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Kern County Just Became California’s Worst Cannabis Desert

May 24, 2019
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.

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.


Leafly study debunks dispensary myths around crime & teen use

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.”


This chart reveals California’s urban–rural cannabis divide

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.”


California’s Top Pot Regulator, Lori Ajax, Stands Up for Legal Deliveries

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.

David Downs's Bio Image

David Downs

David Downs directs news and lifestyle coverage as the California Bureau Chief for He's written for WIRED, Rolling Stone and Billboard, and is the former cannabis editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as the author of several cannabis books including 'Marijuana Harvest' by Ed Rosenthal and David Downs. He co-hosts The Hash podcast. TW: @davidrdowns | IG @daviddowns

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  • jdwilli09

    I am a cancer patient and chronic pain patient from more than a dozen surgeries and dozens of tumors throughout my brain, spinal cord, pancreas, kidneys, colon, retinas, etc. I am from Bakersfield and I can safely say that it is articles like this, and the quote attributed to the person from NORML that calls us “the most regressive county I can think of”, that lead to Kern’s stuck in it’s ways mentality. Most do not care about marijuana or most of the social issues that California jams down the throats of us backwards, oil workers, farmers, and Military veterans. You failed to mention how insanely short of estimates taxes have fallen in other states. Also, that California has a history of promising the moon on their projects, and estimates(how is that high speed rail coming?). Have you spent time, actual time, not just passing through, or stopping for quotes, which it appears you just phoned those in, a week or two going through the Bakersfield, Shafter, Wasco, Taft, Tehachapi areas? The places where the low-income people are? Asked them why they are low-income? Asked around and found out that the people in Sacramento advanced and had passed either by super-majority fiat, or by the unaffected Angelenos, San Franciscans, and other coastal enclaves Bill’s that has made it either more expensive or impossible to farm because of the cost, and lack of availability of water for crop irrigation, which has cost 4 families just of my friends in a town of about 10,000 to have to sell their family farms that during the 80’s and 90’s allowed them to make a comfortable living and to pay good wages to their workers, but they’ve all been forced to let go for pennies on the dollar to Grimmway, Bolthouse, Campbell’s, etc. Those oil field workers have been laid off and rehired part time or so frequently they dont know when work will come or how much due to the strangulation of the industry, these are people who in the early 2000’s could easily have a husband in the field on a rig and a wife in the office doing payroll, or some other 25-35hr job to have plenty of time for family but not need benefits herself because the husband had great benefits, and they made about 80,000 and 25,000 for that work. Hardly low income. However, all these jobs are the ones that have been cut back. Ask the folks in Taft about those windmills that are beloved by the same people pushing marijuana, and promising taxes, ask them about the noise, dead birds, eye sores, and property value. The people who’ve had good jobs and had no control when state government passed laws that killed those jobs, or added to their taxes for bullet trains, or you name it, are a bit skeptical when the state makes efforts to force feed them ANYTHING. Like I said I am pro-legalization, I was looking for a delivery service, have used CBD, and edibles for pain for years. However, it’s this sort of sneering, sanctimonious, looked down upon writing, and opinions that make residents dig in their heels and tell California and people like yourself, and Komp to F-off. Do you really expect to win people over with this type of article? Of course you don’t! This is just pandering and showing off for your friends, and others in your Rolling Stone, Chronicle circles. Making sure that THEY know that YOU know that Kern County is a backwards sort of place. A sort of place to be looked down upon, made fun of, even if it means misrepresenting the facts, or it’s citizens/constituencies, rather than won over with persuasive, factually correct journalism meant to WIN OVER hearts and minds, instead of POINTING OUT how much better yours are. That this article(?), is top half of the first page of google results when searching for a delivery service, is sad. That you wrote this article and that it maybe went through some sort of editing and approval process, and nobody stopped to realize how obnoxious, and holier than thou it all sounded is unbelievable. It’s obviously not just you. The big cities of California are filled with people who believe they know better than us ignorant rednecks here in the Central Valley, I know I’m in LA/SF a month or more a year for medical visits, mixed with personal fun. The ones that will actually listen rather than talk over you about how wrong we all are and believe that they’re somehow winning an argument by yelling at someone who stopped talking/paying attention and checked out, because literally ALL of them have the same points they think they’re making/scoring, when you do come across that 1 in 20 or so deep blue voters, they are shocked that there actually exists another side, and that it is valid, and that I’ve lived it. As someone who has worked in wood shops, janitorial companies, processed potatoes, knows big produce brokers, land owners with forced windmills, a very large farming family that was hooked, crooked, and lobbied out of their land, profits, and business, and also sold cars, successfully for a decade getting to know the C.O. families(prisons), oil field workers, managers, other farming families, so many that made 40-120,000/yr, solid middle class families pulled limb from limb by people in large cities who didn’t know and didn’t care to know what they were doing to tens of thousands of families with their feel good legislation. I sold a vehicle to a man for his son towards the end of my run selling cars before health caught up with me, he was co-signing for his son, a 50,000 dollar diesel truck for a company he was starting out at 20 years old, his son had to step out when I filled out the father’s portion of the application. He could have paid cash for the truck but his son needed to have a reason to make money, etc. He made a salary of 80,000/mo refining and engineering fuels. With LARGE bonuses. It turned out the oil companies, I cant name it, just in case, but they don’t care about the cleaner burning, lowered whatever laws being passed. It was in their best interest anyhow. He started 28 years prior as a roustabout and the company advanced him as quickly as possible, paid for his schooling, and a guy who started out making 6.50/hr in the 80’s was now a multimillionaire who could retire at 50 with stocks worth many more millions earning dividends or as someone with a doctorate in his field, let everything vest, retire and be recruited with a giant cash and stocks bonus either right back with the same company or another, though he said this company had been so good to him, he’d never leave. But, he didnt want his son, who knew they were comfortable, not low-income or paycheck to paycheck, to know exactly how comfortable they were. So, California passes unnecessary laws to pay for things that will never be built, taxes us for them, and we’re supposed to just get with the program and not be allowed to decide as a county what we want as a county. Even though as a purple-leaning blue voter, I strongly disagree with them, I see where they’re coming from. You, as is typical for your type, based solely on this article, since it makes it unnecessary to search out others by you to see where you’re likely to come down on nearly every issue, can’t be bothered to take the time to write a piece that even gives a nod to the genuine concerns of the other side. Snark and sneering at a couple of rebuttal or differing opinions, does not count as balance. This should come with a large disclaimer labeling it as an opinion piece that plays fast and loose with the truth, facts, integrity, and also written by someone who has taken literally zero time to try understand why the people of Kern vote the way they do. If you’re curious why they do Mr. Downs, take a look in the mirror. Then take the smugness, arrogance, undeservedly self-assured attitude in that mirror, multiply it by a couple million just like it, and you have your answer. Take care. Best wishes.