Cities prepare to take the driver’s seat in marijuana trade

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In the dusty, wind-swept city of Adelanto, officials are predicting big changes on the horizon. City Councilman Johnny “Bug”  Woodard Jr. is standing in front of a chain-link fence surrounding a vacant lot in the city’s Green Zone, the industrial area where Adelanto allows medical marijuana cultivation.

“What you’re looking at here is the first property to actually break ground to build a new building,” Woodard says.

It doesn’t look like much, but Woodard says this business and others like it will lead to a new future for Adelanto, a worn-down city of about 32,000 in the high desert of San Bernardino County. Since last year, when the city passed an ordinance allowing for large-scale medical marijuana cultivation, Woodard says some big names have come knocking.

“So right now we have 32 licenses that have been issued. We’ve seen UCLA, USC, the City of Hope is here, the University of Mississippi is involved.”

Woodard tells of investors with gold-plated Bentleys driving down dusty city streets and pro athletes coming to visit. In an effort to capitalize on the potential investment, Adelanto has placed Measure R on its November ballot. That’s a 5 percent excise tax on all marijuana-related business within the city.

At a local cafe just down the road from the Green Zone, we run into investor Chuck Shakta. So far he and his partners have put about $3 million into their medical marijuana cultivation project. Shakta says land prices are skyrocketing.

“We’ve been close to a year and a half working on this project,” he says. “And now the prices are high, and our competitive edge is that we did start over a year ago and we secured our property.”

Woodard says the investments by Shakta and others are having a ripple effect throughout the town, which was on the verge of bankruptcy not too long ago. There are plans to build more commercial structures and homes. And investors must pledge to hire local workers when their projects are approved. Woodard says all this movement puts Adelanto in a good position in the event California voters approve Proposition 64 and legalize recreational marijuana

“We’re in the driver’s seat right now. We’re driving this car home,” Woodard  says.

If Proposition 64 passes, local governments would have a big role in determining how — or if — cannabis-related businesses may operate within their borders.

Already, some cities are taking very different approaches to the possibility of recreational marijuana. And not all local governments are embracing the possibility of legal marijuana.

The upscale Bay Area city of Walnut Creek is full of posh boutiques and high-end department stores. And the City Council doesn’t see a need to bring marijuana into the mix. It voted 4-1 on a resolution opposing the passage of Proposition 64.

Mayor Loella Haskew takes the view that recreational marijuana won’t fit well in her town.

“Walnut Creek is a really solid, tight, well-respected, respectful community,” she says. “And I’m afraid this is going to add a dynamic that isn’t comfortable for everyone.”

Police Chief Tom Chaplin agrees. He is concerned about drugged driving.

“We don’t have an agreed level of impairment,” Chaplin says. “So if we put more drugged drivers on the road and that leads to more fatalities, the air of inevitability is not a valid argument for this, what I would describe as, poorly constructed measure.”

Whatever their approach, a lot of cities are just trying to figure out what Proposition 64 could mean for them. The measure would give cities and counties the power to regulate marijuana-related activities. They could establish zoning and permitting rules. They could even ban marijuana businesses.

Tim Cromartie with the League of California Cities has been fielding a lot of questions about the measure.

“A number of cities have awakened to the economy development potential of marijuana,” he says. “Other cities continue to ban absolutely. It’s definitely going to be a potential cash cow for local jurisdictions, but it’s got to be carefully managed.”

Series: California Counts

California Counts is a collaboration of KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio to report on the 2016 election. The coverage focuses on major issues and solicits diverse voices on what's important to the future of California.

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