Devin Ward, an Arroyo Grande resident and ALS patient, holds up a small paper bag from Elite Care Enterprises, a mobile medical marijuana delivery service that operates in the area.
Cynthia Gonzalez, owner and operator for Elite Care, snapped the photo of Ward to commemorate a milestone for the company. It marked the very first legal delivery of medicinal cannabis to a patient under Arroyo Grande's recently passed permitting process for mobile medical marijuana services in the city.
"I'm happy that people, not just myself, will finally be able to have legal access to medication that is our right to have," Ward said.
Currently, Elite Care is the only delivery service in SLO County legally permitted to operate in Arroyo Grande under the city's medical marijuana ordinance, which members of the City Council approved in June 2016. That ordinance banned most commercial medical marijuana land uses, like dispensaries and outdoor cultivation, but allowed personal indoor cultivation, and more importantly for homebound patients like Ward, allowed the city to issue up to three permits for mobile delivery businesses. Just six months prior to that vote, the council voted for a total ban on medical marijuana, including delivery services. Ward became a vocal opponent of the ban and began showing up to City Council meetings to push for changes.
"I feel vindicated," he said. "I went to the city after their draconian measures eliminated all access to medical marijuana for me. They took me seriously, as they should have."
According to city documents obtained by New Times, at least five companies filled out the detailed applications for medical marijuana delivery permits. After vetting the applications and conducting background checks, Arroyo Grande Interim Police Chief Beau Pryor, who has the final say on who is approved for a permit, chose Gonzalez's company. The department has yet to issue the other two permits. At a June 27 City Council meeting, Pryor indicated that it was waiting to see how the initial permit pans out before issuing any others.
Speaking to New Times, Gonzalez characterized the application process as reasonable and praised the city, police department, and staff for their work on vetting her application.
"It was really a cohesive effort to get this thing done," Gonzalez said. "It all was very seamless."
With the privilege of being the city's lone legitimate delivery service comes responsibility, as both the city and the police department will be watching to determine whether to expand its medical marijuana regulations in the future.
"We realize that Arroyo Grande is taking a conservative approach. They are expecting us to be good Samaritans and business people," Gonzalez said. "We are all going to be looked at to uphold the law and be good business leaders in the community."
While the city cautiously dips its toe into the world of medical marijuana, it is already beginning to grapple with how to handle to impact of the state's voter approved recreational marijuana law, also known as the Adult Use of Marijuana Act or Proposition 64. The council spent several hours hashing out a general plan to develop regulations for recreational marijuana in the city at its June 27 meeting. The city hopes to have rules and regulations in place before many of Proposition 64's provisions take effect in January 2018.
Arroyo Grande's regulations and restrictions on recreational pot will likely be similar to those they crafted for medical cannabis. The council voted 5-0 to direct staff to begin drafting ordinances that would allow limited personal indoor cultivation but ban outdoor personal cultivation as well as commercial land uses for cultivation, manufacturing, testing, and brick-and-mortar dispensaries.
"I think it's prudent to roll this out slowly, see what other communities are doing, and see what the state is going to do," said Councilmember Kristen Barneich. "This is all brand new."
The council also gave direction to staff that the recreational marijuana ordinance should allow for mobile delivery services. Based on the council's discussion, recreational delivery services will have to go through the same application process to get a permit from the city as their medical-oriented peers. If the ordinance were passed as currently suggested, the number of allowable delivery permits would remain at three total, regardless of whether they are medical or recreational.
Even if the city limits the amount of permits it is willing to hand out, it doesn't mean there will be less competition for the chosen companies. Councilmember Tim Brown questioned the effectiveness of the mobile dispensary permitting process as a whole, noting that there were multiple medical marijuana delivery services in the county that advertise delivery to Arroyo Grande despite the fact that they have no permit from the city to do so.
"There were close to 30 or 40 that were already delivering to our town, so the whole thing was kind of silly," Brown said.
Brown indicated that it was unlikely that the situation would change if the city required permits for recreational delivery services.
"I really question, in terms of staff time and effort and energy, whether we should be limiting three delivery services when we know that doesn't happen now," he said. "It's a complete farce. Whether I like it or not, that's the reality."
Gonzalez acknowledged that unpermitted deliveries by other companies were unlikely to stop; still, she said getting the city's blessing to operate was worth the time, effort, and expense of the application process, which offered her peace of mind and legitimized Elite Care's operations in the city.
"You can't put a price on that," Gonzalez said. Δ
Reach Staff Writer Chris McGuinness at.