Kern County Just Became California’s Worst Cannabis Desert

The Wasteland: In 2017, Kern officials rejected an estimated 8,750 jobs and $37.5 million in annual legal cannabis tax revenue. (GOLDsquirrel, luplupme/iStock, Google Maps)
The Wasteland: In 2017, Kern officials rejected an estimated 8,750 jobs and $37.5 million in annual legal cannabis tax revenue. (GOLDsquirrel, luplupme/iStock, Google Maps)

Just in time for Memorial Day, a rural California county is shuttering its medical cannabis dispensaries and making its residents—many of them military veterans—drive at least 150 miles round-trip to the nearest legal store.

Friday, May 24 marks the end of limited immunity for unincorporated Kern County’s 28 medical cannabis dispensaries. They had been grandfathered in for years, and amassed tens of thousands of patients. But come midnight tonight, those business risk being raided by the local sheriff, and having their property, cash, and medicine seized.

In a state where medical dispensaries and adult use stores are opening up by the dozens, Kern County—which is the size of New Hampshire—is going backward.

“This is the most regressive county I can think of,” said California NORML coordinator Ellen Komp.

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At The Crop medical dispensary outside of Bakersfield, manager Jacob Gonzalez said the law-abiding, tax-paying shop will cease serving its 9,800 patients after today. The ban is only hurting the most vulnerable, he said. That includes senior veterans getting off opioids or fighting chronic illness, the type of people who don’t have a hookup in the local illicit market.

“Younger kids looking for cheap deals and dabs—they go to other places,” said Gonzalez. “It is hurting a lot of people here. I’ve just seen the reaction on patients’ faces—they’re not happy at all.”

“We’re seven to ten years behind everyone else,” said Gonzalez, who graduated from a local high school and worked his way up from security guard to manager. “It’s like going back in time.”

The Edge of Freedom

If you’re looking for the avatar of recalcitrance to cannabis law reform, look no further than the arid, low-income wastelands northeast of Los Angeles.

Across California, more than 800 licensed medical or adult-use stores or delivery services generated more than $350 million in tax revenue in 2018. Not in Kern.

More than 23 years after Proposition 215, the first licensed stores are coming to big coastal cities like San Leandro, Emeryville, and Alameda. The adoption of medical regulations in 2015, and Proposition 64 in 2016, have given local cities a legal scaffold on which they can develop retail ordinances.

More stores are also opening in California’s longtime cannabis deserts than ever before—places you’ve never heard of: Pt. Hueneme, Adelanto, Needles, and Sylmar.

These new shops are the low-hanging fruit. Roughly 75% of jurisdictions in the state still ban stores.

California legalized medical marijuana in 1996, but Kern County has never regulated medical dispensaries. Its 800,000 people, though, most certainly use them.

In 2016, voters in Kern County sided against the state’s adult use legalization ballot measure by a wide margin, 53% to 47%.

Reefer Madness Country

In 2017, the Board of Supervisors—faced with contracting oil taxes, and at least $20 million in county deficits—considered allowing a local legal cannabis industry worth 8,750 jobs and $37 million in estimated taxes.

Local prohibitionists proved louder than supporters, however. Some critics even invoked the gateway theory.

“Do our county officials want to make it easier for our families to fall into a lifetime of drug addiction — is that what they want? Hopefully the answer is no,” said longtime Bakersfield city councilmember Jacky Sullivan.

Komp noted that the gateway theory has been rejected by the federal government, and cannabis use rates by teens have fallen amid adult-use commercialization in California. This May, Gov. Gavin Newsom budgeted $26 million in 2019 and 2020 for public health messaging in cities that license stores.

Other critics said essentially ‘not in my back yard.’

“Now that it is legal, statewide, Kern county does not need to provide that service,” said local resident Carol Bender in a letter to officials that concluded with a Bible passage about greed.

But Komp said there are tens of thousands of Kern locals who’ll prefer safe, tested, taxed cannabis, instead of the illicit market—which is expected to thrive under the ban.

“It’s already pretty easy to get,” said one local. “The high school I went to 90% of people smoked before there was even stores.”

Still, Supervisors rejected the legal market in 4-1 vote and gave the 28 grandfathered shops a hard deadline to close up shop.

Kern County voters are more divided than ever. In 2018, a countywide ballot measure to allow adult-use stores lost at the ballot box by just 9,243 votes, just 2.4% of all registered voters.

“It was so close,” said Gonzalez.

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The Clock Runs Out

Now the clock has run out on the grandfathered dispensaries, adding to the county’s tough economic and environmental conditions, Gonzalez said.

The local oil industry is laying off people, and homelessness is rising. Kern has atrocious air pollution, chronic drought, and an economy reliant on drilling, farming, prisons, and the military.

The population center of Bakersfield’s nearest licensed outlet is 80 miles south to Sylmar, 76 miles north to Woodlake, 273 miles east to Needles, or 132 miles west to San Luis Obispo, the beach.

“I’ve been here all my life and it’s tough to stay here,” Gonzalez said. “I would love to tell you there’s a lot keeping me here. But when I think about having my family here, the past ten years I’ve been out of high school it’s gotten considerably worse.”

“The thing that’s been keeping me here the most is this shop,” he said. “If I have the chance to leave, I would take it.”

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What About Delivery?

Lastly, licensed delivery is legal only in name in Kern County. Kern is so remote, most state-legal delivery services won’t drop there.

In April, the city of Tehachapi in Kern County joined 23 California cities and one county suing the state to overturn the legality of licensed couriers.

Eric Sklar, member of a new alliance of legal cannabis businesses called Californians for Equal Access, said “the situation in Kern County is an example of why we need cannabis delivery to be available in every county in the state. Prohibition is over. Restricting a legal product from being delivered is as ridiculous as banning Fedex from delivering a case of wine.”

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And by the way, illicit couriers are definitely serving Kern.

When I called a licensed delivery service and asked if they dropped in Kern, they said no, too far. When I asked if they knew of any licensed couriers out that way—the service rep pointed me to a website listing 17 unlicensed delivery services serving Kern.