Road Trip: California Desert
Southern California is basically a desert, with no water sources to speak of. Travel two hours east of Los Angeles into Riverside County—otherwise known as the “Inland Empire”—and you’ll hit miles and miles of sand, cactus, and energy-producing windmills as far as the eye can see.
The once sleepy town of Desert Hot Springs is located 10 miles east of upscale Palm Springs and has had its share of hardship. A scandal with past community leaders led the city into bankruptcy.
Longtime city council member and former mayor Scott Matas stepped up to the podium in the middle of the mess, offering up a solution: allow Desert Hot Springs residents to grow and sell cannabis. But first, they needed to end the city ban.
“In 2008, we had a local gentleman operating an illegal dispensary,” Matas said. “He had cut a hole in the security door and was selling cannabis out the hole of the door. We decided to put a moratorium on cannabis businesses at that time and wait and see what others in the area would do.” When the City of Palm Springs began giving out permits, Desert Hot Springs stepped up.
“We lifted the moratorium and now have four dispensaries open and doing very well,” Matas said. “The stigma from the public is that you are going to have crime because people are buying pot, but it’s just not true. We have little to no crime to speak of surrounding the cannabis businesses. They are all run very professionally.”
In a historic first, the city allocated land specifically for use in cannabis operations, which will include farming operations, medicine producers, and ancillary providers of equipment used in the industry.
“When we realized California would legalize it, we wanted to be one of the first cities—not realizing we are the first city to permit it,” Matas said with a smile.
Two years ago, a tax measure to include cannabis in the city’s tax base was successfully adopted. Dispensaries pay a 10% tax on sales and a cultivation tax of $25 per square foot up to 3,000 square feet, with $10 per square foot thereafter and no limitations on square footage.
“It’s a little high right now, but we are the first and we feel we’ll be able to adjust it later,” Matas said. “The largest operation to obtain a permit is one million square feet.”
California’s square foot limit for cultivation is just 2,500, but Matas said developers are planning mixed-usage buildings to allow and compensate.
“We are thrilled out here,” Matas said. “We believe that with what’s entitled to us, we could see upwards of $20 million in revenue once everything is up and running.”
With a yearly operating budget of $14 million to run the city, Desert Hot Springs is looking at a greener future in more ways than one, and its own residents are destined to benefit.
Healing Help & Trials
Green Leaf Wellness is one of the four dispensaries operating within Desert Hot Springs. While the city is getting ready to go big, Green Leaf Wellness is already helping patients heal, with documentation to prove it.
Its “Tier 3” program enlists cancer patients, with permission to work with their oncologists. Cannabis oil is provided at no charge, and markers are analyzed and checked. They provide additional beneficial compounds as needed.
“With no actual research and studies to go by, we are stuck in this catch-22, so we decided to do our own trials, collecting data from our patients’ doctors with their consent,” said program administrator Ian Armstrong. “An oncologist may call with a patient’s markers and we’ll take a look and say, ‘Oh, the patient is low on B12.’ We can infuse B12 and B6 into their medication.”
Customizing cannabis medicine is quickly becoming a trend as more discoveries are made on various levels of CBD and THC in a treatment. Anderson said they are finding out about CBD to THC ratios all the time for specific ailments, hence the controlled documentation.
Jim Camper was one of the first to receive a permit to operate a dispensary in neighboring Palm Springs. His mother Mickey LaTorre is not a patient, but she was decorating the attractive Asian-themed lobby and shop areas when I arrived. Other relatives work in the shop alongside longtime employees who have been with Camper from the beginning.
The shop initially and notoriously opened in Desert Hot Springs seven years ago, moving to Palm Springs after the city enacted its ban. Today, they are welcome back, which Camper feels is a sign of the changing times of cannabis prohibition.
The extensive cultivation operation produces more than 20 strains of flower. At one time, Camper said he was focusing on organic and pricing the flower the same as non-organic, with little luck in moving it.
“I couldn’t figure it out,” Camper said. “Patients just didn’t care if it was organic or not, so we stopped the process.”
The shop is well stocked, carrying a large supply of every kind of medible, tincture, oil, lotion and more. Silver-haired patients came and went (Palm Springs is a big retirement community), and the majority of patients presenting for medicine were senior citizens. One woman in her 70s said she was looking for salve to topically treat arthritis.
“I’d say most of the patients we help are retired and dealing with aches and pains, or worse. It’s a myth only young people visit dispensaries to get stoned,” Camper said.
Testing 1, 2, 3
New to the Palm Springs cannabis community via Grass Valley are Robert Van Roo and Cody Henderson, co-founders of Palm Springs Safe Access, one of five permitted collectives and cooperatives in the city—and one of the most beautiful.
Aside from the hi-tech appearance of the shop, Van Roo said the two are really just country bumpkins trying to make a difference for many. His start in the industry began for personal reasons.
“A friend of mine was treating the side affects of the medicine he was taking to treat HIV/AIDS, ” Van Roo Said. “He then suffered side affects due to the purity of the medicine he was finding. At that point, I decided I would advocate for clean medicine.”
The irony of demanding testing is that farmers, dispensaries, and medicine makers have to pay for it, and they all struggle as it is to keep up financially in one of the most highly taxed industries.
“Make no mistake, the struggle is real for most of us in the cannabis space, especially in California,” Van Roo said. “We battle to make ends meet, constantly working against the same odds as every other dispensary.”
Van Roo added that unfair banking practices, excessive taxes, and competing with folks who simply don’t play by the rules are commonplace.
With legalization on the horizon in California, the outposts are quietly getting ready for business and then some. The good news is that the healing is already happening.