No cannabis in Kern

Photo by Shannon Rapose / Kern Valley Sun; Locally grown marijuana plants line the shelves at ASHES in Wofford Heights, a medical dispensary that has faced a continuous uphill legal battle with the county.

By Ashley Loza
Kern Valley Sun

The debate over the legalization of cannabis has heated up again in Kern County, where county supervisors voted 4-1 last Tuesday, Oct. 24, to ban all commercial sales of the drug.

Perez, the dissenting vote, stated that she did not feel comfortable voting for a ban that would leave some of her constituents without medication and hoped for a compromise.

“The idea that I would be complicit in denying this population access to this medicine that has proven to be helpful is something that I simply cannot do,” she said.

Supervisors Couch and Scrivner stated that they would be open to addressing the possibility of allowing medical cannabis, while Gleason said that he would be interested in accommodating a “legitimate system” for providing patients with their needs.

“If there is another way that we need to provide medicinal marijuana to patients who are suffering, I’m interested in knowing what that other way might be,” said Maggard.

Medical patients speak out
The issue is close to home for one Kern River Valley resident who has been using cannabis to ease her pain for four years now.

Sheila, who asked to be identified by first name only, was a courier for a bank when she lived in Nipomo, California. While on the job one day, she fell on concrete and shattered both of her arms, an injury that resulted in months of recovery.

“I had a battle with pain pills. It was too much,” she said.

She said for a while, she was able to divert her attention by playing Farmville on Facebook, or with her interest in photography.

But at night, trying to sleep was a different story.

A friend of Sheila’s suggested that she take an edible, a piece of candy infused with cannabis. She was unsure about doing something that was illegal, but she was desperate to try something that would help her.

Sheila was amazed at the result; she could finally sleep at night. So she decided to get a medical card and has found comfort in cannabis ever since.

She points out that for her, cannabis is something she uses only to sleep. She does not like the feeling of being too impaired and has even gone back to dispensaries to trade what she bought for something more mellow. She dislikes the idea of anyone being too high to function and feels that while the drug is indispensable for medicinal needs, recreational use would definitely require stiff regulation.

She hopes it is understood that she, and users like her, are using cannabis responsibly.

“We don’t sit at home and invite people over and smoke weed and party crazy and drink booze and stuff,” she says, pointing out that meth usage in the area may be a bigger fish for Kern County to fry.

Jay Jamieson, president of Alta Sierra Holistic Exchange Services (ASHES) in Wofford Heights, echoed the sentiment that his members are not people who pose an issue in the community, but hardworking adults with legitimate medical needs.

“They think it’s a bunch of gangsters and college kids who smoke,” said Jamieson.

Jamieson became interested in the business partially because when his wife had cancer, cannabis provided her with significant relief.

“It’s undeniable that this does help some people. I mean, my wife, she’s not a big pot person at all, but a little marijuana cookie when she was going through chemotherapy seemed to help her, and that’s all I have to say about that,” he said.

The business end
Kern County has had a difficult time trying to stifle dispensaries within its borders.

In 2010, county supervisors imposed a moratorium on all new medical dispensaries opened after the date of their decision, Aug. 24. Then, in 2011, they made an attempt to ban all cultivation and sales of medical cannabis, citing it as a “public nuisance” and safety issue.

Supervisors chose to repeal the ban after over 17,000 residents signed a petition to oppose it.

Then they placed Measure G on the ballot, a measure that continued to allow dispensaries but imposed strict rules on where they were allowed to open, and it passed with 69 percent of the vote.

But after the measure was challenged due to the lack of an environmental impact report, it was overturned.

The county argued that overturning this measure meant that dispensaries were now effectively illegal under county zoning laws, and in 2016, this argument was deemed inaccurate by the Fifth District Court of Appeal. In addition, the court said, it ignored the 69 percent of residents who had voted in favor of regulating dispensaries, not banning them.

This decision was one of the reasons Jamieson opened ASHES a year ago. He says that because of the county’s legal inability to pose a second moratorium on opening new dispensaries, any action against his shop is unenforceable.

