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California on cannabis: how Imperial County embraced Prop 64

Special Report: California on Cannabis

IMPERIAL COUNTY, Calif. - Not too long ago buying recreational marijuana was considered a crime. What most people don't know is that before a retailer gets licensed by California to sell recreational marijuana, they need to get approval from their city or county.

So far, none of the cities in Imperial County have allowed recreational marijuana dispensaries. In fact, prop 64 failed to pass here – 51% voted no.

El Centro does have a number of deliver services, but they’re operating without the city’s approval. But that doesn't mean marijuana is completely illegal in the valley – Imperial and Calexico do allow medicinal marijuana.

In Calexico, for example, you're allowed to grow marijuana for commercial purposes but dispensaries or selling marijuana within city limits is prohibited. If Calexico was the first city to open its doors to medicinal marijuana, it may be the first to welcome recreational marijuana - and that may just be a matter of time.

“We're trying to get five permits for businesses that deliver recreational marijuana,” said Calexico council member Armando Real. “It's a black market, making it a true market and taxing it, where now we can use those revenues."

Imperial has approved an ordinance that would allow for one medicinal marijuana dispensary. But – like much of California - local communities are still reluctant in welcoming recreational marijuana into their neighborhoods.

"I don't see them in Imperial, it's not the vision of the city council to have recreational dispensaries in this city," said Imperial City Manager Stefan Chatwin.

If recreational marijuana in Imperial County has made some progress since the passing of Prop 64, that would be in the eight unincorporated areas where the county itself has jurisdiction – like Niland, Winterhaven and Heber.

The county will be giving out five permits for non-storefront dispensaries – allowing only for the delivery of recreational marijuana. They'll be accepting applications till February 16th.

But at the end of the day, if not much has changed when it comes to recreational marijuana in Imperial County, the same goes for Border Patrol – the main federal law enforcement in our area.

“Marijuana on a federal level is still an illegal narcotic,” said El Centro Sector Border Patrol Agent Justin Castrejon.

So keep that in mind when going through the federal checkpoints in our area.

“I wouldn't consider it reasonable for a person to go through a border patrol immigration checkpoint and believe that their marijuana won't get seized," Castrejon added.

There’s also a lot of concern on the action taken by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who rescinded a policy that protected states where marijuana is legal from federal prosecution. This means that federal prosecutors can enforce federal law everywhere – even in California.

If the federal government wanted to shut down the five non-storefront dispensaries expected in the unincorporated areas, they could legally do that.

At least here in Imperial County, that's not something retailers should be worried about. Border Patrol's top responsibility is securing the border – and not cracking down on recreational marijuana.

“Drug seizures are a secondary effect to our immigration operations,” Castrejon said.

As of now, the closest recreational marijuana dispensaries are in San Diego and Palm Springs.


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