An unenforceable ban? Kern, Bakersfield continue battle against pot

KBAK/KBFX photo, file

In two short months Proposition 64 will become the law of the land in California, and with it the state will be thrust into a new age when marijuana will join alcohol and tobacco as legally consumable intoxicants.

However, as the state moves forward, the governments of many counties, cities and municipalities within California are exercising the rights afforded to them in Prop 64 and are banning the sale of the soon-to-be legal drug.

Bakersfield and Kern County both have instituted new bans on marijuana sales. Each previously had passed either an ordinance or moratorium prohibiting marijuana dispensaries.

Bakersfield passed a law in 2004 and another in 2013.

Kern County instituted a moratorium on new dispensaries in 2011 after 28 opened legally.

While neither Kern County nor its biggest city will allow marijuana dispensaries, neither have successfully kept the shops out of town.

According to Lorelei Oviatt, the director of the Kern County Planning Department, there are roughly 120 marijuana dispensaries operating illegally within Kern County. Many of those are in Bakersfield.

So why ban the shops again? Why, if marijuana will be legal statewide, will Kern County and Bakersfield continue to turn away revenue from businesses they've never been able to shut down?

Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood admitted these new bans are nothing more than formalities that truthfully do not ban anything.

"We banned methamphetamine, heroine, we've banned burglary, we've banned theft and robbery," the sheriff said. "We still have all those things occur. We're not going to win that war. Whether we regulate or we ban is not going to have a significant impact on what's happening in our community."

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Those intent on breaking the law will do so regardless of what the law says, Youngblood said.

So if the law has stated in Bakersfield since at least 2013 and in Kern County since 2011 that marijuana dispensaries cannot be opened here, why are so many still operational?

In the past, the Bakersfield City Attorney's Office has issued statements routinely claiming every time they shut one down another shop opens in its place.

"A game of Whac-A-Mole," Deputy City Attorney Richard Iger called it.

Now, however, after the passage of the new law in Bakersfield, Iger claims he and his colleagues are going to crack down on the illegal businesses more than ever before.

In the past month, the combined efforts of the Bakersfield City Attorney and Police Department have resulted in the closure of 20 dispensaries operating illegally in city limits.

Many of these dispensaries were stealing power from neighboring businesses, a felony, and all of them had been asked to stop operating prior to being closed.

Of the 20 shops closed, 10 were closed in a mass sweep operation conducted by BPD.

This, of course, raises the question: Why only shut down 10 of them? Why not close all of them?

The simple answer is time and manpower.

"It takes a lot of resources to conduct an operation such as this," said police Sgt. Ryan Kroeker.

Those resources, of course, cost money.

Every step of shutting down illegal dispensaries costs taxpayer money.

Police, code enforcers, investigators, attorneys, prosecutors, judges -- it all costs money. A lot of money.

According to Oviatt, enforcing the county ban will cost somewhere between $1.2 million and $2.7 million each year.

Oviatt's research also indicated allowing the shops to exist, regulating them, and taxing them would have netted the county north of $30 million a year and created 8,750 full-time jobs.

Local marijuana expert TJ Esposito doesn't understand why any government would be so quick to turn down an instant payday from an industry that already exists within their borders.

"Could you imagine if we had 150 Starbucks not paying any taxes," he said.

However, for both the Bakersfield City Council and the Kern County Board of Supervisors, concerns of public safety, childhood drug use, adult drug addiction, as well as their own personal moral abjections were too much for money to overcome.

"For Mick Gleason, this isn't a financial decision," said Kern County Supervisor Mick Gleason. "We want to swing this county on values, who we are, what we do, not how much money we can make."

But how much money we make is exactly what these new laws control.

The reality is marijuana will be legal in every county across California come 2018.

No law created by a county or city government can prohibit adults over the age of 21 from possessing, growing, or using marijuana in their own home.

So these new bans do not control or ban drugs.

The only thing these new laws ban, control, regulate is the business or marijuana.

It's the continuation of what has been a long-standing losing proposition to shut down an industry that has no intentions of going quietly into the night.

Ultimately, the decisions made by the governments of Kern County and Bakersfield were to keep spending money rather than bring in more money. All this in hopes of winning a fight, which according to the scoreboard (120 or so illegal dispensaries), they've been losing for years.

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