Of the 630 applications vying for just twenty, lucrative permits to operate a medical marijuana dispensary in the city of Santa Ana, perhaps it is apt that one will go to Louis Freese and his collective-to-be, Dr. Greenthumb.

Freese, known for being the lead rapper in the 90’s hip-hop group Cypress Hill, has been a longtime advocate for legalizing marijuana and cannabis culture.

Freese’s collective, which is named after the band’s 1998 song, was among the lucky few selected at a random lottery in the Santa Ana city council chambers.

Although the council chambers were packed Thursday with entrepreneurs and advocates for medical and recreational marijuana usage, just months before it was full of residents venting frustration at the city’s proliferating pot shops, many which were in close proximity to homes or schools.

Up until Santa Ana voters approved Measure BB last November, the city has had a ban on medical marijuana dispensaries that was largely unenforced for several years, allowing the shops to operate illegally and unregulated.

Measure BB repeals that ban, allowing dispensaries to operate in two industrial zones and require a 500-foot distance between collectives and 1,000 feet from schools, parks and residential zones.

The measure also imposes a 5 percent business sales tax on dispensaries.

Freese said that if collectives are properly vetted and regulated, Santa Ana’s approach should contribute new jobs and tax revenue for the city.

“It shows Santa Ana is willing to take a chance and see if this will work. It’s a great step for California,” said Freese.

Advocates also say it will be a safer and more navigable environment for patients.

“It’s also an opportunity to work in a legal environment and expose patients to new, vibrant strains of marijuana,” said Christopher Glew, an attorney representing Freese and three other applications for Santa Ana dispensaries. “[They] can operate with no interference with law enforcement — instead, they’ll be partners.”

Those selected in Thursday’s random drawing will move on to the next phase of the application process, a 60-day police background check.

Applicants waiting for their number to be called.
Applicants waiting for their number to be called. Credit: Thy Vo

The city received 630 applications for up to 20 slots. At $1,690 per application with a $12,086 background check fee for selected applicants, Santa Ana expects to make at least $1 million from the process, revenue that is earmarked for enforcement of the voter-backed measure.

The firm White Nelson Diehl Evans was hired by the city to conduct the selection process to ensure impartiality, according to city spokeswoman Tanya Lyon.

Both Glew and Randall Longwith, a Fullerton-based attorney and cannabis advocate involved in several city initiatives, said the process has unfolded without incident, but criticized the use of a public lottery.

Representatives of the firm White Nelson Diehl Evans, hired by the city of Santa Ana, conduct a random lottery.
Representatives of the firm White Nelson Diehl Evans, hired by the city of Santa Ana, conduct a random lottery. Credit: Thy Vo

“You should be vetting people up front, figuring out who doesn’t have a criminal record and all of that, and then have the lottery,” said Longwith, who has helped author medical marijuana petitions for cities across Orange County.

He said a pre-screening would ensure “the best” operators possible, rather than focusing on “giving every applicant an equal chance.”

Since medical marijuana was legalized in California in 1996, cannabis has become a billion-dollar industry statewide.

Many cities have sought to crack down on the proliferating medical marijuana industry — still illegal under federal law — either by banning dispensaries altogether or regulating them through zoning codes.

Earlier this week, Anaheim city officials bolstered their power to pursue civil and criminal action against landowners that allow illegal pot shops to operate on their property, part of the city’s ongoing efforts to eliminate commercial marijuana altogether.

Costa Mesa city council members, meanwhile, have asked staff to prepare an ordinance regulating medical marijuana shops, an item which is expect to arrive before the council sometime this month. Two similar citizen- and industry-backed ballot measures have already been submitted and approved for the 2016 election.

But with a statewide measure to legalize recreational marijuana expected for the 2016 ballot, many local officials are waiting to see which way the winds blow before taking action on the local level.

Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia currently have laws legalizing marijuana, according to Governing magazine.

Among those, voters in four states have approved ballot measures legalizing recreational marijuana: Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon.

Contact the writer at thyanhvo@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter, @thyanhvo.

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