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SLO County Planning Commission approves Ethnobotanica's Nipomo medical marijuana dispensary

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Visions of gun-toting gangsters didn’t deter the SLO County Planning Commission from approving the permit for Ethnobotanica’s brick-and-mortar medical marijuana dispensary in Nipomo, but it did stimulate a scintillating discussion about crime and business.

Ethnobotanica would be the county’s only operating brick-and-mortar dispensary, unless it gets appealed to the Board of Supervisors, which is likely. The last dispensary approved by the Planning Commission in 2012 for Oceano was appealed to supervisors, who overturned the commission’s decision.

Talk of armed robbery consumed much of the July 9 hearing just as it did at a South County Advisory Council meeting earlier this year. It was one big reason why the council voted to recommend disapproval of the project. One point of contention: Should security guards patrolling the dispensary be armed? Ethnobotanica’s extensive security plan, which includes electronic key card, members-only access to the building and its multiple rooms; 24-hour live-streaming surveillance; and a security guard on premises during open hours, calls for that guard to be unarmed.

Nipomo residents such as Hans Hanson had an issue with the dispensary’s proximity to Santa Maria, which he characterized as a mecca of crime. The dispensary would be located on Hutton Ranch Road near the intersection of highways 101 and 166, just north of Santa Maria.

“Go across the bridge and you are in Santa Maria. Santa Maria has lots of gangs, and the guards won’t have any weapons,” he said during the meeting. “All you need is a couple of bad guys with guns.”

Jim Harrison—the planning commissioner for the 4th District, which includes Nipomo, who was the sole vote against the dispensary’s minor use permit—echoed the sentiments of his constituents.

He questioned Mike Garipee with Bomar Security, a Santa Maria-based company working with Ethnobotanica, asking him what his unarmed guard would do if three armed men attacked the dispensary.

“What are you going to do with armed people?” Harrison asked.

“Well, we’re going to do what a bank would,” Garipee responded, adding that the goal is to limit harm in a situation like that: Keep people safe by giving the robbers what they want and later reporting the incident to police.

During a presentation at the hearing, Ethnobotanica co-founder Stephanie Kiel referred to several studies, including one from UCLA, that didn’t correlate a storefront dispensary with increases in crime. Although, she added that it’s pretty easy to anecdotally link the two.

“If you Google ‘medical marijuana robbery,’ you will find one, but if you also Google ‘toy store robbery,’ you will also find one,” she told the commission. 

Those comments didn’t sit well with Harrison—who must have Googled the former. He listed off a couple of violent incidents involving armed robbery at medical marijuana dispensaries. In February, a security guard was shot and killed during the robbery of a San Bernardino dispensary. According to KTLA Channel 5 news, the incident involved a shoot-out inside the dispensary, where an armed security guard returned fire on the robbers. 

“So when they say there isn’t crime associated with dispensaries, I have a problem with that,” Harrison said. 

To which 3rd District Commissioner Eric Meyer replied: “I would counter that the same thing could be said about banks.”

“Absolutely,” Harrison said.

  “And I don’t necessarily want to discontinue the use of banks,” Meyer said. “The same thing could be said about sandal shops. In San Luis Obispo, there was a woman in a sandal shop that was accosted by someone, and so it is a debatable subject.” 

Traffic on Hutton Ranch Road is apparently also a debatable subject, with residents who sit in traffic daily around commute time butting up against a traffic study conducted by county planning staff and Caltrans. The study says that the dispensary would add 10 to 12 trips a day during peak traffic hours, which Caltrans and planning staff concluded was insignificant and wouldn’t add much more delay to what’s already occurring. 

Other issues brought up by Nipomo residents, who were pretty much the only anti-dispensary advocates speaking during public comment, included the dispensary’s proximity to Costa Pacifica Estates, a housing development on the hill above the Santa Maria Speedway. Homeowners made the argument that the development was within 1,000 feet of the dispensary, saying it should be included in the county ordinance that precludes marijuana dispensaries from setting up shop within 1,000 feet of parks or schools. Planning staff told commissioners that the closest residential lot is 1,200 feet away from the site, so the ordinance wouldn’t apply either way. 

Commission Chair Ken Topping, from the 2nd District, summed up the feeling of pro-dispensary public speakers, who said SLO County needed a safe place for medical cannabis patients to purchase their medicine. One mother said although delivery services, such as what Ethnobotanica already operates, were great, sometimes her son needed different items than what a driver was allowed or able to bring to her house. 

“I personally feel that there is a need for facilities like this, and as a county, we need to try and find a way to make them available,” Topping said.

Even though the commission approved the dispensary’s permit, attorney Louis Koory with the Mission Law Center, which represents Ethnobotanica, told New Times the fight’s not over yet, and they’re expecting an appeal. But he’s sure the dispensary will prevail.

“We’ve always been confident that the project will be approved at all levels,” he said.

Editor Camillia Lanham can be reached at clanham@newtimesslo.com.

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