Photo via Jason Persse
Two dispensaries in Coachella, California — home to the annual Coachella and Stagecoach music festivals — have used temporary cannabis event permits to circumvent local regulations and set up permanent pot shops after the concerts ended. Despite strict rules and a lack of proper paperwork, a mix of political power and deep pockets have allowed at least one of the dispensaries to remain open.
According to an in-depth report from the Desert Sun, The Lighthouse and Coachella Releaf both opened their doors in mid-April, using locally obtained special event permits to sell pot to the thousands of festival-goers that flock to the SoCal desert every spring.
But while the dispensaries were licensed to sell weed only through the end of April, both pot shops remained open into May, with support from local city officials, even as other properly submitted dispensary applications remained unapproved.
At the Lighthouse, the site of a future hotel anticipated to bring piles of tourists dollars to town, the Coachella City Council approved development of a cannabis dispensary adjacent to said hotel in late 2017. However, while the pot shop opened last month and continues to operate, construction of the hotel has been delayed.
"When we originally agreed to a developer's agreement, [the dispensary] was an incentive," said Coachella Mayor Pro Tem Betty Sanchez to the Desert Sun. "We should not get ahead of the incentive.”
"This project shouldn't have been a surprise to us. I don't know who else was surprised by this, but I sure as hell was and I don't appreciate that," Sanchez added.
Still, in a revised agreement between the city and developer Stuart Rubin, Mayor Sanchez approved a plan to extend the construction deadline to January 2019, with the hotel due to be open within 90 days from that date. In the meantime, the Lighthouse dispensary remains open for business, with city officials defending their decision to grant its permit in the first place. "We were opening up the dispensary for the festival. The city gets nothing from the festival, we don't," said City Manager Bill Pattison. "We're finally going to have some revenue because of the festival being in our backyard for a change."
A few miles south from the Lighthouse, former Coachella mayor Jesus Gonzalez — who was indicted on felony bribery counts while he was in office in the 1990s — secured a similar temporary event permit to host a “Cannabis Canvas and Coffee” art event last month. Instead of hosting a paint and puff party, though, Gonzalez constructed Coachella Releaf, a dispensary that openly sold cannabis out of the location even after all the shows and parties wrapped up.
Releaf is facing opposition from neighboring businesses, including the Coachella Valley Teachers Association, whose meeting room is only a few doors down from the makeshift dispensary.
"There is a concern, given the nature of the work that we do," Carissa Carrera, the association's president, told the Desert Sun, noting the strong smell emanating from Releaf.
At least one city official at a recent meeting of the Coachella Planning Commission agreed: "I'm not comfortable with this ongoing special event going on," City Manager Pattison told the commission.
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This week, a sign posted on the door of Releaf said that the dispensary would be closed for the time being while the business “works to comply with city licensing requirements.” But, as the Desert Sun noted, without moving into a properly zoned location, Releaf won’t be able to meet those requirements any time soon. Even with the dispensary’s storefront closed, it’s still unclear if Releaf is continuing to make local, unlicensed weed deliveries.
Across town, the Lighthouse dispensary remains open despite permitting complications.
As Coachella continues to try and reconcile its dual purposes as both a sleepy desert town and a music festival mecca, city officials will need to take a closer look at canna-business permits and regulations to construct a path forward for ganjapreneurs, visiting concert-goers, and everyday residents alike. America’s youth are counting on it.