Ribbon-cutting at Releaf
That was the unstated sentiment as Ramona’s third medicinal cannabis dispensary Releaf Meds held its grand opening with a live concert and an official community meet-and-greet in January. The local love was there, but the shop has to close up in three years.
The Ramona Chamber of Commerce was on hand for a ribbon cutting and the blessing from the back country business community. “The current policy of our board is that it supports Releaf Meds and the other two dispensaries in town,” says Ramona Chamber of Commerce office manager Olivia Rochelle. She says those other two dispensaries, Ramona Cannabis Company and Olive Tree Wellness had already become members of the Ramona Chamber and encountered no resistance from the Ramona business community. “And it is my understanding the sheriff’s department has no problem with them either.”
For the record, no one from the Ramona sheriff substation would comment on the Ramona cannabis stores. But the chairwoman of the county board of supervisors who represents Ramona weighed in with a March 2017 law that mandates their closure.
“Diane Jacobs pulled it from us,” says Releaf Meds co-owner Tony Cioe. “We were stamped just before she pulled the moratorium on us.” In other words, Releaf Meds got its sheriff-issued operation certificate in early 2017 to open its dispensary just before Jacobs successfully led a move to halt any new dispensaries and put a sunset date on all dispensaries operating in the unincorporated areas of the county. Jacobs’ law, backed by supervisors Bill Horn and Kristen Gaspar but rejected by Greg Cox and Ron Roberts, was passed just four months after county voters approved Proposition 64 in November 2016. Prop 64 legalized the sale and regulation and taxation of marijuana statewide and passed in this county with 57 percent approval. Jacobs’ law mandates the three Ramona dispensaries have to close up shop by March 2022.
Jacobs’ law came even as the county planning commission unanimously approved the operation of the three Ramona-area dispensaries. "We were led to believe the county never goes against the planning commission," says Cioe.
“It is mind blowing how much support we have gotten,” says Cioe about the support he’s gotten in rural Ramona.
An employee at another Ramona dispensary who declined to be named, found it odd that of all the incorporated areas in the county, why are there three dispensaries bunched up in Ramona while Alpine, Fallbrook and Lakeside, for example, have none. “There are three [legal dispensaries] within a couple of miles of each other,” says the employee. “This is a community of just 45,000. That doesn’t make sense. This forces people to rely on the black market. And all these illegal shops will be open but won’t be collecting taxes and will be subjecting people to pesticides and unhealthy microorganisms.”
The employee says the people of Ramona have learned they have nothing to fear from legal dispensaries. “We operate under the strictest of guidelines. The sheriffs come in anytime to check our financial records, go through our safe, and check out our product. They know exactly how much money we make. We’re trying to remove the stigma of selling marijuana.”
But three Ramona dispensaries, he says, may be good for consumers but not necessarily good for business. “The black market is still thriving because they are beating us in prices. We have to get rid of the black market.”
He says that law enforcement almost gives its blessing for unlicensed, illegal dispensaries. “The sheriff’s may come in and raid them, but they get a slap on the wrist, and are back in business in a week. It’s the motto of these businesses that they would rather pay the fine than pay the taxes.”
The other two legal dispensaries in unincorporated San Diego County are located near Gillespie Field between El Cajon and Santee and north of Escondido near Gopher Canyon Road. Both are owned by El Cajon-based Outco, a company involved in manufacturing, cultivation, retail and wholesale. Outco spokesperson Virginia Falces says her company understands that things could change once Jacobs is forced to leave office next year due to term limits.
“We supported Nathan Fletcher,” says Falces about the pot-friendlier 2nd district supervisor who joined the board last November. She noted the local cannabis industry also supported the unsuccessful campaign of Michelle Gomez for 5th district supervisor. Gomez lost to Jim Desmond. “Desmond referred to dispensaries as pop-up Kool Aid stands,” says Falces about the conservative supervisor.
But Falces suspects the tide is turning. “We think that cannabis will become a topic that comes up in the 2020 election. We are very optimistic. We will get recreational [cannabis sales] passed eventually."
A perusal of marijuana websites show that as of press time there are 16 illegal dispensaries that are operating in unincorporated San Diego County including nine near El Cajon, one in Spring Valley and six in North County.
“There were 34 million visitors to San Diego last year and we have 3.3 million permanent residents, yet there are only about 20 legal dispensaries serving the entire county,” says Dallin Young of the Association os Cannabis Professionals. “Until we meet the demand for legal suppliers, you can pretty much expect the proliferation of the black market.”
Young agrees with Outco’s Falces that things are about to change. “There are drastically more people who support reasonable cannabis, even compared to 2016. Our elected officials are eventually going to have to face their constituents.” He suggests one supervisor to watch may be Encinitas-based Kristen Gaspar who represents the county’s 3rd district. “But she has not given us any signals.”
One source who did not want to be named says that a coalition including the San Diego County Farm Bureau, public health advocates and the local cannabis industry are currently working in conjunction with at least one supervisor who is about to introduce a motion at a county board meeting to reverse Jacob’s 2017 law which thwarted the cannabis industry.
Releaf Meds owner Cioe agrees that having three legal dispensaries in Ramona is not ideal. "We're pretty much breaking even and I don't think anyone else [in Ramona] is making money either. We bought the acre next to us because we were led to believe that we could use it for cultivation. Then the moratorium came and now we're left with an acre of land we can't do anything with."