For years the only way to get marijuana was to grow it at home illegally or buy it on the black market. But today 205 million Americans live in a state where marijuana is legal for either recreational or medical use. Kristen Hwang, The Desert Sun
Desert Hot Springs, a windswept hamlet in the California desert 100 miles from Los Angeles, markets itself as a spa town — a laid-back complement to neighboring Palm Springs. Regionally, its reputation includes low rents and high crime rates, although residents with deep-seated community pride are quick to point out that the crime rate dropped 18 percent last year.
In October 2014, Desert Hot Springs became the first city in California to allow the commercial cultivation of marijuana. A flurry of land speculation began on the 1,400 acres open for growers. The city, on the brink of insolvency in 2013, boasted that it could double its $14 million budget on cultivation tax revenue alone.
Three years later, three facilities are operating. The harbingers of growth have arrived — a few dozen new jobs, a handful of professionals purchasing houses and nearly $1 million in tax revenue in city coffers this year.
But as marijuana has become part of Desert Hot Springs’ identity, unexpected coalitions have formed: The police chief sits on a board alongside a grower he tried to “squash” in a neighboring town. The cultivators sponsor Easter egg hunts and veterans’ memorials. Some have given money to the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post and offered donations to the police department.”It was not the adversarial situation that I thought it was going to be,” police Chief Dale Mondary said. “You realize, they’re trying to protect their product just like I’m trying to protect their product. But of course, I have a bigger, wider responsibility to the community as well.”
The interests align here’
What changed Monday’s mind about cultivators? Their professionalism, he said. Unlike the gray-market growers he’d dealt with in the Mojave desert, these businesses had plenty of capital and actually wanted to comply with the regulations Desert Hot Springs had created.
Elsasser said he “was sick of living in that gray area.” To operate more legally — complying with local and state regulations, if not federal ones — felt like a relief.
“I don’t want to say everybody’s getting together and singing kumbaya, but the interests align here,” said Daniel Yi, communications director for MedMen, a West Hollywood-based cannabis company aiming to open a cultivation facility in Desert Hot Springs in 2018. “If you want to be on the up-and-up, be a mainstream institutionalized industry, you need to work with the government. We are at a very important point in that evolution.”
‘We are normal like everybody else’
Matas, a Republican, was staunchly opposed to marijuana when he joined the city council in 2007. He said the drug destroyed a marriage in his family, but also helped ease the pain of a friend battling cancer.
Industry members, including Elsasser, expected Matas to oppose the cultivation ordinance council voted on in 2014. But he put the moral decision aside, he said and focused on the money.
The things we could do with that money, the cops and firefighters and streets, all the things we’ve had trouble financing in the past could really…” Matas trailed off. “We have parks that need to be built and more officers in the streets. There’s just so many things that we can do.”
And the cultivators have money. In addition to the nearly $1 million Matas estimated cultivators would pay in taxes in the fiscal year 2017, he thinks they’ve donated about $100,000 to community organizations, including nearly all the funding needed to bring the Moving Vietnam Wall, a memorial to Vietnam War veterans, to Desert Hot Springs in June.
“It’s no secret that the city has financially struggled,” Monday said. Traditionally, he explained, the city can’t afford Fourth of July fireworks, so local businesses sponsor them. When no one offered in 2016, the Cannabis Alliance Network threw a Fall Festival instead — bands, food, fireworks and no mention of marijuana.
“It was a great event that would not have existed if it wasn’t for CAN,” Monday said. “They’re getting involved in the community, and not just giving their money, but giving their time as well.”