Cities in Coachella Valley are struggling to recover from the Great Recession. Now, several municipalities are welcoming medical or recreational weed, some both, with huge smiles, quickly making space for a market that was launching while cities were searching desperately for financial refuge. With the industry now growing, some residents in Coachella Valley are voicing valid concerns. It seems pot issues abound.
They worry that the market has been spreading unchecked. There are concerns that local jurisdictions are lax in regulating cannabis business. Others fear that cities are smothering the still new industry and that regulators should reduce rules and taxes. If not, there is a risk that profitable and legal companies could disappear in the near future, giving the market back to illegal dealers.
Some are now running for public office. They tired of asking city councils to grapple these issues and decided to take it upon themselves. With local elections for pot Issues next month, the weed industry may well change again, depending on who takes office. Challengers and incumbents are appealing to residents in Coachella Valley to vote continue as is, slow down, or speed up pot reform. The debate is heating.
The city of Indio is resisting statewide efforts to legalize recreational marijuana. Despite this, at least one candidate is challenging the current city council’s position. A court battle is raging with neighboring Coachella over a dispensary on the border of the city. Oscar Ortiz and Waymond Fermon, campaigners for Districts 2 and 4, oppose the lawsuit against Coachella for The Lighthouse, its first dispensary.
In an email sent to The Desert Sun, Fermon said, “I do not support the lawsuit if we have good working relationships with our neighboring cities. Issues that may arise could be resolved through dialogue.” Ortiz considers the lawsuit a waste of taxpayer money and time, “Ultimately, I think it will hurt the relationship between our city and the city of Coachella.” Indio is not ready for legalization, it seems.
Every candidate in Coachella’s next city council is supportive of pot cultivation and the industry overall. However, some voiced worry about locations chosen for retail stores, as well as security issues surrounding them. There is also concern about the way officials are communicating with residents about developments in the industry.
This year, on the ballot is the current mayor Steve Hernandez, unopposed, incumbent council member Steve Brown, and candidates Brenda Flores, Megan Beaman Jacinto, Josie Gonzalez, Gilbert Ramirez Jr., and Victor Alcantara, who said, “We need the money, we need the revenue.” He says the city should be proactive in informing the community about decisions and meetings pertaining to the industry.
Greater dialogue and more transparency would foster understanding among voters. As Alcantara explained, “They should have community meetings in Spanish.” Beaman Jacinto agrees with this approach, even for all public hearings. She said, “We need to ensure that all residents are heard in the decision-making process, even when we cannot always make decisions with which everyone will agree.”
People will never agree on everything all of the time. According to Beaman Jacinto, “We need to find new avenues of outreach regarding public hearings and processes to improve participation.” Additionally, she suggests that the city creates a weed commission to “study issues as they evolve, maintain abreast of applicable regulations as they change, analyze and take into consideration resident input and concerns, and make recommendations to the city regarding cannabis-related practices.”
For the most part, the existing City Council has been very favorable toward the growth of cannabis industry in the city, which has been seeing rapid expansion of pot activity over the last two years. Empty storefronts of old are now dispensaries. Construction is currently underway to build a cannabis campus that, when completed, will cover 489,000 square feet in Ramon Road.
Even so, there is some discontent among residents. Although the legal market is generating jobs and tax monies, as well as reinvigorating blighted commercial buildings, many feel the council is not doing enough to contain marijuana odors. There is also fear that weed entrepreneurs with moneyed investors were forcing out the smaller businesses that had long been serving the city.
Back in May 2017, the council voted to restrict all new dispensaries north of Interstate 10. However, that ruling had no effect on other weed companies that were already in operation and, despite it, pot businesses continue to open all around town. Mayor Stan Henry and councilmember Mark Carnevale, two opponents of legalization, expressed several major reservations.
These include whether Cathedral City should permit cannabis lounges, even though the other three councilmembers typically outvote it. Despite skepticism of the industry, Carnevale, currently running for a seat in District 3, claims it an asset to the community, since it provides locals with well-paying jobs. He also claims the city adopted stringent regulations to make opening a pot business of any kind difficult.
However, with three open seats and no re-election campaigns for Henry and councilmember Shirley Kaplan, two new members will join the council after the election. This could tip the balance in favor of legalization and encourage robust debate about weed among members of council. While all candidates speak favorably of the pot market, they have differing views about how to regulate it.
District 4 candidate, Ernesto Gutierrez, says the council is not in touch with voters on several key issues, including pot cultivation and other weed-related activity, and that the city allows too many of them to operate in town. He calls for slower expansion of the industry and warned, “Listen to the residents when too much is too much.” Many have valid worries about oversaturating the market.
Desert Hot Springs
Because of a major fiscal crisis, Desert Hot Springs became one of the very first cities in the region to welcome marijuana on a commercial scale. In 2016, when Candescent opened, it earned the title of the first municipality to license a pot cultivation site in Southern California. With affordable land and lots of space, the area is a magnet for growers trying to get in early on the “green rush.”
However, some complain that an impractical planning department process has stymied the market’s capacity to expand, making other cities attractive targets for investors instead. The current council is busy restructuring the planning department for a more streamlined application and approvals process. To lure manufacturing companies to the city, it is not going to tax manufacturers.
Despite this, some candidates do not think the council is doing enough. There is a battle brewing between those wanting to continue down the current path, with minor adjustments, and those who want to empower the industry to flourish by deregulating and slashing taxes. President of the Coachella Valley Cannabis Alliance, Jason Elsasser, believes the city well positioned to move the industry forward.
“With the right city council in place, Desert Hot Springs is definitely poised to continue to lead the charge for cannabis,” Elsasser said. Former mayor Adam Sanchez, a candidate for city council, thinks that new leadership is the answer to getting the legal market back on track again. Desert Hot Springs has huge potential to stay in the game, but whom voters choose this election will make all the difference.
All four municipal elections will take place on November 6. Residents of Coachella Valley must decide how they want a legal cannabis industry to operate around them and elect the right people to implement it. With Indio and Coachella at war over the border dispensary and other cities in the area facing tough choices, Coachella Valley is a mixed bag of legal and illegal pot.