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City grapples with illegal cannabis operations
pot in turlock pic1
This nondescript storefront on S. Walnut Road is home to Dry Lake Wellness, a medical marijuana dispensary that has been operating illegally in the City of Turlock since August 2017. - photo by ANGELINA MARTIN/The Journal

While some cities throughout Stanislaus County have been preparing to institute regulations on recreational cannabis sales, the City of Turlock is still struggling to enforce its ban on all commercial cannabis – including medicinal – which was adopted nearly a year ago.


Under the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, which was passed by voters in the November 2016 general election and went into effect Jan. 1, the State of California began issuing commercial licenses for cannabis shops to sell recreational marijuana in the new year.


The City of Turlock made it clear in January 2017 that there would be no marijuana dispensaries in town, when the City Council voted to prohibit all commercial activities related to cannabis, including cultivation, and cannabis deliveries within the city.


But, that hasn’t stopped some.


A quick search on the website (similar to Yelp!, but for marijuana users) brings up one medical marijuana dispensary storefront within Turlock’s city limits and an additional 13 cannabis delivery services – one of which advertises on the website that it is now accepting recreational patients, as long as they are 21 years or older.


Dry Lake Wellness is the lone brick and mortar location in Turlock that is advertised on Weedmaps, and was started by Turlock residents Jesse Henrich and Ruth McLeod. Both have seen positive effects that marijuana can have for medicinal patients, they said, and were inspired to join forces to open a medicinal marijuana dispensary in Turlock after Henrich lost his wife to cancer over the summer.


“We were given three months, but I got three and a half more years with her. Out of those three and a half years, I spent countless hours driving all around California trying to get medication to make her chemotherapy bearable. Those are hours I’m never going to get back,” said Henrich. “It was just plain stupid that I had to drive anywhere, and that’s when we realized that there needs to be a spot specifically in Turlock that can help these people.”


Located on South Walnut Road near the city’s waste-water treatment facility, Dry Lake Wellness offers not just cannabis, said McLeod, but a community. With weekly yoga and walking classes, cancer and veterans support groups and potlucks for patients every Thursday, the shop isn’t your typical medical marijuana dispensary.


“We want to give the city something they can embrace, and make it different,” said McLeod, a nurse who overcame a long-suffering opioid addiction with the help of marijuana. “Cannabis is our revenue, but we’re a million things more.”


Dry Lake Wellness anticipates generating nearly $30,000 in tax revenue monthly from marijuana sales if the City allows the business to stay. In order to achieve this, Henrich and McLeod plan on persuading the City Council to follow in the footsteps of Modesto’s City Council, which voted last year to put a marijuana tax on the November 2017 consolidated election ballot. By attempting to place their plea on the Turlock City Council Meeting Agenda and presenting the benefits they believe Dry Lake Wellness can bring to the town, the business hopes to continue operating under a temporary permit granted by the City.


Dry Lake Wellness opened in August, and while the business is currently operating under a state seller’s permit, retailers and growers need temporary business permits from individual towns or jurisdictions under the state’s recent legislation. The temporary permits last for four months, but are only granted with the permission of the town the business is located in.


“There’s no reason not to have us,” said Henrich. “Why would you want to spend money enforcing a ban when you have every other town around here allowing it? Us being here removes a piece of that black market niche, and the City of Turlock at the end of it will be making tax money. Everyone’s happy.”


Turlock Mayor Gary Soiseth said that there are no plans to address the City of Turlock’s marijuana cultivation and sales ban, for both medicinal and recreational, in the near future. Turlock is one of four cities in the county to ban the drug, along with Newman, Hughson and Waterford.


According to Police Chief Nino Amirfar, the City of Turlock has contacted Dry Lake Wellness several times about their illegal presence in the city.


The first encounter came when Dry Lake Wellness’ future location was being remodeled over the summer. Amirfar said the City’s Building Department informed Dry Lake Wellness that they did not have a permit to remodel the property, and construction was shut down. A member of the Turlock Police Department’s narcotics team also visited the property and informed the dispensary owners that operating such a business was illegal within City limits, but Dry Lake Wellness opened anyway, said Amirfar.


The City Attorney’s office followed up these encounters with a cease and desist letter, sent to Dry Lake Wellness on Dec. 20. Attorney Mike Warda, who is representing the dispensary, confirmed that the business has received the letter. He also said that if unsuccessful moving forward, Dry Lake Wellness will follow any directions given to them by the City.


“There have been operations all over the county that have not been permitted by any local government or Stanislaus County, so a lot of these businesses have been operating in uncharted territory,” said Warda. “We’re going to immediately go in and ask the City to reconsider their ordinance and provide them with reason. If we can persuade them, then we hope to keep the business open.”


As Warda mentioned, Dry Lake Wellness isn’t the only dispensary operating illegally in the area. Prior to the adoption of a conservative strategy to allow the retail sale of cannabis within Stanislaus County, there were 14 marijuana dispensaries operating without permission in county-governed areas.


Of the 13 cannabis delivery services in Turlock, the four that were contacted by the Turlock Journal declined to comment about the ban within City limits.


Following the letter sent to Dry Lake Wellness, the next step would be for the City of Turlock to deliver a cease and desist order, which is handed down by a judge. Amirfar said that there are federal enforcement options that the City can pursue, should it come to that.


McLeod hopes that she and Henrich’s business and the City can come together to allow marijuana in Turlock, she said, but made it clear Dry Lake Wellness would not go down without a fight.


“The age of marijuana is absolutely here, and it’s never going away,” she said. “The City should embrace a club that offers true wellness. We’re not going anywhere, and we don’t want to go anywhere.”


Journal editor Kristina Hacker contributed to this report.