Marek Warszawski

When it comes to legal marijuana, Fresno can learn a thing or two from Woodlake

Fresno could learn a thing or two from Woodlake.

Yes, Woodlake. The Tulare County city of 7,649 located about 15 miles northeast of Visalia on Highway 245.

Woodlake is known for its rodeo — held every Mother’s Day for the last 66 years — and for its botanical garden. But over the last 1½ years, another type of plant has brought the city additional renown.

Those would be the marijuana flowers and other cannabis-infused products sold at Valley Pure, the central San Joaquin Valley’s first legal dispensary.

(You do know marijuana, both recreational and medicinal use, is legal in California, right? That may come as a shock to anyone living in Fresno and Clovis, where city leaders have chosen to clamp their hands over their ears and yell “Na! Na! Na! Na!”)

Opinion

I’m not sure whether the electeds of Woodlake are more enlightened than their counterparts in other Valley cities, or whether they were smart enough to recognize a prime business opportunity.

Either way, the city boasts two refurbished parks (new play structures, picnic tables, arbors and barbecues) and has added one full-time police officer (equipped with a new squad car), according to city manager Ramon Lara.

How did Woodlake pay for these things? From the $692,000 the city has collected from Valley Pure in the form of a 5% excise tax off gross receipts since April 30, 2018, the day the dispensary opened its doors.

For a city with an annual budget of $9.4 million, that’s no insignificant bump.

‘No issues, no concerns’

You know who else has benefited from Valley Pure? The boutiques, taquerias and auto parts stores in downtown Woodlake that have experienced a “15 to 25%” uptick in business since the dispensary opened, according to Lara.

Why? Because of the increased foot traffic from Valley Pure customers.

“They have been a good neighbor to the other businesses,” Lara said. “There have been no issues and no concerns.”

Hang on a second. Shouldn’t the opening of a marijuana dispensary have led to a surge of crime, not to mention an increase in unsavory characters hanging about?

I mean, that’s what the finger-wagging moralists warn us about.

In reality, none of that has happened. In the 17 months that Valley Pure has been open for business, there has been only one call for police services.

I repeat: One call since May 2018 – and not for an armed robbery, a break in or anything of that nature. According to Lara, police were summoned because a Valley Pure customer was acting like an obnoxious jerk to store employees.

“That’s the one and only call,” said Lara, who pointed out Valley Pure is the only downtown business to have 24/7 security cameras.

Following Woodlake’s lead

Other nearby cities have gotten over their initial reluctance and started to follow Woodlake’s lead. Valley Pure has licenses to open dispensaries in Farmersville (along Highway 198), Lindsay and Lemoore, where two cannabis companies recently earned city approval.

What about Fresno, home to tens of thousands (if not more) cannabis users?

Nearly a year since voters passed a marijuana business tax measure and the City Council approved an ordinance for medical dispensaries, city leaders are still arguing. And arguing.

At the moment, councilmembers are arguing over whether the ordinance should contain an equity clause that allows people of color from low-income neighborhoods to benefit from this new industry.

They’re arguing over whether every dispensary employee must have a spotless criminal record, or just the owners and operators.

And they’re arguing over whether the city manager should have full determination over who gets cannabis businesses licenses and their locations, or whether that should fall under the purview of each councilmember.

Keeping an eye on Fresno

These arguments … err, discussions … are necessary. So is the mandatory environmental review. But these bridges should have been crossed long ago. I mean, it’s only been 22 years since California voters approved medical marijuana.

In the meantime, Fresno cannabis users continue to utilize the dozens of dispensaries and delivery services that operate in a legal gray area. Businesses that don’t have to fork over a nickel in taxes.

According to City Councilman Miguel Arias, it’ll be June 2020 (at the earliest) until any licenses are awarded.

“The longer we delay it, the more it allows the black market to operate,” Arias said.

Back at Valley Pure, District Manager Wes Hardin says his company continues to keep an eye on Fresno while expanding its operations in Tulare and Kings counties.

“We’re champing at the bit to get into that market,” Hardin said. “As soon as Fresno becomes a hospitable environment for businesses like ours, we’re going to want to come in.”

Any decade now. Meanwhile, we’ll continue to look to Woodlake for enlightenment.

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Marek Warszawski writes opinion columns on news, politics, sports and quality of life issues for The Fresno Bee, where he has worked since 1998. He is a Bay Area native, a UC Davis graduate and lifelong Sierra frolicker. He welcomes discourse with readers but does not suffer fools nor trolls.
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