Coalinga Police Chief Mike Salvador Talks Legalization and Regulation in His Green Rush Boom Town
He opposed Prop 64 but is acting according to the will of the people.
Published on November 21, 2016

Fifty-two miles southwest of Fresno, in the 16,755-person pro-cannabis city of Coalinga, Calif., Police Chief Mike Salvador has witnessed an economic boom. The 29-year veteran of law enforcement, whose peers nicknamed him “The Green King of the San Joaquin,” opposed Proposition 64, but his cannabis policies are more a product of City Council and voter desire than his own.

The Coalinga City Council made it clear they want marijuana in their jurisdiction, so Chief Salvador wants to get legalization and regulation right the first time. His focus is on implementing the Medical Marijuana Regulation & Safety Act (“MMRSA” or “The Act”). His agency has defined various types of licensing structures for indoor cultivation facilities. “We’re going to have just about every indoor license type listed,” he says.

Chief Salvador also anticipates that his agency will come out with important regulations, per 19332 of California’s Business and Professions Code for licensing of indoor and outdoor cultivation sites, before the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

“Coalinga has a fair representation of [MMRSA],” Chief Salvador says. “We are on the right track with a good model.”

Jacqueline McGowan, Cannabis Business Consultant for Coalinga’s Green Coast Industries, recently met with Chief Salvador. “It was a breath of fresh air to speak to a member of law enforcement who supported regulations and was, in some regards, more educated on [the laws] than I am,” she says.

MERRY JANE spoke with Chief Salvador about what cannabis and regulations mean for Coalinga and his officers.


MERRY JANE: What are your goals in the context of cannabis policy?
Mike Salvador:
To implement the legislative intent of MMRSA. When I read the law, the goal is to provide patient access and attempt to eliminate criminal influence. That’s what everybody in the cannabis industry has been trying to do. That’s their main argument.

If the goal is to do those things, then I think our model starts down that path. We’ve read MMRSA line-for-line, and we’ve come to the conclusion here in Coalinga that cannabis is high-value product, and so we want to distribute high-value product. Now, how do you protect the safety of the public?

The devil is in the details. The model we’ve chosen is something that I am quite familiar with from [my] law enforcement career. I have a lot of experience with another high-value product—money and casino gambling.

Indian casinos control high-value product. They have security profiles that allow you to manage, control, and audit, and do that stuff and is widely accepted throughout the world. I am treating marijuana like casinos treat gaming chips, for lack of better terminology.

What does this entail?
You background casino operators and license them to operate. That’s what we’re doing in Coalinga. We’re taking MMRSA and applying high value product protocols, which require background checks for owners of companies. We are taking that one half-step further. We are background checking everyone that touches this stuff. I am in a fight with the Department of Justice over this now.

I want to treat employees like teachers, cardroom dealers, healthcare workers, all of whom are backgrounded. We’re going back and forth on whether employees in facilities need to be background checked. I say yes. The intent of the legislation was to keep drug cartels out of this industry or do everything possible to do that.

[You do that] by licensing employees, and background checking employees. If you don’t do that, there’s the crack in the dam that allows such activity to occur. Our ordinance is tight on that, and it allows me as a public safety official to ensure the public’s safety.

We attempt to minimize access of organized crime to this industry, while realizing we’re not going to be 100 percent successful. Anybody that tells you that you’re going to eliminate the black market is not telling you the truth.

I’ve seen that in travel in Oregon, where it is 100 percent legal recreationally and medicinally. If you talk to persons on the street, they will tell you there’s a gray market to avoid taxes. We see that in California. As long as there is a tax component, people are going to try to circumvent taxes. How do you minimize that? That is the question.

We’re going to make sure that unlawful grows—which are unlawful because they’re not paying tax, not doing it pursuant to regulation—don’t exist.

It’s a big business model. If you don’t have $1 million to morph yourself from the collective model to the MMRSA model, you just can’t comply with some of the regulations.

What might the result of this be?
The small grower I used to go bust and whack their plants, they’ll be out of business in two years. They won’t be able to play the game. They won’t have the money, because the collective model is going away. The corporate model is coming into play.

I’ve done probably seven or eight pre-application meetings. We have applications in the pipelines. We’re starting the process. We’re going to see economic benefit. In construction alone, we’ll see economic benefit. The price of an industrial zone piece of land that qualifies for this type of enterprise in our ordinance, a parcel that can’t be any closer than 1,800 feet from a school, has gone from $5,000–10,000 an acre to a $1,000,000 an acre. We have no outdoor grows. Everyone has to be indoors.

What do you plan to do with the passage of Proposition 64?
Our personal medical grow ordinance anticipated the passage of Prop 64 and doesn't change. It was written around Prop 64 language. We expect that our factory medical business interests just got more lucrative, for sure. I will probably be traveling back to Oregon to talk to the cannabis enforcement agencies to get a handle on how they deal with dispensaries. All our local tax and dispensary measures passed at the ballot box too.

Why Coalinga?
My Council wants to become the Detroit of medical cannabis. The only reason why medical cannabis is here, and we haven’t had the uproar, is because I am in the middle of brown California, not green California. I am not in the Emerald Triangle, not in the Bay, not in Los Angeles. I am in the Central Valley. My ordinance is, if not the only, one of very few. I am in one of few locations in Central California where this stuff is even legal. In my county, it’s not even legal.

My sherriff just busted a marijuana dispensary in an unincorporated part of town because the ordinance is still banned there. We are charting new territory, inventing the wheel. There are a couple Chiefs that are kind of at the forefront of this in various ways. For us, we are taking a very literal interpretation of MMRSA or MCRSA or the Act, and we are trying to make it work.

Personal feelings aside, my Council is clear. They want this economic activity. We gotta make this work and we are going to.

If we do this right the first time, then California leads again. If we can show a really good model here, we are less likely to get federal interference. The United States v. McIntosh decision in the 9th circuit, decided in September, is my flag that I wave. To make this stuff work, McIntosh was very specific. Compliance with local regulation, state law on medical cannabis, protects you from DoJ intervention. So the stricter the regulation the better you’re protected.

Justin O'Connell
Justin is a California-based writer who covers music, cannabis, craft beer, Baja California, science and technology. His writing has appeared in VICE and the San Diego Reader.
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