The empty building where Russ Green hopes to start a marijuana lab and dispensary. Willits News photo
Wednesday’s Willits City Council meeting stands to be an interesting one, as the body will once again be taking up the issue of whether or not to host a marijuana dispensary in city limits, this time spurred by the business plans of Willits native Russ Green, 28.
Green, whose family owns GlenMark Storage, Glen’s Commercial Tire and other properties around town, wants to open a dispensary and laboratory on his currently vacant property just north of and adjacent to GlenMark Storage, on South Main Street.
The current ban has been in place since 2006, but Green points to recreational marijuana use in Colorado and Washington as evidence that not only have times changed, but that the political climate, including the threat of federal crackdowns, has shifted enough that it is time for the council to have a serious discussion about the issue – and council members seem to agree that the time is ripe for at least an in-depth discussion, even if they have not committed to firm stances on repeal of the ban.
As Mayor Holly Madrigal explains, “I think it’s a good time to take the pulse of the council and see where they’re at.” But it was not just Green who approached her; she says that two or three other members of the public have recently floated the idea of repealing the ban, and that this prompted her to bring the issue to the council.
As for Green, though the property has been vacant for at least five years, he says that the idea of a dispensary first occurred to him when he heard about the new medical marijuana statute being passed in Nevada. He figured if Nevada was doing it that maybe he could swing Willits.
Green’s plans include a dispensary, but he sees that as secondary, a way to provide a revenue stream for what he’s really passionate about: a lab doing marijuana testing in Mendocino County.
“I want to do quality control; that’s what it’s about,” he says. He goes on to point out that a laboratory could have other benefits to the town, including the possibility of doing water testing locally and providing an alternative to Alpha Labs in Ukiah.
Of course, Green is not a scientist but a businessman, and his primary goal is to start a business and he is willing to invest what he calls a “large capital expenditure” to make this happen, saying, “The money’s there waiting, but we’re not going take any action until we’re certain that things are going to be amiable between everyone. We’re not trying to make waves or anything, we’re just trying to serve a need and get rents from the building,” he said, adding “Although depending on how the regulation comes down there could be a lot of exciting things happening there.”
He went on to describe his excitement at the prospects of a plant tissue culture lab, an advanced technique for producing large numbers of plant clones in a laboratory and propagating them quickly.
“It’s going to be a very expensive high tech project. We’re basically willing to fund the infrastructure on the building and that’s kind of what makes the whole thing possible because a lot of the equipment and things are very costly.” Though Green would like to receive the use permit himself, he points out that in some places a close connection between a lab and a dispensary has been frowned upon as a conflict of interest.
“I’m looking at at least starting a dispensary and some way to certify a medical grade product with repeatable scientific results, unlike what I’ve seen thus far where you can send samples to a few different labs and get a few different results.” Explains Green, “There are no standards right now, so the industry’s going to have to enforce its own standards if it doesn’t want to wait for the government to do it.”
Questioned about the prospect of a lab in Willits, Rick Pfrommer, Director of Education for Harborside Dispensary in Oakland, the largest dispensary in the state, said that Harborside would be interested in working with a lab in Mendocino County saying, “Having labs closer to the areas of production would benefit both the growers and the dispensaries and ultimately the patients by providing quicker turnaround times for quantification and microbiological analysis.”
Green also sees his potential business as a benefit to the local economy, saying that he hopes to hire 20 employees within two years, depending on how the regulatory framework shakes out. And of course the business would pay sales taxes, but also, he suspects, would pay an excise tax. He cites the number 2 percent, which is used in Nevada and was part of marijuana regulation legislation that was recently defeated in Sacramento.
Madrigal doesn’t see repealing the ban as resulting in any kind of windfall for the city, though she does see it as one possible proactive step in getting the city prepared for or even in front of the statewide legalization that most people foresee in the next year or two, or as she describes it “getting a foot in the door.”
Here Green picks up the possibility of tourism, and of creating the kernels of an infrastructure that might support a normalized industry come legalization, saying, “I think we’re already getting a lot of that tourism right now, so I think the tourists will get a better experience.”
But Madrigal stressed that even if the council were to take some action it would likely not be until early next year, citing the already full plates of city staff. And she does not know if that action will come at all. She herself remains undecided, as she says she always tries to keep an open mind coming into a council meeting so as best to respond to the public, as she explains, “This was brought to me by constituents and I’m more than happy to talk about it.”
In this she’s echoed by her fellow council member, Ron Orenstein who says, “It’s been six years or so since the ban was in place and like anything else it’s worth taking a look at.” He continues, “I’m not leaning either way. I’ve heard comments from all around town on both sides of the argument, most of them frankly have been negative in opposing lifting the ban. But the whole idea is whenever we go into a council meeting you go in with an open mind; I want to hear some arguments for or against, before I decide how I feel.”
When asked what he would say to opponents of a dispensary in Willits Green simply responds, “Why?” Continuing, “I’ve yet to hear a logical reason why not. Why it’s better to have deals in the Safeway parking lot than a secured, auditable, regulated business.”
But Orenstein can see both pros and cons to lifting the ban, “You know the strongest argument to get rid of the ban is typically economics, people are looking at what’s happening in Colorado or Washington and they’re seeing that there’s a lot of revenue going to those states from sales tax.” However, he adds that collecting some of that revenue might be hard due to federal banking and tax rules.
On the other hand he says, “Marijuana is unsafe for children and having dispensaries might make it more available. I don’t know if that’s true since if you can buy it on the street there’s no control at all The educators, their argument has always been that with this marijuana culture that we have, that a lot of the high school kids have no ambition to do anything except grow pot.”
Of course the council needs input from the voters and it’s exactly for this reason that the discussion will be held at Wednesday’s meeting, as Orenstein explains, “Let’s hear from you, because otherwise we’re sitting up there and guessing at what people want.”
Green for his part is hopeful, “I can see this area being pretty nice at the end of all this. As a nice place to raise my kids, a good place to live – after the effects of prohibition, which is in my opinion the root cause of the detriment we’ve seen to our county and our citizens.”
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