HESPERIA • Aggressive efforts to chase off medical marijuana dispensaries are working, local officials say.
At least 27 dispensaries and collectives across the Victor Valley have closed their doors over the past two years, according to figures provided by local cities and San Bernardino County.
There are still some 24 pot shops scattered between Hesperia, Victorville, Apple Valley and the unincorporated county areas.
With so much gray area between state law legalizing medical marijuana and federal law prohibiting marijuana use of any kind, initially local governments were slow to move on kicking out the marijuana-related storefronts, with city councils passing bans but not actively pursuing violators.
Despite a refusal to issue them business licenses, Hesperia had 19 known dispensaries within city limits in December 2010, when it began what Hesperia city spokeswoman Kelly Malloy called "aggressive enforcement" of the local business code. Medical marijuana dispensaries and collectives are explicitly prohibited by Hesperia's business code.
"Not only are we holding the business responsible for complying with the business code, but we're also holding the property owner responsible," Malloy said. "The property owners are being held accountable, as if the violations were their own."
That means a series of escalating fines that top out at $1,500 a day. Some collectives have accumulated more than 85 violations.
It seems to have worked: As of April 17, there were only two dispensaries left within Hesperia city limits, according to officials, for the most dramatic local drop.
"The goal is to have none," Malloy said.
Hesperia isn't alone in its success in driving off medical marijuana collectives and dispensaries.
San Bernardino County, which is also issuing fines, is now aware of 12 dispensaries in unincorporated areas, down 18 from about a month ago, according to David Wert, spokesman for San Bernardino County.
Though Proposition 215 legalized medical marijuana and authorized the creation of collectives — nonprofit groups comprised only of caregivers who grow the plant and doctor-approved patients who reimburse them — the vague 1996 ballot measure did not preclude local governments from zoning the collectives as desired.
"Dispensaries that once seemed defiant about obeying the law and respecting their communities seem to be realizing that they were wrong in assuming that Prop. 215 allowed them to do anything they wanted," Wert said.
Adelanto City Manager Jim Hart said his city was successful in shutting one dispensary down.
"Based on the impact to the owner of his experience in Adelanto, I don't think anyone else is planning to open one," Hart said.
In March, Apple Valley pointedly told the town's medical marijuana dispensaries they weren't wanted.
"We ... issued them cease and desist letters," said Jim Anderson, the head of code enforcement for the town. "We had seven dispensaries (as of February) and we currently have four operating."
Victorville Code Enforcement is aware of six facilities operating illegally within city boundaries, city spokeswoman Monica Petersen said.
"Code enforcement has issued orders to the property owners and business owners to cease and desist," she said. "Most have been responsive and are taking proper actions."
The dispensaries aren't all going down without a fight, however. The city of Hesperia is currently in litigation with several dispensaries, Malloy said, and a new dispensary is planned for First Avenue.
"We have code enforcement looking into it and informing them that medical marijuana is not a permitted business within the city of Hesperia and they are not permitted to open their doors," Malloy said.
A.J. Shaw, chief executive officer of High Desert Compassionate Collective, the collective seeking to open, said a Feb. 29 decision by the Fourth District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana gives him a clear path to opening in Hesperia. The judge in that case ruled the city of Lake Forest could not ban medical marijuana dispensaries.
"Now, if (Hesperia) did actually fine me, I would actually be able to sue them," Shaw said.
But he says that he'd rather work with officials.
"We're the only ones up here who offer free services for those who are terminally ill," Shaw said. "We'd really like to work with (the city) and hopefully pick out a spot and open with their blessing. Because they don't really have a choice."
Beau Yarbrough may be reached at (760) 956-7108 or at beau@HesperiaStar.com. Follow us on Facebook at Facebook.com/Hesperia.Star.