CHICO — Standing before the Chico City Council, frustration and confusion has been ongoing for those invested in what once seemed a clear path to commercial cannabis business in Butte County.
After being halted shortly after the 2020 election, six months later two council meetings restarted the application process for commercial cannabis business. However, the city is only allowing three dispensaries to open, and business owners are worried about opportunity and further costs if distribution and manufacturing continue to be blocked.
Jessica MacKenzie, a longtime commercial cannabis advocate, shook her head in disbelief Thursday, discussing the June 1 council meeting which finally reopened the commercial cannabis application process.
That night, MacKenzie reminded the council that with a series of community meetings to draft the commercial cannabis ordinance, “A lot of people compromised on this.” She asked them to open the application process and implement a community benefit fee across all business types.
“There are jobs waiting, there is sales tax waiting,” she said.
Chico resident Crystal Keesey added that following the “twists and turns since the ordinance was instituted” is very difficult.
At the May 5 meeting, Vice Mayor Kasey Reynolds made the motion to reopen the application process June 1, review manufacturing processes, reduce total city retail sites to three and consider tying a points awarding system to the community benefits investment portion.
Then in the June 1 meeting, Reynolds moved to approve the community benefit agreement draft City Attorney Vince Ewing presented and officially open the application process until July 16. She included Councilor Sean Morgan’s change to open up just three business license openings.
MacKenzie said she can’t understand the thought process behind the council’s decisions which she thinks are hesitant, despite not shutting down the application window as Oroville’s City Council did. She hopes councilors will understand what she and business owners call a necessity to focus on small businesses and opening up to a new industry and revenue source.
“Do we need jobs, good paying jobs? I think so, and cannabis is full of them. It’s the fastest growing job producer in the country,” MacKenzie said, referencing a Businesswire report and other federal studies.
Keesey, who owns the Golden State Herb farm in Lake County and Mothership Nursery in Shasta Lake, had more to say Friday. Since voters asked for commercial cannabis approval in 2016 and community meetings drafted an ordinance, she expressed frustration that five years later there are no dispensaries in Chico — only illegal delivery services.
“When Chico said yes, we found a building we knew would meet all the zoning requirements far enough away from schools, daycares, everything, and we’ve been leasing that building for two and a half years now.”
Now, she said the process toward a dispensary is delayed more than six months, after the application process completing January 4 was cut short by the council in December 2020. Between interviews, the vetting process and getting a property use permit, if a business like Keesey gets approved it could be another year before the dispensary opens in Chico.
Mackenzie added the supply chain could be another problem as if the city does not want local distribution and manufacturing. Because there are no legal distributors north of Sacramento, small local dispensaries when approved will have to compete with chains for distributors’ products.
She and Keesey worried this means a loss of small local jobs and products to large companies with mass-produced supplies. MacKenzie said there seems to be a misunderstanding of the possibility for small manufacturing businesses as a lucrative economic development opportunity, and to create opportunities to conduct business with many other regional markets — “revenue isn’t a one-way street.”
Because Keesey already cultivates plants, she hopes for a vertically integrated, “farm to table” approach, she hopes that businesses can be approved to follow the official process for regulation, vetting and testing.
Although she has a distributorship license and can sidestep competing for products, she is concerned big businesses applying will have the edge — like Perfect Union, which owns 12 stores. That means products from other regions even from Southern California would be sold in Chico if approved, not products from local cultivators.
Perfect Union’s Vice President of Government Affairs and Compliance Caity Maple said Thursday, “Frankly, it’s been a really long and frustrating process.
“Obviously we’re glad the city has opened up the application process. Businesses have been paying on buildings for some time … in our case it’s been over a year.”
Maple said she felt the council is “not really acknowledging the fact that the process has gone through so much convolution. But I wouldn’t want to do anything that might stall the process again or make anyone feel like we aren’t grateful, because we are.”
Reynolds was not available before deadline Friday to discuss her perspective on her directions at the previous council meetings, and Mayor Andrew Coolidge declined discussing the issue.
MacKenzie said without clarification from the councilors who expressed concern, she isn’t sure what the reasoning is behind the majority’s trepidation, other than political concerns or a general misunderstanding. She said Councilor Alex Brown’s report from the committee discussing commercial cannabis would reflect findings if there is further misunderstanding of the industry.
Maple said, “I think that once we do see some of these stores happen, hopefully that will distill some of the concerns or what people might have about cannabis and especially about retail.”
She said the company continues to face fear about cannabis being bought by those under the age of 21, but said businesses have a vested interest to make sure they don’t.
Pointing to success in Marysville, she said, “I think that ultimately in the cities we’re in where there may have been hesitancy, people are actually really happy once they’re there.”
Keesey said she’s glad to be in the process, and hopes the councilors, some of whom have local business ownership experience, will understand the hope for local businesses to be considered over “big box chain stores.”
She praised councilors for opening some options after expressing how the industry conflicts with their personal beliefs, and added she believes local accountability will be key. Having four children at in schools of the Chico Unified School District with three at Chico High School, she feels more accountable if her business were to be selected.
“The local people operating these would have the greatest concern about safety, about not allowing it to be diverted,” Keesey said.
“We always say it’s the hardworking, industrious people of Chico that make Chico the unique community that it is. And I’m sure there’s more than three hopeful local entrepreneurs who want to take on the challenge of the dispensary.”