Redding takes on medical cannabis

It has 16 dispensaries, while Chico has none. Why?

Four of the MediCali Collective’s six employees were at work Friday, Sept. 16, when this photo was taken. Shown here, left to right, are manager Ted Lidie, Sonny Sarot and Randy White. A female receptionist was in another room.

Four of the MediCali Collective’s six employees were at work Friday, Sept. 16, when this photo was taken. Shown here, left to right, are manager Ted Lidie, Sonny Sarot and Randy White. A female receptionist was in another room.

Photo by Robert Speer

During the several public hearings Chico’s City Council held as it tried to craft an ordinance governing medical-cannabis dispensaries, one name came up repeatedly: Redding.

The two towns are the same size, have similar demographics and are both located in what has long been prime pot-growing country. And yet, as Chico medical-cannabis advocates have never tired of telling the council, Redding has taken a much different tack when it comes to regulating dispensaries.

Whereas Redding has 16 fully regulated, licensed and sales-tax-collecting dispensaries within city limits, Chico has no ordinance and no dispensaries. That means, among other things, that legitimate medical-cannabis patients in Chico, unlike their counterparts in Redding, have no safe and legal local access to their medicine other than to grow their own. (The one operating dispensary nearby, North Valley Holistic Health, is outside city limits on Highway 32.)

How did Redding end up with 16 dispensaries? And what impact have those dispensaries had on the community? Have residents accepted them, or is the relationship troubled? What cautionary lessons does Redding provide as Chico continues to try to write a medical-cannabis ordinance? And do city officials fear prosecution by the U.S. attorney’s office, as Chico officials do? We decided to find out.

It all began in early 2009, when U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that henceforth his agency would no longer prosecute medical-marijuana dispensaries in states where they were legal, even though federal law held marijuana to be illegal.

In Redding, 35 dispensaries popped up almost overnight, explained Chief of Police Peter Hansen during a recent phone interview.

Redding officials realized they could do one of two things: either try to stamp out all those businesses, or regulate and control them in accordance with state law.

“We looked at the situation and realized that we didn’t have any power to shut them down,” explained City Attorney Rick Duvernay, also reached by phone. “It was too late [to pass] a moratorium, and there was no way to shut down a business other than to say it was a public nuisance, which was not the case here.”

Contrast that with Chico, where District Attorney Mike Ramsey orchestrated pre-emptive raids on eight dispensaries in the area and shut them down. (For an update on the raids, see Meredith J. Graham’s story, “Where are they now?” on page 20.)

Subsequently the City Council developed an ordinance regulating both residential growing and dispensaries. But when the U.S. attorney in Sacramento, Benjamin Wagner, sent city officials a letter threatening to prosecute them for conspiracy to commit a federal crime, they quickly repealed the dispensaries part of the ordinance.

In Redding, city officials saw that there was a moral dimension to the issue, Hansen said. They recognized that California voters had approved Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, in order to provide legitimate patients with safe access. Whatever else city officials thought of the initiative, that was at its core.

So the City Council decided to provide safe access. Hearings were held. Relevant laws were studied. Opinions were brandished and debated. And when it was over Redding had regulated both residential gardens and collectively run dispensaries.

The rules on dispensaries are strict: Background checks are run on all employees. Doctor’s recommendations must include purchase limits. All recommendations must be verified. Members can belong to only one collective. No growing is allowed on premises (except clones). No dispensaries close to schools, libraries, residences or any places where kids are found.

Hansen does the permitting, and is given a fair amount of leeway to determine who’s OK and who’s not.

“I just don’t get that—why we have to report to the Police Department,” complained Ted Lidie, a manager at MediCali Collective, a storefront operation in a commercial area on Redding’s busy Churn Creek Road. “With other businesses there’s no police involvement.”

At the same time, Lidie acknowledged that there had been a spate of strong-armed robberies at dispensaries recently, requiring a police response—though he was quick to point out that his shop had never been robbed.

“We have a really good security system,” he explained, “with external alarms and a camera setup. It’s required by the [medical-cannabis] ordinance.”

The MediCali Collective is neat and clean but hardly resembles a professional medical office. The floors are concrete, and the wall decorations—blown-up images of marijuana buds, a floor-to-ceiling painting of Bob Marley with a spliff between his lips—speak to recreational users, not sick people.

After two years in business, the collective has about 4,000 members and six employees. Overall community response has been less than favorable. “Most of the community doesn’t like us,” Lidie said. “We’re way more hated than adult bookstores”—though not, of course, by the collective’s customers.

Not too long ago the Redding Police Department did a survey of the dispensaries to find out how many members they had. The answer was shocking: 40,000.

What the figure clearly meant, Hansen said, was that many people were illegally joining multiple collectives. The collectives, he said, are obeying the law, but the so-called “patients” are not.

Hansen acknowledged that his department lacked the resources to do much about it, since each dispensary keeps its own data. “It’s very, very difficult for us to monitor these places,” he said.

Hansen and Duvernay both said that, when it comes to medical cannabis, state law has left cities “to their own devices,” in Duvernay’s words. Hansen was blunt: “Proposition 215 is the worst piece of legislation ever to hit California,” he stated.

Both men were aware of the letter U.S. Attorney Wagner sent Chico city officials. Neither thought the threat was serious, and Hansen called it “ridiculous.”

The feds have been no more consistent than the state, they said. First Attorney General Holder said he was going to take a hands-off approach, then Wagner came along two years later and threatened prosecution. And yet when Hansen invited Wagner to send a similar letter to Redding, Wagner declined.

“If they came here and seized one dispensary landlord’s property,” Hansen said, “I’m sure the rest would shut down pretty quickly.” But it’s not going to happen, he said.

The community’s response to medical marijuana was “mixed at first,” Hansen said, “but now there’s a lot of backlash.” Interestingly, most complaints involve backyard gardens, not the dispensaries. But there’s a widespread feeling that the increased visibility of marijuana is leading to the degradation of the community, that Redding “is developing a reputation as a place to get and grow dope.”

But the reality, he continued, “is that we voted for this.”

For his part, Duvernay is grateful that the city is no longer arguing over a medical-cannabis ordinance. “For better or worse,” he said, “we took a course of action.”