HANFORD — The Hanford City Council was skeptical Tuesday about a proposal for a medical marijuana processing facility touting more than 1,000 new jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue.
In a letter submitted to the city last week, Keith Stephenson, owner of the Oakland-based Purple Heart Patient Center medical marijuana dispensary, said he hopes to build a “fully functional indoor medicinal cannabis cultivation site” in Hanford. His letter identifies the former Pirelli Tire Co. factory and an adjacent parcel near 11th and Idaho avenues as an ideal location.
The proposal claims the facility would create 1,115 full-time jobs and generate more than $14 million of annual revenue for the city.
“As a councilman, a guy comes in and says 14 million bucks and a bunch of jobs, you have my attention,” Mayor Justin Mendes said. “But I want to make sure we answer the questions that the public has [and] that the rest of the council has.”
City ordinances currently prohibit the cultivation and distribution of medical marijuana in Hanford. Marijuana is still illegal under federal law, and remains illegal for recreational use under California law. Medical marijuana has been legal in California since voters approved Proposition 215, also known as the Compassionate Use Act of 1996.
Kings County Sheriff Dave Robinson urged the council to uphold state and federal drug laws. Marijuana remains a Schedule I narcotic under the United States Controlled Substances Act. Robinson said the Kings County Narcotic Task Force works closely with the federal Drug Enforcement Agency.
“The city of Hanford is in the County of Kings and, as the sheriff, we will be enforcing marijuana regardless of whether or not they bring the business here,” Robinson said. “I would strongly urge you to keep the marijuana ordinance in place and hold fast.”
Councilman Russ Curry said he and Councilman David Ayers recently met with Stephenson to discuss the proposed facility. Curry said the property is in escrow and Stephenson can’t secure financing for the project unless the city changes its ordinance.
Stephenson has until Oct. 18 to close escrow.
“If we change our ordinance, then he would seek funding,” Curry said. “And then he would, if he got the funding, then would [move forward with the project]. It’s a lot of ifs. That’s where he lost me.”
Councilman Gary Pannett said he was concerned that information from that meeting had not been shared with himself or Vice Mayor Francisco Ramirez. Mendes said he received a binder with information about the project.
Curry said the council had too little information Tuesday to consider changing the ordinance.
City Manager Darrel Pyle said other marijuana-based businesses have inquired about the same property, located in the Hanford Business Park. Pyle said city staff initially believed the increased interest was due to Proposition 64, a measure on the November ballot to legalize recreational marijuana use.
However, Pyle said, the interest is actually tied to the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in October 2015. The act established new rules and regulations to shift the medical marijuana industry toward a commercial/industrial business model.
Earlier this year, the Coalinga City Council sold the city’s vacant Claremont Custody Center to a Los Angeles-based company for a medical cannabis oil extraction facility.
Curry said he didn’t want city staff to dedicate too much time to the issue until after the election. If Proposition 64 passes, he said, the council will also have to consider policies for recreational marijuana.
“If it passes, trust me, we’re going to have to address it,” Curry said.
Robinson told the council that, regardless of the outcome, Kings County voters previously opposed Proposition 19, which sought to legalize recreational marijuana in the 2010. The proposition failed with 53 percent opposition statewide.
“Kings County voters rejected it at 67 percent,” Robinson said. “So let's keep that in mind, who we work for here and what their wishes are.”
Pyle said city staff will bring back a draft ordinance and some legal research regarding the potential conflicts between federal, state and local laws.
“I don’t know the answer,” Pyle said. “But I know the answer is out there because the industry has been voter approved for 21 years.”