Councilman Victor Gordo on Monday pleaded with Mayor Terry Tornek to place on the council’s agenda a discussion on a possible ballot initiative that, if approved, could flood the city with marijuana dispensaries.
“The city is in danger of having a thoughtful initiative that was voted into law by the people completely reversed,” Gordo said during the council’s Monday meeting.
“The biggest danger is we will have these shops open anywhere and everywhere in the city with harm to our neighborhoods and to our business districts,” Gordo said.
The People’s Initiative to Preserve the Existing Operation of Non-Offending Commercial Cannabis Businesses would allow marijuana dispensaries previously deemed illegal to operate with impunity in Pasadena.
Proponents of the measure, one of them Bradley Hertz, a lawyer who initiated a failed recall effort against Gordo earlier this year, submitted 12,900 signatures to City Clerk Mark Jomsky’s office on July 31. The signatures have been turned over to the Los Angeles County Registrar’s Office for verification. The county has until Sept. 12 to verify the signatures.
“It’s definitely going to be agendized,” Mayor Terry Tornek told Gordo.
To qualify for the March election, backers of the ballot measure need 8,542 valid signatures from Pasadena voters.
If the signatures are certified, the City Council can adopt the measure as an ordinance, which seems highly unlikely, submit the ordinance without alteration to the voters, or order a report on the impacts of the initiative for the council within 30 days of the date of certification of the signatures. Following the report, the council can then submit the initiative for a vote, or come up with its own initiative to nullify the other measure.
Last year, the City Council banned so-called nuisance dispensaries from applying for business licenses under the city’s cannabis law, which allows up to six dispensaries to operate in Pasadena.
According to the city’s highly regulated process, only one dispensary is allowed to operate in each council district, and dispensaries must adhere to strict distance limits from schools, libraries and churches. But all of that would be out the window if voters pass the initiative.
“Non-offending commercial cannabis businesses may continue engaging in commercial cannabis activity within the city of Pasadena without a commercial cannabis permit from the city of Pasadena until December 31, 2024,” according to the initiative. “Non-offending commercial cannabis businesses operating without a permit pursuant to this subdivision shall not be deemed, ordered discontinued, modified, or removed as a public nuisance pursuant to the Pasadena Municipal Code based solely on their engagement in commercial cannabis activities permitted by this Chapter. Owners of non-offending commercial cannabis businesses operating without a permit pursuant to this subdivision may apply for a commercial cannabis permit from the city of Pasadena at any time. After December 31, 2024, all commercial cannabis businesses may operate only after such businesses apply for and receive a commercial cannabis permit pursuant to this Chapter.”
The initiative also removes distance locations from schools, churches and residential zones for cannabis businesses that began operating in Pasadena prior to 2018.
“Nothing will apply to them,” Gordo said. “I don’t understand why this matter has not been agendized for a legal analysis, so the City Council can take a position, then submit it for a vote of the people.”
The city spent years combatting dispensaries operating without licenses and at one point threatened to shut off utilities at the shops.
Last December, Shawn Szameit and three others at Golden State Collective, an unlicensed dispensary that operated on Mentor Avenue in Gordo’s council district, were arrested and charged with possession of marijuana for sale, cannabis sales without a permit and being a public nuisance. Szameit’s lawyer was Bradley Hertz, who later led the recall against Gordo and is now part of the latest marijuana-related initiative.
The threat posed to the established order by the initiative only makes the city’s future in the budding cannabis trade even murkier. Several dispensaries that were not selected to move forward in the city’s process have threatened lawsuits. Making matters worse, only three of the six companies that were chosen may receive conditional use permits (CUPs) due to the physical limitations placed by the city’s cannabis law.
In a memo to City Manager Steve Mermell last month, Planning Director David Reyes revealed that the city may only be able to accommodate three cannabis dispensaries due to the city’s ordinance, which imposes strict limits on where cannabis businesses can operate.
According to a draft map prepared by the city, there are not enough parcels to grant all six companies CUPs based upon the requirements of the ordinance.
“The Draft Map identified fewer than six potentially compliant locations,” wrote Reyes. “Since the use of every parcel of land in the city is not maintained in the city’s GIS (geographic information system) Database, it is possible that more compliant locations exist, but this is not probable.”
In June, city officials announced that Integral Associates Dena, Tony Fong, the Atrium Group, Harvest of Pasadena, SweetFlower Pasadena and MME Pasadena Retail scored the highest in the city’s process, which required a $14,000 fee from each applicant.
Six companies won the right to file CUP applications, but only Harvest of Pasadena, Tony Fong and Integral Associates Dena submitted applications that comply with the city’s ordinance.
Officials with Atrium Group and Sweetwater Pasadena submitted CUP applications for locations in Gordo’s District 3 on Union Street and East Colorado Boulevard, but were denied because they would violate the one dispensary per council district rule.
In August, Sweetwater lost an appeal before the Planning Commission to place a dispensary on Colorado Boulevard at Lake Avenue. Due to the limited number of locations, it is unclear if the company will ever open a dispensary in Pasadena.
Owners of one company that was not chosen to advance in the selection process accused Reyes of fraud.
On June 26, Damian Martin unsuccessfully attempted to appeal the city’s decision after WOW Health and Wellness was not chosen among the top six applicants. Less than a month later, Martin accused Reyes of covertly changing the rules of the process in what he called “a secret, illegal, and total underhanded fashion.”
“There is not a single published rule on the Marijuana Regulations page (on the city’s website) that says ‘the results of the screening process were not appealable,’” Martin wrote to city officials.
A total of 122 companies applied for the right to sell cannabis in Pasadena after the city opened its process, according to a report by Reyes. Multiplied by $14,000, that comes to $1.7 million.
In the coming weeks the city plans to release information being sought under provisions of the state Public Records Act, or PRA. However, “short delays in posting correspondence and other records has created opportunity for applicants to claim fraud and undue influence when there is none,” wrote Reyes in his memo to Mermell.
The city has retained additional staffing resources to help with the massive amount of material compiled in connection with the process and the ordinance, Reyes said. However, despite the effort, there still have been short delays in getting things posted, he said.
In March, the Pasadena Weekly attempted to get the city to release the list of companies that paid the $14,000 application fee, but the paper’s PRA was denied.
“The public interest served by not disclosing the record clearly outweighs the public served by disclosure of the record,” wrote city Public Information Officer Lisa Derderian.