Is your pot shop still open? County amends permit process for cannabis retailers

General manager Doug Mutoza at Empire Health and Wellness dispensary in Empire, Calif., on Friday, September 7, 2018.
General manager Doug Mutoza at Empire Health and Wellness dispensary in Empire, Calif., on Friday, September 7, 2018.

After first being told they would have to close, some of the best-known marijuana dispensaries in Stanislaus County are now back on the path to becoming fully permitted, while others continue to wait by the sidelines.

In May, a handful of the region’s longest-running cannabis shops were told they’d have to shutter by the end of June because they’d been cut from the county’s permitting process. But now, after lengthy appeals and new amendments to the review procedure, the deck has been reshuffled for some and they are instead advancing to the next phase.

Nine months after recreational marijuana sales became legal across the state, Stanislaus County and Modesto continue to grapple with their permitting processes. The county has oversight over all retail locations in unincorporated areas, including some that fall within the Modesto city limits.

The county will eventually allow up to seven cannabis dispensaries and Modesto will license up to 10. Surrounding cities like Riverbank, Ceres, Patterson and Oakdale — which saw the first of two dispensaries it is allowing open last week — are handling their own permitting, separate from the county.

Moving forward for the county after the appeals and amended review process are NRC Holistic Health Services Clinic, Medallion Wellness, The People’s Remedy and Jayden’s Journey in Modesto; Empire Health & Wellness; Highway 33 in Crows Landing and The Honest Choice in Denair. All of those pot shops are open and operating now for recreational and medicinal customers.

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General manager Doug Mutoza at Empire Health and Wellness dispensary in Empire, Calif., on Friday, September 7, 2018. Andy Alfaro

An additional nine retail shops are now on a wait list and could move up if any of the existing top seven falter in the remaining two phases. None of the wait-listed retailers, ranked eight to 16, are currently operating. They will remain on the reserve list for possible approval for 24 months.

Previously, Jayden’s Journey and NRC Holistic Health Services Clinic, both in north Modesto, were among half a dozen retail applicants who were told they weren’t moving forward. Many filed formal appeals and fought publicly, with petitions and letter-writing campaigns, to overrule the decision.

At the end of July, county Chief Executive Officer Jody Hayes decided to amend the review procedure for retail shops. The county added site visits and face-to-face interviews to the process, instead of just relying on third-party application scores.

“The reason for that was our CEO was very adamant that he believed that this new industry in our community will succeed or fail based on the retail storefront component,” said Assistant Executive Officer Keith Boggs. “We recognize that the retail storefronts will be the face of this new industry, and it is most important that those who represent this new sector be fully vetted – not just by paper application.”

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Empire Health and Wellness own canabis flower grown in Patterson and sold at its dispensary in Empire, Calif., on Friday, September 7, 2018. Andy Alfaro

Previously, only those retail applicants who had received 80 or above from a contracted reviewer moved on to the next phase. The county’s process is also unique in that it is the only area government agency that must contend with existing shops, all of which were operating for medicinal sales before recreational marijuana use was approved by voters in November 2016.

Modesto continues its review process for retail dispensary applications separate from the county. The city received 20 dispensary applications and four non-dispensary applications for cultivation, distribution and micro-businesses.

City spokesman Thomas Reeves said the candidates are still being reviewed, and once they have been narrowed down to the final 10, they will be ranked and then presented to the City Council for approval. The city hopes to have final permits handed out in October. It is not releasing the names of the applicants at this time.

For some retailers in the county process, the changes have been welcome. NRC Holistic Health Services Clinic owner Richard King, who had previously been cut, said he was glad he was reconsidered.

“I think everything is moving along great. We’re happy with the county and everyone involved that’s making this happen,” King said. “They have a good team working making it happen.”

Empire Health & Wellness General Manager Doug Mutoza called the process “smooth.” The dispensary was moved forward in the process under both the original and amended review process. It has also begun providing delivery services.

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General manager Doug Mutoza shows the delivery room at at Empire Health and Wellness dispensary in Empire, Calif., on Friday, September 7, 2018. Andy Alfaro

“They dug a little deeper into the process. They went out, talked to our neighbors. I like they dug more into it and got to know everyone a little bit better,” Mutoza said. “And I’m really happy they didn’t allow a lot of out of town businesses to come in and take over the process.”

But not everyone is pleased with the county’s procedure. The Holistic Center owner Dona Washington is on the wait list and was forced to shutter her business in June. She had operated the medicinal cannabis dispensary since May 2015, just a few doors down from Empire Health & Wellness along Yosemite Boulevard.

She said the county should have put more weight into community involvement and charity work. She cited their donations of supplies and clothing to students in Empire schools, spaying and neutering of more than 30 feral cats around their shop, and other giveaways to local groups.

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The Holisitic Center’s former dispensary on Yosemite Boulevard. Andy Alfaro

“I am past the point of frustration with them,” Washington said. “What saddens me about it is they’re not paying any attention to where the money is going.”

Boggs said the county hopes to have the final two phases, a land use application and then payment of a $5,000 regulatory permit fee, done by the end of the year.

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