down. We have funding to shut them down. And we get to segregate them to industrial zones.”
The law also requires that pot businesses be at least 1,000 ft. away from schools, parks and residential areas and have a minimum 500 ft. distance from other medical marijuana stores, which will be levied a tax that ranges from 5 percent to 10 percent of gross sales.
Only small slices of land, located in the city’s southern corner meet the requirements, meaning 18 to 24 shops could open, officials estimate.
Voters approved the city-sponsored measure, known as BB, over another measure backed by medical marijuana advocates that would have meant less strict regulation of the stores and a smaller tax.
The tax is expected to generate the $1.5 million in revenue city officials estimate will be needed to finance the enforcement plan, which includes the hiring of six new police officers, two code enforcement inspectors, a forensic auditor, and an assistant city attorney. They also have authority to hire one more legal professional if needed.
One marijuana advocate, Kandice Hawes, director of the Orange County chapter of the marijuana legalization lobby group called NORML, said spending more money on police to shut down stores was an uncreative approach to the issue.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, Hawes asked city leaders to “think outside the box,” pointing out that Weedmaps, the popular online geographical database of marijuana stores that helped in the campaign to pass the measure, could be asked to remove illegal stores from their map.
“Ask your allies to help you guys with the problem,” Hawes said.
Mayor Miguel Pulido echoed Hawes’ approach, saying that taking illegal stores off Weedmaps could be a “monumental” step that doesn’t cost much.
“I don’t know that I agree that the previous moratorium didn’t work, namely because we didn’t enforce anything,” Pulido said.
Before the illegal stores will be shut down, city officials need to figure out which ones they will allow open, and which will be closed.
That process is supposed to be strictly objective and done through a lottery. But there have been widespread rumors that stores would be guaranteed permits in exchange for campaign contributions toward the city-backed measure.
At Tuesday night's meeting, city leaders emphasized that council members would not be involved in deciding which stores would be permitted to stay open.
Councilwoman Michele Martinez, attending the meeting via speakerphone from a hotel room in Washington, DC, suggested hiring an independent consultant to oversee the process to assure that no council members would be involved in influencing staff as they sort through applications. But her colleagues appeared satisfied with the current plan.
As things stand now, city officials will begin accepting applications from the stores in December and weed out those stores operating outside of industrial areas or too close to schools and parks. Then the stores operating too close to each other will be given lottery numbers, with the lottery losers placed on a waiting list.
The winners will be allowed to apply for a regulatory safety permit, which has a host of conditions that stores need to comply with before they are approved, including criminal background checks for operators and a security plan. If the lottery winner’s application is rejected, the next store on the waiting list can try for a permit.