Growing like weeds: Banned pot shops keep opening

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) - More medical marijuana dispensaries are opening in the city of Bakersfield, even though they're banned.

Eyewitness News viewers say they're concerned, and city officials say they're working to enforce their year-old rule.

One new dispensary worries Councilman Terry Maxwell. It's on Niles Street, just east of Beale Avenue, and it's about a block from the Boys and Girls Club.

"I've received a complaint, based on the fact that they're next to the Boys and Girls Club," Associate Bakersfield Attorney Richard Iger said on Tuesday. He said a concerned resident had contacted City Councilmember Maxwell.

The dispensary on Niles had a sign calling itself "The Green House," and a man who answered the door told a reporter they had been there for a month. He said the owner wasn't there.

On Wednesday, Lorena Juarez contacted Eyewitness News by email, saying she's the operator of that dispensary. Juarez said its name is actually Medical Alternative Supply House, or M*A*S*H.

She said the facility "provides medical marijuana to its members who have legal documentation, in an organized and safe environment." Juarez said they take pride in the community they serve

"Our priority is the safety of all members of the community, including the children who attend the Boys and Girls Club," she wrote. "That's why we find it odd that Councilmember Terry Maxwell and other members of the community are concerned with our dispensary, when there has been a dispensary operating in front of the Boys and Girls Club for over a year."

Juarez also says the facility meets state laws and follows Attorney General guidelines, and "our collective was in existence prior to the city winning the court challenge in April." Although, the man answering the door had said it's been in that location for about a month.

If it's been a month, that's nearly a full year after the city of Bakersfield banned dispensaries. The City Council voted for the ordinance last July, and it went on the books in August. And, in April, the city won a legal challenge to the rule.

Since then, the city sent letters to five dispensaries ordering them to close or face court action. Iger said they filed a complaint against the first of those a couple weeks ago. They want a judge to issue an order to the dispensary to close up.

But, that's a new process.

"We're taking these one at a time through the court system right now. And it's going to be a lengthy process," Iger said, adding he didn't know how long that would take. "I'm guessing it'll be several months," he said.

And that's for each case.

Iger said Tuesday the city knows of about 21 dispensaries open right now.

But, that's not all. A viewer also spotted a dispensary that's apparently reopened in northeast Bakersfield on Haley, near Height Street. In April, that one had been marked by the city as shut down.

Iger's not really surprised it seems to be back in business.

"We've always been concerned that would happen that some people would close and reopen," Iger said. "Once they're closed, we don't check up as often."

That facility had a neon sign saying "open," and on the side of the big building another sign said they were open "during remodeling."

When a reporter went inside and asked if workers knew it was illegal to be operating in the city, two women behind a counter just shrugged their shoulders. They also said the owner wasn't there.

Across the parking lot, workers at Sunshine Herbs and Vitamins said they're worried about the dispensary.

"We have a lot of people coming over that they're already smoking," Monserrat Franco said.

And, they spot more problems: "Kids inside of cars, no car seat, and they're making turns inside the parking lot."

Franco said their building has been broken into.

"If you get to see the people, the kind of people coming out, you're afraid," she said.

Iger said the city plans to take the facilities into court, starting with the ones they get the most complaints about. And, there could be other factors pushing dispensaries to the top of the list for legal action.

One of first five they targeted is near a church.

"Another one, it's the landlord trying to evict them," Iger said. "They ran other businesses out because of the customers. There's a lot of different reasons they could make it to the top of the list."

And, working through that list will be a process that takes time. But, it's not clear how much time.

"It's a little unknown right now," Iger said. "I think the courts are seeing these for the first time from the county and us. It's essentially filing an injunction pursuant to our municipal code and the county code. So, they're operating outside the scope of the zoning code."

From the dispensary on Niles Street, Lorena Juarez also said in her email to Eyewitness News her collective hopes the city has a change of heart.

"M*A*S*H would like to work in collaboration with city officials to create an ordinance that would benefit all involved," she wrote.

Kern County now maintains medical marijuana dispensaries are not an allowed use in any zone in their jurisdiction. Eyewitness News checked on their situation, and Deputy County Counsel Devin Brown said they are moving ahead with civil action against any still operating, and have filed three complaints so far.

In Bakersfield, the new rule also says dispensaries are not allowed in any zone. Iger says the city's making progress with their enforcement.

"I know it feels like it's taking forever," he said. "But, the legal process moves pretty slow. We want to take the time to do everything right so we don't have to do it again."