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California City first in Kern County to permit commercial cultivation of medical marijuana

Cannabis plants are seen in a 2010 file photo from MGN Online.

California City is about to break new ground as the first city in Kern County to permit medical marijuana cultivation on a commercial scale.

The city in the eastern part of the county has made a dramatic break from others in Kern who have taken a conservative stance on allowing cultivation and manufacturing of medical marijuana.

"It's a new industry for us. It kind of came and dropped in our laps," said Tom Weil, California City manager. "It's not something we were looking for."

Weil said the city was approached by a couple of medical marijuana cultivators interested in setting up a business. New state rules signed into law last year by Gov. Jerry Brown allow for cities and counties to issue permits for medical marijuana cultivation.

"That's why I'm in favor of this, because Governor Jerry Brown stepped in and the state stepped in and there is oversight," said local resident Karen Macedonio.

The city has been studying the issue for months and recently passed an ordinance that allows permits for cultivation, manufacturing, transportation, testing and distribution of medical marijuana. It also allows for one dispensary.

Weil said that up to 15 cultivation sites could be issued permits, and it could be expanded to as many as 30 in the future. Based on the size of each facility, the city is expecting a boost to its' general fund of between $2 to $3 million annually. Along with that would come hundreds of new jobs in this cash strapped town of about 14,000 residents.

"We don't have a lot of retail here," said Weil. "But we expect with this business coming in that it will generate more jobs, more opportunity, more demand for retail."

Before the city moved ahead, mayor Jennifer Wood conducted a survey to gauge community support. The result surprised her, with nearly 75 percent of respondents giving the idea a heads up.

"This is a fairly conservative community and I thought it would be flipped the other way," said Wood, who is retired from the military.

The ordinance has stringent rules of operation for all of the different medical marijuana businesses. The city has designated a special zone where a business could locate, being away from schools, churches, day care centers and rehabilitation centers. Currently, the business are confined mostly on the west side of the city just across the airport in an industrial zone.

Police chief Eric Hurtado admits that at first, he had some concerns about a potential risk to public safety. But after working out those issues, Hurtado said he feels those have been addressed.

"Not only can we look at (a business) books and go monitor the inside, but we have to have 24 hour access to the building," said Hurtado.

Other cities in Kern County will be watching closely at how well California City implements this new ordinance. The city will begin handing out permit applications October 19 and then applicants will go through a vigorous background check process. The first business could be up and running by April 2017.

"We're not rushing through this, we're not throwing something on the wall and seeing what sticks," said mayor Wood. "We're trying to do it right."

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