Pot Clubs Purchase Police Oversight in Richmond 

The police department collects a quarter-million dollars in fees from dispensaries a year — and the system may provide a way to get police buy-in for legalizing weed.

California's medical marijuana system — badly in need of tighter regulations — won't get new rules this year, thanks to law enforcement officials who defeated such efforts in the state Assembly. "There is a reason that over 200 cities have ... bans on marijuana dispensaries — they create significant public safety and quality of life problems in communities," the California Narcotic Officers Association (CNOA) stated in its official opposition to the latest regulation bill.

But the CNOA's claims are inaccurate. Scores of cities have regulated clubs to reap tax revenue and boost public safety spending — and have not a suffered a crime wave as a result. Harborside Health Center sees 700 to 1,000 patients per day in Oakland and has had only one arrest in its entire history of operation — when the club turned away an unqualified patient and he got upset. San Francisco and Berkeley clubs haven't generated crime. And neither have Richmond's four permitted collectives. In a recent letter to the Richmond City Council, Police Chief Chris Magnus stated: "We have not seen spikes in crime in other areas where dispensaries are currently operating."

But what Richmond police have seen is a lot of money. According to an email Magnus sent to me, Richmond's four dispensaries have been a financial boon for the Richmond Police Department. Since May 2011, the clubs have paid $486,390 in police fees. Overall, the clubs have paid a total of $599,622 in fees to the city in that time. The total includes application review fees ($2,085 per application), application completion fees ($16,787 per application), and "quarterly permit fees" that are paid to the Richmond Police Department.

"The quarterly fees that are collected are used to help maintain the Regulatory Unit," Magnus explained in his email. "The Regulatory Unit of the Police Department handles education, oversight, and enforcement associated with the dispensaries as well as businesses that serve or sell alcohol, smoke-shops, taxicabs, and false alarms."

The fees were instated in May 2011 when the city received six dispensary applications, and by July 2012 there were six permitted collectives. In 2012, the clubs kicked in $266,730 to the RPD. In 2013, the RPD has collected $219,660 so far from four collectives (Green Remedy, Holistic Healing, 7 Stars, and Granddaddy Purple). A fifth collective, Greenheart, paid police fees as well, even though it had never opened its doors.

Greenheart's owners were paying "while they searched for a new site to locate to," Magnus added. "They paid until July 2013 when their proposed relocation was denied by the City."

And how are the CNOA's promised public safety problems going in Richmond? "According to the stats from our Crime Analysis Unit, there are no discernible increases or decreases in the crime rate that can be directly tied to any of the currently operating dispensaries," Magnus wrote in his email to me.

In other words, Richmond is a prime example of pot clubs doing the exact opposite of what police brass are telling lawmakers: They're not creating public safety problems. Instead, they're funding more cops. They're also boosting city sales tax revenues, while regulating access to weed — instead of sending patients to drug houses or open-air markets.

The Mendocino County Sheriff's Office collected more than $300,000 in medical garden fees, which it used to go after big, illicit growers, until the feds shut that program down earlier this year. Richmond police appears to be the only local force that is receiving public safety fees from clubs.

To some, this situation evokes a much more classic relationship between marijuana sellers and local law enforcement: the protection racket. In July, Richmond residents swatted down a proposed collective off Interstate 580 in a commercial area, even though the collective was going to pay for two full-time cops to patrol the neighborhood, at a total cost of $450,000 a year. According to a letter from Magnus to the council, two extra cops would have had a "meaningful impact" on public safety in the desolate area, which sees crimes of opportunity like car thefts and commercial burglaries.

But the Santa Fe Neighborhood Group wasn't interested in more police and tax revenue. "They saw it as, 'Oh you're being paid off," said Richmond Councilman Jael Myrick, referring to claims by members of the group about the city's interest in allowing the club to open in their neighborhood. In the end, the council voted down the pot club 4-3.

Although high police fees may look like a payoff to prohibitionists, Richmond's system for regulating medical cannabis dispensaries is not that surprising — and may offer a vision of the future. Cities extract all kinds of fees from businesses to mitigate impacts on things like water usage, traffic, and parking. Why not use pot fees to hire more cops?

Moreover, police stand to lose billions of dollars each year in federal grant money if marijuana laws are changed. And if Californians want to pass tighter regulations and institutionalize medical marijuana in the coming decades, they're going to need Big Police's approval or at least its tacit neutrality.

A long list of SoCal cop groups — including the Riverside Sheriffs Association and the Sacramento County Deputy Sheriffs Association — opposed tighter pot regulations this year. But notably missing were police departments in Northern California that have taxed and regulated the drug.

The promise of "fees" to offset police's shrinking drug war budgets might do the trick of convincing police groups to go along with regulation and, perhaps, even legalization. Don't think of it as a payoff; it's more like a drug warrior's golden parachute for a job that's well-done.

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