| Ventura County Star
Oxnard is hitting restart to its retail cannabis program after uncovering what the city considers to be an administrative glitch.
It means that the application period to obtain a marijuana business permit will open once again, weeks after some retailers were notified they would get a permit. The do-over is disappointing news to those who thought they nabbed a much-coveted permit while others applaud the move.
At the Tuesday City Council meeting, details will be unveiled about the mistakes that led the city to scrap the program and start fresh. As part of the new program, the city will offer more permits, thus doubling the number in its original plan.
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With the go-ahead from council, the city plans to offer 16 permits to open up marijuana dispensaries, three of them reserved for local small businesses. Applications will be accepted on or before Dec. 4 through Jan. 7.
Permits will be issued in March, four months behind schedule. Those who applied before must reapply although they won’t be required to pay new fees.
The crux of the issue has to do with the appeals process, or lack thereof, for applicants who were denied a permit.
It’s a competitive process. Just 10 permits, with two reserved for local businesses, were available for 50 retail hopefuls. City Manager Alex Nguyen explained that the city’s code had conflicting language on the appeals process.
“We regrettably didn’t inform people there was an appeals process,” Nguyen said. “We screwed up. We own it; we have to redo it.”
Getting a second chance
Despite the unclear process, four applicants filed an appeal. Among them was Catalyst Cannabis, a southern California company with five locations and 13 more in the works.
Elliot Lewis, CEO of Catalyst Cannabis, said he met initial resistance from the city about an appeal and is now pleased about the restart.
“It’s a bold step by the city,” Lewis said. “We really appreciate the city of Oxnard doing that. We applaud the move.”
Lewis said he has dealt with more than 20 municipalities in the permitting process and hasn’t seen any start over when mistakes arise.
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Catalyst Cannabis has been involved in litigation, including lawsuits against Morro Bay, San Bernardino, Long Beach, Bellflower, Vista and the state of Missouri. Lewis said sometimes cities make innocent mistakes and sometimes they dole out permits unfairly. Other times, he said there’s outright cronyism in some cities.
“As we get more experience, we have an advantage. We know what a good process is,” Lewis said. “Sometimes cities are just green, and they don’t know how to implement the process.”
With a restart, Catalyst Cannabis gets another try at opening in Oxnard. They have set their sights on Rose Avenue and Pleasant Valley Road in south Oxnard but Lewis isn’t entirely confident.
“It’s a coin toss,” he said.
When asked if he would pursue litigation if denied again, Lewis said he didn’t want to engage in hypotheticals.
“If we aren’t successful, we’ll review the process, see the scoring, see if there’s inconsistencies. I definitely can’t say whether or not we would appeal or litigate. We would request the applications that beat us and go through the scoring and see if it was universally applied. All we’re rooting for is a fair process.”
The process isn’t cheap. To enter into the lucrative and fairly new cannabis retail industry, you need attorneys, consultants and capital.
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An underdog among giants
Yvonne DeLa Rosa Green, who is hoping to open her second store in downtown Oxnard, feels like the underdog in a sea of big players.
“Almost every single applicant is a corporation. They have money to keep playing this game,” DeLa Rosa Green said.
The Oxnard resident recently found out she was selected to receive a local equity permit, which are reserved for cannabis businesses with Oxnard roots. The latest news makes DeLa Rosa Green feel like she won the competition fair and square just to have it taken away.
DeLa Rosa Green, who is bilingual in Spanish, owns 99 High Tide in Malibu and once lived nearby until the Woolsey Fire took her home. She moved to Oxnard and has found a perfect spot on A Street to open up a dispensary with bilingual staff to help the Latino community.
She got into the business when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and needed medicinal marijuana. But none of the dispensaries at the time were inviting.
“All the places we went to were not the places you would take your mother,” DeLa Rosa Green said. “I want to create a beautiful dispensary, where people feel comfortable, with well-educated consultants and a place that embraces Latino culture.”
Although the new application process doesn’t include additional fees, applicants like DeLa Rosa still have to continue paying attorneys, consultants and rent. She’s been paying A Street rent since February.
When asked if winning applicants should feel confident that they will get a permit the second time around, Nguyen said it was hard to say.
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“I don’t foresee major changes. In the end, the essentials to run these businesses successfully are well known to everybody,” Nguyen said.
On Tuesday at its 5 p.m. meeting, council will consider the new process and weigh adding more permits.
According to a consultant analysis, the city can accommodate up to 16 commercial dispensaries. Council initially chose to go slow and approve eight permits with the possibility of adding eight more the following year. Later, council decided to offer 10 permits and now it’s considering 16.
Nguyen said he is recommending the city issue 16 so as to not go through this process again next year.
“Staff caused this delay and I don’t want to push this back any more,” he said.
At the start of the City Council meeting, Police Chief Scott Whitney, who is retiring at the end of the year, will be honored. It will be the last full meeting led by Mayor Tim Flynn, who is stepping down.
At the Dec. 15 meeting, the last of the year, incoming Mayor John Zaragoza and other victors in the Nov. 3 election will be sworn in.
To speak during public comment, contact the city clerk no later than 3 p.m. on Tuesday by calling 805-385-7803.
Wendy Leung is a staff writer for the Ventura County Star. Reach her at [email protected] or 805-437-0339. You can also find her on Twitter @Leung__Wendy.