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City joins lawsuit to stop cannabis deliveries
cannabis deliveries
Despite a city-wide ban on commercial cannabis, state regulations allow for dispensaries like Empire Health & Wellness to deliver marijuana to the homes of Turlock residents. Now, Turlock is taking legal action against those rules (Photo contributed).

Hundreds of Turlock residents have found a way around the City Council’s commercial cannabis ban, utilizing delivery services to have marijuana delivered straight to their home. Under state regulations that went into effect at the beginning of the year this practice is legal, but now a lawsuit filed by the City of Turlock and others is calling cannabis deliveries into question.

California’s Office of Administrative Law approved the final rules and regulations governing the state’s cannabis industry on Jan. 16, just over a year after legal recreational sales began under Proposition 64. One of the most noteworthy policies included in these rules — written by the Bureau of Cannabis Control, the Department of Food and Agriculture and the Department of Public Health — allows dispensaries to make marijuana deliveries to any jurisdiction in California, even municipalities like Turlock which have passed local laws prohibiting cannabis.

Now, 25 jurisdictions including Turlock, Ceres, Atwater and Patterson say that the recent regulations imposed by the BCC violate the will of voters and the law, as Proposition 64 states municipalities would retain local control over marijuana sales. The 25 cities and counties have come together to file a lawsuit against the BCC under the name SIMPL, or the Safe Implementation of Marijuana Policy for Local Government coalition.

“This lawsuit doesn’t take a position in any form on cannabis itself. It’s a lawsuit to preserve local control,” Turlock City Manager Bob Lawton said. “The cities and the firms involved in pursuing this litigation know our rights. We are serious about preserving them, and we feel very strongly about the likelihood of prevailing.”

The popular app Weedmaps (Think Yelp!, but for dispensaries) shows that there are currently four cannabis businesses which offer delivery services to Turlock. Two of these are dispensaries with brick and mortar storefronts, while the other two operate solely on deliveries.

Turlock Police Chief Nino Amirfar said the department hasn’t concerned itself with deliveries because it doesn’t have the time or manpower to do so, and because of the new regulations. He does worry about confusion amongst Turlock residents regarding policies, however, as well as the safety of both customers and drivers during deliveries.

While police officers in Turlock haven’t been called out to any reports of delivery drivers being robbed, Amirfar believes the high-value transactions do pose a risk.

“The argument will always be, ‘Well, nothing’s happened yet.’ But, if it’s predictable, it’s preventable and sooner or later it’s going to happen,” Amirfar said. “The bottom line is what are your processes for security, how are you going to deal with cash and carry, and is your driver susceptible to a robbery takeover?”

These are all questions that Empire Health & Wellness, a dispensary just down the road from Turlock in Empire, took into account when developing a delivery system, said owner Darren Silva and general manager Doug Mutoza.

About 30 to 40 percent of Empire Health & Wellness’ total sales come from delivery purchases, they said, and 15 percent of total deliveries make their way to Turlock. On an average day, drivers for the dispensary can deliver anywhere from 10 to 15 orders to Turlock residents.

There are many reasons cannabis consumers may choose to have their weed delivered to their home rather than driving to the dispensary, Silva said, especially in Turlock where there are no storefronts.

“Some people, like elderly folks, don’t have a ride or the ability to drive, so public transportation would be their only option. If it’s more convenient to get it delivered to their house, then they’re going to do so,” he said. “The other thing is just to be discreet...people want to maintain their privacy.”

“It’s socially acceptable now that it’s recreational, but it still has a stigma and some people haven’t accepted it,” Mutoza added. “Having the chance to try it out and having it delivered to their home has opened the door to a lot of people.”

Delivery orders are typically more expensive than in-store purchases at Empire Health & Wellness, with those receiving product at home typically spending $100 and those in the dispensary usually purchasing about $70 worth of cannabis.

Per BCC regulations, delivery drivers are allowed to have no more than $5,000 worth of product in their vehicle at any time, and cars used for delivery must be free of any markings that would let passers-by know it’s being used to transport cannabis. Delivery drivers at Empire Health & Wellness usually only carry about $1,500 worth of product at a time, completing anywhere from five to 10 deliveries per route.

Security measures put into place by the dispensary include cameras in all of their delivery vehicles, meant to both keep an eye on driver behavior and catch potential criminals, a lockbox for product that can’t be removed from the car, an inaccessible lockbox for cash with a sole slit on top for deposits and GPS trackers on all of the vehicles.

“If someone tried to get away with one of our vehicles, we would catch them,” Silva said. A television in the back office of the dispensary shows a map of each driver on their route, allowing their location to be known at all times.

Customers must also send in their identification when placing orders, which is verified by Empire Health & Wellness staff. There have only been two dangerous incidents involving deliveries for the dispensary over the past few years, Mutoza said, and in each instance law enforcement was contacted. Neither events took place in Turlock.

While the dispensary does deliver to Turlock frequently, the city is one of Empire Health & Wellness’ smaller markets compared to surrounding communities like Stockton, Merced and Tracy. Silva and Mutoza believe this is due to Turlock residents frequenting the black market, rather than choosing delivery or to drive to another town. They believe Turlock’s ban on commercial cannabis activities, and now the recent lawsuit against the BCC, will only push more people toward purchasing illegal cannabis and keep the city away from potential revenue.

“The only thing we’re doing by not allowing the legal cannabis market to come into Turlock is letting the black market flourish,” Mutoza said. “Regardless of whether cities choose to allow cannabis deliveries or not, there will be costs associated with enforcement. By allowing and regulating cannabis businesses, these cities can collect tax dollars to fund enforcement of the legal as well as the black market.”

In the face of a looming financial crisis and dwindling reserves, several Turlock City Council members in March suggested that Turlock revisit its ban on commercial cannabis and look into whether or not the industry can serve as a reliable source of income. Silva and Mutoza believe a dispensary in Turlock would pull in $1 million in sales a month, generating about $600,000 for Turlock annually.

The topic has been brought up again in recent meetings, but the Council has begun to look at more reliable sources of income, like a parcel tax, a transient occupancy tax or a business license tax, among others, rather than a cannabis tax or development agreement which are considered one-time funds.

Amirfar believes that allowing dispensaries in town, which are subject to additional taxes, would actually benefit the black market, as illegal weed is cheaper.

“When you tax marijuana because it’s going to bring you revenue, the black market is going to blow up and that’s what it’s done,” he said. “No matter where you buy it, once you walk away with it you’re still in possession of marijuana that’s legal, but you paid a fraction of a price.

“We’ve got to change the business model if this is the way society wants us to go.”

If the lawsuit prevails and delivery services are banned in Turlock, it’s unclear what kind of strain enforcement would put on the police department. Amirfar believes it should be Turlock residents’ choice as to whether or not commercial cannabis activity is permitted.

“I would rather see what the community in whole has decided in Turlock — it’s not about my opinion either way,” he said. “To be frank, I really don’t care about marijuana.”