Ever since meeting in a Grant Middle School P.E. class in Reedley, Andrew Chavez and Luis Valencia have wanted to start a business. Nearly 20 years later, the two friends are close to realizing their boyhood dream in an unconventional way.
They’re bringing pot to Huron. At least, that’s the plan.
Chavez and Valencia are leading a populist movement, of sorts, to bring medical marijuana to the town of fewer than 7,000. They’re asking the residents to lobby city leaders for ordinances allowing medical marijuana, an industry searching for legitimacy in the central San Joaquin Valley, but one that recently has brought an influx of cash into neighboring Coalinga.
Both are willing to put in the groundwork. They’ve made a dozen or so hour-long trips from their hometown of Reedley to the other side of conservative Fresno County to set up information booths and speak before the Huron City Council. They handed out 120 backpacks to kids during a local farmers market to show a commitment to the community.
They (Huron) feel impoverished and left behind by the economic systems in place. They feel like they get the shaft.
Andrew Chavez, proponent for medical marijuana cultivation in Huron
The city seems poised to allow medical marijuana, despite a few muffled protests of local medical-marijuana detractors – specifically, law enforcement and school districts. The ordinances were ready for City Council approval on Aug. 16, but the vote was pushed back to allow more community feedback.
The people of Huron, Chavez said, are hungry for economic opportunity. Coalinga made more than $4 million the day it passed its ordinances by selling an unused prison to Southern California medical marijuana oil manufacturer Ocean Grown Extracts. Huron no longer wants to be little brother to Coalinga, the bigger town 20 miles away.
“They feel impoverished and left behind by the economic systems in place,” Chavez said. “They feel like they get the shaft. They get the raw end of the deal when it comes to Coalinga.”
Huron is one of the poorest cities in Fresno County. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 36 percent of its residents are living in poverty. That’s 20 percentage points higher than the statewide average, and nine points higher than the county average.
Huron City Manager Jack Castro said the city’s general fund was in the red from 2006 to fiscal year 2014-15, when it recorded a surplus of nearly $300,000. He added that other medical marijuana companies have expressed interest in Huron, should the ordinances pass.
Enter Chavez and Valencia, who formed Purple Hearts Holistic Alternative Therapy.
First, they will work to bring medical marijuana to Huron. Valencia, who served in the U.S. Navy from 2003-07, believes there is a critical need for veterans to have cannabis – hence the name “Purple Heart.”
Valencia said he witnessed the curative properties of medical marijuana firsthand in 2010. His brother spent two years on conventional medication and undergoing medical treatments for a growth on his pituitary gland before trying cannabis. Within four months, the new treatment made his intense head pain manageable, and within 10 months, the growth was gone.
Purple Heart is selling both the chance to help others find similar relief and economic opportunity.
Once the ordinances pass, the company would look to start cultivation, open a dispensary or both. The pair has secured private investors and partnered with A-1 Collective, a medical marijuana collective based in Madera County. Valencia currently works for A-1, handling deliveries along the Central Coast.
However, Castro said the city’s new ordinances would not allow for dispensaries.
A cultivation operation would hire 30-40 employees, Chavez said.
Drug trafficking is very lucrative. And that is what they are getting themselves into.
Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims
They’ve worked closely with lawyers and doctors when forming their company, Chavez said. The University of California at Los Angeles graduate recently completed his master’s in public administration at Fresno State. One of his Fresno State professors, Ken Hansen, has offered advice.
“Ken Hansen and a lot of professors at Fresno State have always said ‘Be bold in what you do, and that’s how you’re going to succeed in life – by taking risks,’ ” Chavez said. “That’s how public policy inches forward. You have to have boldness to what you’re doing.”
The pair did not stumble into Huron by accident. Chavez and Valencia originally approached Coalinga, but they learned a long line of similar-minded suitors already had formed. They said that Coalinga Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Keough, one of the early supporters of bringing medical marijuana to his city, suggested they approach sister city Huron. The two towns share parks and recreation, as well as school and library districts.
Part of their sales pitch involves keeping most of the money generated by medical marijuana in the local community.
“There’s a lot of Southern California companies coming in, and we think, why not keep it local?” Chavez said. “Why not keep it in the Central Valley. Both of our families are from here. We’re going to live here, and we’re going to die here.”
The supporting cast
In July, Chavez and Valencia arranged for two experts to allay fears about medical marijuana. Dr. Douglas Kerr runs Canicare, a Clovis office where he prescribes medical marijuana as an alternate treatment to various ailments. Jacqueline Mittelstadt runs a private law practice in Lake Tahoe, where she defends clients in a variety of civil and criminal proceedings. She is the lawyer for A-1 Cultivation.
