Medical cannabis delivery businesses are coming to Visalia whether they’re wanted or not.
State Law Demands New City Code
Forced into action by the Medicinal Cannabis Patients’ Right of Access Act – a state-level law going into effect on January 1 – the Visalia City Council unanimously OK’d changes to several city ordinances in a vote on November 8. The additions to and alterations of city codes – the sections dealing with zoning, health and safety, and business regulation – finally opens the door to cannabis businesses inside the city limits after decades of resistance.
However, the code changes only allow for cannabis sales by delivery for doctor-approved medical use. Storefront sales and sales for recreational use remain prohibited in Visalia.
Allowing cannabis businesses to operate in Visalia rankled some members of the council, and perhaps for good reason. While the new right-of-access law ensures cannabis is available for patients who’ve been directed to use it by their doctors, it strips away the ability of counties and cities to decide if such businesses belong in their communities.
Recreational and medical cannabis delivery services operating outside the city already make regular deliveries to customers in town, a practice that has been ongoing for years with little or no reaction from city officials until now. It’s the loss of sovereignty that seems more problematic for council members than having cannabis businesses operating in Visalia.
“In my personal opinion, it’s Sacramento’s overreach into the operation of local municipalities and the jurisdiction of the local municipality,” said Councilman Steve Nelsen.
Yet he acknowledges the need for the city to act. If Visalia’s city code weren’t updated to comply, City Hall could become the target of lawsuits from medical cannabis users, their caregivers and even the State’s Attorney General.
“I understand the reason why we need to go down this path,” Nelsen said.
Changes Avoid Lawsuits
The new set of city codes represents a modernization by city leaders, not a change in officials’ attitude about cannabis sales. City staff members tasked with reworking the codes aimed only to avoid future legal headaches in crafting the changes.
“We do have language on the books that essentially says you’re not allowed to operate a cannabis storefront or any type of business that sells cannabis,” said Paul Bernal, Visalia’s community development director. “Because of this newly enacted law, we do have to clean that up to recognize the delivery only of medical cannabis.”
The Medicinal Cannabis Patients’ Right of Access Act was approved by the state legislature in 2022, only taking effect at the start of next year.
“Once it’s in effect, it prohibits local agencies from enforcing any local regulations prohibiting the retail sale by delivery of medical cannabis,” Bernal said.
The changes to the Visalia City Code will be official after an affirming vote by the council that is expected in December. Without changes to the city code, the city would be subject to the state’s default regulations.
“Without having anything on the books, we would be subject to the state requirements,” Bernal said.
Cannabis Businesses Restricted to Industrial Areas
If medical cannabis delivery services decide to come to town now that local law allows them, they’ll face a tight set of operating rules.
Before potential delivery businesses even open their doors, they’ll be required to file site plans describing how their facilities will meet city requirements. Plans on how they’ll provide security will also have to be presented for city approval.
Once in business, medical cannabis delivery vehicles will have to be inspected by the city to receive operating permits. Those who own the businesses and their delivery drivers will be subject to background checks, and the city will, of course, require all appropriate licenses to operate from the state.
The businesses will also be required to keep the smell of cannabis confined.
Besides those restrictions, medical cannabis delivery services will be treated the same as any other delivery business, such as UPS or FedEx, Bernal said. That’s one of the reasons why the newly adjusted city code does not address when medical cannabis delivery can take place.
“We didn’t identify hours of operation because we don’t dictate that for warehouse distribution facilities,” Bernal said. “That was something we didn’t feel was necessary given that it’s a warehouse distribution service, so it’d be no different than how that would operate.”
Preserving Patients’ Rights
The other – and more important – reason the city chose not to restrict hours of operation is the state law doesn’t allow them to.
That loss of local control was a point of contention for Vice Mayor Brett Taylor.
“For me it’s kind of particular. It’s a retail product, but then you can order it at any time – midnight, four in the morning,” he said. “This sounds a little peculiar that it’s a retail product you can order 24 hours a day and have it delivered 24 hours a day. I just think that’s a little bizarre.”
He voiced displeasure at the state removing the council’s say-so.
“If they’re making deliveries all night long, there’s nothing we can do about it,” Taylor said.
The city is also prohibited from dictating the wording and imagery cannabis outlets will display to the public. The issue is essentially one of protected speech.
“Under a (legal) ruling, we can’t look at the content of the sign,” Bernal said. “We’ve just got to make sure it meets the sign criteria, which is the overall area of the sign.”
Mayor Brian Poochigian was specifically worried about businesses using iconic cannabis leaves in their public signage.
“So they can put anything they want on the sign,” he said. “We can’t control what they put on it.”
Cannabis Businesses Only Allowed in Industrial Zones
If medical cannabis delivery services do make Visalia their base of operations, they’ll have to find space in the city’s industrial and light industrial zones. Those are mostly restricted to the northwest portion of the city.
While allowing them in mixed-use commercial zones was considered, the option was left out of the final wording. Specifically, city leaders want to keep cannabis businesses out of areas like East Main Street and Ben Maddox Road. The city council even toyed briefly with the idea of an established cannabis district, much like the brewing district downtown.
Community development director Bernal said the city’s industrial zones are the best place for cannabis delivery businesses.
“The use itself, based on how they’re to operate, not allowing the general public to enter these types of facilities, in addition to not being able to have a retail storefront with them, they’re operating no different than a traditional warehouse distribution facility,” he said.
The city’s cannabis businesses will not be allowed to grow cannabis. Their facilities must have 7-foot-tall security fences, and the public will not be allowed to visit them. Enforcing the new code will be the job of the Visalia Police Department.
No Cannabis Business Near Schools
Keeping a set distance from schools will also be a limiting factor in where cannabis businesses will be allowed.
“This is the same tactic we used when looking at tobacco-use stores,” Bernal said of the setback requirement.
Cannabis businesses will not be allowed to operate within 500 feet of a school. This is a smaller setback than required for tobacco stores, an allowance made because these businesses will not be open to the public.
“Looking at the context we’ve identified in allowing a business to operate there (in industrial zones), it’s pretty discrete and, again, it limits the access into these facilities based on who’s allowed to be in there,” Bernal said.
Staff considered larger exclusion zones of 750 and 1,000 feet from schools, but enlarging the buffers presents another problem. If the buffer zones are too big, then too much of the city’s light industrial zones would be excluded. And that could lead to charges the city isn’t complying with the new access law.
“The 500-foot buffer allows for more of the light-industrial land to be looked at (for cannabis business use) and, again, giving ample opportunity so that no one can say that the city was enacting rules that would prohibit the use going into the actual location that otherwise should work, given how they operate,” Bernal said.
City Can’t Restrict Number of Cannabis Businesses
Ensuring ample room in the city for medical cannabis delivery services to do business is another effect of the state law; local leaders are not allowed to limit how many of these businesses open in their towns and counties.
It’s because City Hall doesn’t know how many companies may want to open in Visalia that the city council decided to allow cannabis delivery services to operate in both industrial and light-industrial zones.
“By restricting to a single zone, the number of applicants could exceed the available area,” Bernal said. “The state law prohibits restricting the number of businesses that may offer cannabis delivery.”
While the city council’s preliminary adoption of the changes to city code last month during a so-called “first reading” means they will almost certainly become law, the new regulations are not yet in effect. The final approval will likely happen during the council’s next regularly scheduled meeting at 7 p.m. on Monday, December 18.