Mayor Mary Ann Nihart, Chief Jim Tasa, Stephen Rhodes, San Mateo County Supervisor and former Sheriff Don Horsley and Board member Mike O’Neill walk into a medical marijuana dispensary…
It sounds like the start of a joke, but on Aug. 19 the group unwittingly did just that.
Now, Pacifica may face a legal battle after the discovery and subsequent shutdown of a pseudo-underground medical cannabis dispensary on Palmetto Avenue.
Seeing an “open” sign in the window of what used to be an upholsterer’s shop, Mayor Nihart—on her monthly “”, when she checks in with local business owners around town—discovered something all of Pacifica’s city officials had been missing and hundreds of Pacificans had been using: A medical cannabis dispensary that’s been open since the beginning of August despite the lack of a city ordinance allowing such a business.
“Yes I was (surprised),” said City Manager Stephen Rhodes. “Very, yeah.”
But just as there is no ordinance allowing medical cannabis dispensaries, there are also no local laws forbidding them.
Ruben Salvatierra, the owner of a dispensary in Vallejo, CA, took advantage of this when he started Wellness Solutions Group (the Pacifica dispensary) on Palmetto.
He said being discovered didn’t worry him. Not even when Chief Tasa asked him what he was doing selling medical cannabis out of a storefront in Pacifica.
“Really, I had nothing to hide,” Salvatierra said. “It’s all legal within the state, so I basically explained everything to him (Tasa). His feeling to it was more that he doesn’t think the community needs it and that was really all his opinion toward the dispensary.”
Salvatierra is no stranger to the stigma surrounding medical cannabis and the dispensaries that provide it to people with prescriptions. But, he said, his dispensary’s track record in Vallejo ought to speak for itself.
“We’ve had our other location in Vallejo for two years, we’ve had a good report with the police department, we’ve had a good rapport with the city and we’re really trying to bring the same compassionate help that we’ve been giving that community here,” he said.
Wanting to take the sale of medical cannabis beyond Vallejo, Salvatierra looked around at cities on the Peninsula that did not have outright bans on dispensaries, such as his hometown of South San Francisco. There were very few such cities.
Before setting up shop in Pacifica, however, Salvatierra approached the city of East Palo Alto.
Although there was and still is a functioning dispensary in East Palo Alto today, Salvatierra said that after he applied for a business license there, the city council imposed a ban on new dispensaries and denied him the permit.
“That’s along the lines with most San Mateo County cities, it’s always been the same thing: Someone will apply and they’ll put a ban,” he said.
Finally, he decided Pacifica was the best fit for a new dispensary.
“For the most part, everyone who has come in here has been very excited,” Salvatierra said. “From my understanding the community has been wanting a dispensary out here.”
Salvatierra said the Pacifica dispensary had between three to four hundred patients before it was shut down. The majority were Pacifica residents. He built this clientelle largely through word of mouth and on the website WeedMaps.com.
But in Pacifica, Salvatierra took a slightly different approach than he did in East Palo Alto. Police are saying it might be illegal.
When applying for a business license with the Pacifica Planning Department, Salvatierra said he was opening a flower shop.
“Technically speaking, it is the dried cannabis flower,” he said.
But on Thursday, Aug. 25, the City of Pacifica and Pacifica Police issued a cease and desist order to Salvatierra and Wellness Solutions Group.
“Their business license is also null and void and retracted, rescinded, because they obtained it under false pretenses,” said Pacifica Police Captain Dave Bertini.
Capt. Bertini also said an investigation is underway to find if Salvatierra broke the law when he told the Planning Department he was starting a flower shop rather than a medical cannabis dispensary.
“I think that it's total chicanery on their part to go around existing laws and falsify documents to get a business license,” Capt. Bertini said.
The dispensary has 10 days from Aug. 25 to appeal the order to close up shop.
George White, Pacifica Planning Director, said his department basically checks to make sure the proposed use of a piece of property complies with its zoning and location, parking etc. before a shop opens. It doesn’t typically do checkups to make sure business owners are selling what they’re supposed to.
Salvatierra said he’s not backing down in the face of the cease and desist order, however.
“We have a right to be here by state law and if we have to put up a fight with the city to remain open we are ready to do so,” he wrote in an email sent after the city shut him down.
By state law, dispensaries must be nonprofits. There are many forms of nonprofits, but Wellness Solutions Group of Pacifica is called a "mutual benefit" nonprofit, meaning its goods are both produced and consumed by customers, or members, like a collective.
Salvatierra said that WSG abides by these rules and by all other state laws, and because Pacifica doesn’t have an ordinance either way about cannabis dispensaries, his business should be allowed to stay open.
“It’s really just a matter of following state guidelines,” he said. “Politically, it depends on what city you’re in, some cities accept it some don’t.”
There’s now a note in the window of the inactive dispensary asking customers and the community to help keep it around.
After all, Salvatierra said, he’s doing the community a service.
“Really, I’m here to provide safe access,” he said. “It’s been long needed in San Mateo County. I have a few cancer patients who have come in here, and they travel to downtown San Francisco or they go to San Jose, and for some of these people it’s hard for them already to get out of their house, they don’t trust delivery services and it’s already hard enough for them to have to travel. You gotta know that takes more money to spend on gas to drive out to downtown San Francisco, there’s never any parking in downtown San Francisco and really they need something close to home that provides safe access. Really, that’s why I’m here, is to help out all the patients of Pacifica.”
Not to mention, a dispensary could be a financial boon for the city, he said.
“It’s a great thing to add to the income of the city because I know, from my understanding, this particular city has been broke for a while,” he said. “It would hard felt to have to close a place that could bring in tax revenue for them. I know they have that up here that they’ve been trying to restore, you know, they could easily have the tax money come in to finish restoring that project, or whatever other things the city may need.”
Mayor Mary Ann Nihart would only say that the city is looking into what its next step will be, whether the city council seeks a ban on dispensaries or not, and what that means for Wellness Solutions Group.