Mittelstadt explained the ins and outs of recent state laws, including The Medical Marijuana Safety and Regulation Act. This bill authorized the creation of a new bureau to create and impose regulations.
Kerr shared a few of his patients’ stories with the Huron City Council. He opened his office in April. Before that, he was an emergency room doctor for 31 years.
In an interview , Kerr said several things have surprised him as he settles into his new job. He found that patients visit him for the same reasons they checked into the emergency room. Many have chronic pain or seizure problems. Some are looking to lessen the negative effects of chemotherapy. Others are searching for alternatives to pills for things like anxiety or depression.
“It’s really not a bunch of young guys looking to get high,” Kerr said. “Half my patients are women. The average age is a little over 45. My oldest patient is 99.”
The older patients, Kerr said, typically are the ones looking for anxiety or depression alternatives. Side effects hit them harder than younger patients.
Kids get ahold of cigarettes and alcohol. They’ll be able to get ahold of this.
Coalinga-Huron School Board trustee Steve Whitwill
Kerr believes opiates like Oxycodone are a horrible treatment option for chronic pain patients, as they require an ever-increasing dose to maintain effectiveness.
“In 2014, 19,000 people died from prescription opiate overdose,” Kerr said. “In 2014 or any year in my 31 years in medicine, no one has overdosed on marijuana.”
Kerr said that Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims does enormous good for the community, but she is wrong about marijuana. And he said she is wrong to point to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s classification of marijuana as a schedule I – the most addictive and least medically applicable – drug.
“Methamphetamine is a schedule II,” Kerr said, “and there’s no reasonable person who would ever agree that methamphetamine is less addictive and has more medical value than marijuana. It is precisely the opposite.”
Cocaine is also a schedule II. Kerr believes the DEA reaffirmed marijuana’s illegality and classification under pressure from pharmaceutical companies, which have opposed legalization.
“The reason you can’t buy (marijuana) in a pharmacy is because these companies haven’t figured out how to control it yet,” Kerr said.
Mims believes cities like Coalinga and Huron have been tempted by money.
“Drug trafficking is very lucrative,” she said. “And that’s what they’re getting themselves into.”
Mims said the legalization and regulation of medical marijuana will never end the black market pot trade because people will always look to grow and sell outside of complex regulations and heavy fees. And she believes states like Colorado and Washington, which have legalized recreational marijuana use, already are feeling the negative effects of their actions.
Mims pointed to the September 2016 report from the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a task force consisting of local, state and federal law enforcement representatives under the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy. The report compares data in Colorado from 2006-08, when medical marijuana was not commercialized, to numbers from 2009, when it began to expand and commercialize. It also tracks information since 2013, when recreational use was legalized.
The task force found that marijuana-related traffic deaths from 2013-15 increased by 48 percent compared to 2010-12 numbers. Children surveyed had used marijuana in the past month 20 percent more in 2013-14 compared to 2011-12. It also notes that crime has increased, and the tax revenue from both recreational and medical marijuana sales only added up to half of one percent of Colorado’s total statewide budget.
Towns looking to embrace medical marijuana are heading down the same path, Mims said. They’re becoming dependent on drug money. The country will have a new president soon, and whoever that is may decide to crack down on municipalities violating federal law.
Fresno County remains steadfast in its opposition to all forms of medical marijuana. It maintains some of the harshest penalties in the state. Even growers with medical marijuana cards face a felony charge and a fine of $1,000 per plant.
So far this year, the Sheriff’s Office has seized 83,000 marijuana plants and 225 pounds of processed marijuana.
Mims went to Coalinga to speak out against the council’s medical marijuana plans. She was joined in opposition by the Coalinga-Huron School District, which has been one of the lone public voices against the spread of cannabis to Huron.
Coalinga-Huron School Board trustee Steve Whitwill lives in Coalinga and is a former teacher. He understands the district may be fighting a losing battle given the profits and public sentiment involved, but he worries about the safety of students.
Whitwill is worried about dispensaries, which he said would provide public access to another dangerous substance. Huron is considering dispensaries, while Coalinga residents will decide whether to allow them via a November ballot initiative.
“Kids get ahold of cigarettes and alcohol,” Whitwill said. “They’ll be able to get ahold of this. We’ve been dealing with controlled substances in schools for years. And it has only gotten worse. Why would we want to add to that?”