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LANCASTER — The City looks to update its municipal code regarding commercial cannabis activity to align with current practices in the industry since the ordinance was approved about four years ago.

“The industry has changed in that time, especially with the influence of illegal grows and illegal cannabis,” City Manager Jason Caudle said during a presentation at Tuesday’s City Council meeting. “It does not reflect the current market conditions as it related to cannabis. It leaves us vulnerable to outside influences, whether it be illegal suppliers, referendum, or state policy changes.”

The City cannot manage who is delivering cannabis because it does not regulate them. It therefore cannot determine whether delivery services advertised on local billboards are legal or illegal, or even if they exist, Caudle said.

The City Council introduced an ordinance to amend City law and adopted a resolution to  establish surcharges for regulation of commercial cannabis activity in the City that will also help provide the necessary funding to combat illegal cannabis operations.

After input from councilmen Ken Mann and Darrell Dorris, the Council agreed to amend the recommendation to say that all funds from retail sales, if approved, would be used toward community programming, drug rehabilitation programs and/or support of law enforcement.

The ordinance does not allow retail development of cannabis dispensaries and continues to maintain strict standards on where medical cannabis locations can operate. Any proposed cannabis facility must still go through the planning process. The ordinance also does not expand the allowable types of cannabis, nor does it expand the allowable zone locations.

Illegal marijuana cultivation sites in the remote areas of the east Antelope Valley have been tied to water theft, illegal squatting, indentured servitude and other crimes such as murder.

Lancaster Sheriff’s Station Capt. Todd Weber said the water theft in one remote area got so bad in March that there was concern about maintaining the water system.

‘We’ve towed about 60 of those (water) trucks this month and we’ve got the water system under control,” Weber said. “The illicit grows create a whole host of problems.”

A sergeant who runs the sheriff’s marijuana eradication team in the Valley said there are more than 300 illegal cultivation operations.

“If these things aren’t able to be irradiated we’re going to have compounds out there,” he said.

He said there are also illegal operations in custom homes in the western areas  of the Valley, including Antelope Acres.

One caller said he thought the proposed ordinance would be a positive thing.

“I don’t particularly partake myself, but the people that I know that do, they’re going down the hill or up north,” he said. “The money’s not coming into our neighborhoods. They’re going to be doing it anyway; it’s legal. We might as well go ahead and capitalize on it as a city.”

Pastor Chris Johnson of Grace Chapel urged the Council to reject the proposed ordinance, “which I believe will lead to widespread commercial growing and distribution of commercial marijuana through retail dispensaries,” he said.

Johnson cited five reasons for his opposition, saying the Council should wait rather than consider the proposed ordinance during a pandemic when the public is not permitted to attend City Council meetings in person.

“Secondly, the prerogative. I think there’s too much discretion left to the city manager and mayor in this ordinance,” Johnson said. “The city manager can unilaterally set the number of licenses, and the mayor can singularly direct the opening of dispensaries. We know that someday some of those positions will change, and I think it’s important to have proper limit.”

A caller who identified herself as an attorney for the cannabis and hemp industry commended the council for considering the ordinance.

“In regards to the proliferation of illegal activity, we find by licensing and regulating the operators you have a second set of eyes,” she said. “That’s the legal industry that is watching out for that illegal activity because they too are their competitors.”

Shawn Cannon, chairman of the Lancaster Social Equity Commission, said the proposed ordinance would open up the City to a billion dollar industry that would come with a powerful lobby and have little concern for the people who live here.

“When taking this vote  though, I would like the Council to think about all the good this new source of revenue can do and the jobs it can create,” he said.

Mann said the only way he could support the proposed ordinance would be for any revenue to go toward drug rehabilitation or public safety to combat the proliferation of illegal cultivation sites.

Mayor R. Rex Parris, a former drug addict who went through rehab, said he supports drug rehabilitation programs that work.

“My concern  about what’s happening now is we are putting so many people at risk by being afraid to take this by the horns and wrestle this bull to the ground,” he said.

He added if the distribution is regulated, the safety of the product for consumers could be ensured.

“I don’t see this as any different than what faced us with the pandemic,” Parris said. “Anything that threatens the well-being of our families, we will do whatever is necessary. That means if we have to put money into law enforcement that we never envisioned, that’s what it means. But those huts will not go up in our city.”

He added: “Whatever it takes, the cartels will never, ever get a foothold in our city. I will do whatever is necessary to prevent that from happening. But I can’t do it if we don’t regulate it.”

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