“We will be open for years to come thanks to their illegal actions today. There’s no way a court will ever enforce that ordinance that they passed on Tuesday because the courts have already told them they have to submit a ban to the voters,” said Jamieson.

Jamieson said he has offered four times to help the county write regulations, and that 60 of his members had tried to contact Supervisor Gleason with no return calls. He says six months ago, 20 of them went to Bakersfield to meet with supervisors in person with no discernible result.

“It was clear to me at that time that they were not going to be serious about this issue,” said Jamieson, who says he didn’t bother participating in the Oct. 24 hearing process because he considered it a “forgone result.”

He says that the shop has never had any issues with robbery or theft, and none of the surrounding businesses have ever had a complaint. He emphasizes that those who work with ASHES do everything they can to keep the shop discreet, clean and appropriate, but the county has still pursued shutting it down.

“I’ve bent over backwards to try to resolve this and settle with them, and all they’ve done is try to make an example out of me because I’ve been openly critical about their policy,” says Jamieson.

“I’m a lawyer. My family has done business in this county for 100 years. I would not open a business if I didn’t think it was legal.”

Cannabis and children
One issue that all sides agree on, however, is that legalization of recreational use is not without its issues – particularly where children are concerned.

“Recreational is not cool, not in public,” Sheila said, citing concerns about her grandchildren when people smoke near them in public.

Jamieson, who was a teacher for many years, agrees that recreational cannabis is for adult use only.

“We do need to discourage children to not drink and not smoke,” he said. “We all want to protect children, that’s true… I wouldn’t open a business if I thought it was a true threat. This is really an adult choice.”

Kernville Union School District Superintendent Robin Shive, who has been working with schools in the valley for 13 years, has seen some changes in students’ attitudes towards cannabis since the legalization of medical use, and some of the statistics out of Colorado have concerned her as well.

“I feel that the mindset that goes along with legalization of anything sends a message to a child that it’s okay,” said Shive, who says that she has heard students think of cannabis as a spice or as less harmful to them because it is organic.

“They have a more relaxed point of view about its effect or maybe they don’t know the effect of it,” she said.

She points to statistics in Colorado, which have shown that the number of youth using marijuana in the past month increased 12 percent between 2013 and 2015, and that the state now ranks number one in the country in youth past-month marijuana use – up from number 14 in 2005/2006 and number 4 in 2011/2012.

Shive says the schools have already seen an increase in depression, anxiety, self-harm, threats of suicide and hypersensitivity to social situations, all issues that they feel could correlate to drug use. In an area that is already on the radar for high rates of drug use among youth, Shive finds the statistics troubling.

“That all affects the learning, and at schools, we’re all about learning,” said Shive.

Cannabis and the county
One of the inevitable criticisms of the supervisors’ decision is the rejection of a multi-million dollar industry in Kern County, particularly in the wake of Chevron’s recent announcement that it would be laying off or reassigning 26 percent of its Central Valley workforce.

The county would be turning down over 8,000 jobs in a region that currently has a notoriously low employment rate.

But Supervisor Maggard stated that most of the illegal dispensaries operating in the county are within his own district, and that they were disproportionately a burden on poorer communities.

“To ask me to turn my head and not worry about that in exchange for money because I might need it for this, that or the other thing is, frankly, offensive to me,” said Maggard.

Gleason offered a similar opinion.
“I understand that we will be losing the opportunity to make some funds, but it’s not, in the long run, the decision we want to swing this county on. We want to swing this county on our values, and who we are, and what we are, not on how much money we can make,” he said.

But the decision was not taken lightly by others affected. Sheila said that she would buy her medication elsewhere if she was forced to, and Jamieson criticized the loss of such potentially high-paying jobs.

“Must be nice for the supervisors to sit up there and get 150 grand a year and tell 8,000 people in one of the highest unemployment counties, ‘You can’t have a $20 (an hour) job,’” he said, but did point out that the county was within its legal right to ban recreational cultivation and sales.

The array of effects that the legalization and ban process have on residents is likely to result in litigation for months to come, and county supervisors are prepared to continue the conversation.

“We have many other options still in front of us,” said Supervisor Couch. “I don’t think this is the end. This may, in fact, be the beginning.”