Legal meets illegal as Vista’s first licensed marijuana dispensaries open for business

Bud tender Charles Jackson restocks shelves with marijuana merchandise at Tradecraft Farms on November 6, 2019 in Vista, California.
Bud tender Charles Jackson restocks shelves with marijuana merchandise at Tradecraft Farms on November 6, 2019 in Vista, California.
(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Court documents show that popular illegal location has popped up again and again

Though it is now legal to sell marijuana in Vista, that does not necessarily mean the illegal route has gone away.

On a recent weekday morning, customers trickled into the city’s first two licensed medical marijuana storefronts, while, just down the street, an unlicensed and illegal shop continued to flourish, sometimes drawing enough vehicles to require overflow parking.

One year after voters passed Measure Z, the local ballot initiative that allows up to 11 licensed medical marijuana shops in Vista for the first time in its history, the North County city continues to see significant unlicensed activity in a location that court records show has been able to re-open again and again despite receiving regular government cease-and-desist orders.

Open since mid-October, representatives of the first two licensed medical marijuana shops say that while they are excited about their new businesses, the early going has definitely been affected by the city’s long underground culture of illegal shops, which have regularly sprouted throughout the region, only to recede under waves of law enforcement raids, then sprout again once attention wanes.

Co-owner Jake Christman works at Flora Verde marijuana dispensary on November 6, 2019 in Vista, California.
Co-owner Jake Christman works at Flora Verde marijuana dispensary on November 6, 2019 in Vista, California.
(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Illegal shops, said Justin Christman, a Vista native and co-proprietor of Flora Verde, the city’s second medial marijuana shop to open under the new rules put in place by Measure Z, said there is no doubt that illegal shops are difficult competition. They don’t tend to charge taxes which, by city and state mandate, exceed 30 percent for anyone who buys from a licensed establishment.

“Our biggest issue is actually the illegal stores,” Christman said. “That, compounded with the fact that we’re medical only, means we get a lot of walk outs who just don’t want to go through the medical recommendation process, especially knowing that they don’t have to worry about it down the street.”

Mary Boyd, manager of Tradecraft Farms, the city’s first licensed establishment which opened on East Vista Way on Oct. 16, said that residents have definitely not adjusted to the notion that medical marijuana is the only type of cannabis that can be sold in Vista city limits.

“People are hesitant to get their medical cards because Vista has had all of these shops throughout the years that were just walk-in 21 and up,” Boyd said. “When we opened, it was kind of a big shock to people that they can’t just walk right in, they have to stop and do the whole process.”

In recent weeks, the most obvious illegal operation has been the minor tenant of a two-unit strip mall that has long housed a popular liquor store on South Santa Fe Avenue.

Though it is technically on county land, the building has a Vista address and an absolutely astounding history. Even though there is a long-standing moratorium on operating marijuana dispensaries that extends to every inch of unincorporated county ground, the operation has managed to thrive in plain sight for years.

Search warrants obtained by The San Diego Union-Tribune show that, even though county code enforcement officers first issued the property’s owner a cease-and-desist order in 2015, the operation has managed to keep its foothold in the same location, cycling through three different names during its tenure and shrugging off all attempts from law enforcement to keep it closed for good.

This is a the store front of an illegal marijuana dispensary at 1562 South Santa Fe Avenue on November 6, 2019 in Vista, California.
This is a the store front of an illegal marijuana dispensary at 1562 South Santa Fe Avenue on November 6, 2019 in Vista, California.
(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The situation clearly does not please San Diego County Supervisor Jim Desmond who said in an emailed statement last week that he is “completely opposed to illegal marijuana shops, especially with the recent uptick in deaths due to illicit drugs.”

About one week after the statement, the cat-and-mouse game came to a head at 1526 S. Santa Fe Ave. Thursday when deputies again shut the location down, seizing 80 pounds of marijuana products, between $7,000 and $10,000 in cash and citing six employees for marijuana possession for sale and operation of an illegal marijuana business, both misdemeanors.

Capt. Greg Rylaarsdam, the officer in charge of the Vista Sheriff’s Station, said Friday that while illegal pot shop activity in the city has slowed significantly since Measure Z passed last year, the South Santa Fe location has stubbornly persisted.

Businesses are so astoundingly profitable, he said, that operators tend to simply pay their fines and re-open.

“It is very frustrating that we do everything we can to shut these types of illegal businesses down, but they just end up coming back,” Rylaarsdam said. “It’s akin to a game of whack-a-mole, to some extent.”

Marijuana possession and use is treated less severely since voters approved its medical use in 1996 followed by approving recreational use in 2016. However, individual cities and counties can still use their zoning powers to bar setting up shop within their boundaries. Until Measure Z, that was the case in Vista, and it’s still the case in the county.

Law enforcement agencies throughout California have been shutting down illegal pot shops for years. In Vista, Rylaarsdam said, it was not long ago that shops were popping up in residential neighborhoods, eventually generating complaints from neighbors. In some cases, the captain said, deputies would work with the city’s public works department to turn off utilities to properties being used for illegal shops only to return days or weeks later and discover that the operation was up and running again using a generator.

In all cases, he said, it’s difficult to prove who is running illegal operations. All business is handled in cash, supplies are routinely removed every night and employees generally don’t disclose who’s paying them. At the end of the day, Rylaarsdam said, getting shut down, having merchandise and money seized and getting repeatedly fined or receiving misdemeanor citations is viewed as the cost of doing business.

“We are going into these places, and we’re taking their products, but they make so much money on the days that they are in existence that the losses are somewhat inconsequential,” Rylaarsdam said.

But while most of these fly-by-night businesses have gradually disappeared, some, like the shop on South Santa Fe, have continued to live like stubborn barnacles on boat bottoms.

Two warrants filed in early 2019 just before the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department raided the facility on two separate occasions show that the fierce demand for cheap cannabis has been stronger even than a dozen administrative citations, issued across a span of just five months, to the property’s owner in 2017 alone.

County code enforcement, search warrants indicate, first shut the shop — then operating under the name Tree House Collective — down in September 2018 after three straight years of cease-and-desist orders were ignored. But, just 10 days later, on Sept. 14, 2018, the shop was open again, this time under the name “Flower House.”

Search warrants served in January and February of 2019 not only seized cash, marijuana and other paraphernalia from the store, but an extensive investigation tracked organizers to a second illegally-operating shop called “Forever Green” in Fallbrook, and to the store-front on East Vista Way that now houses Tradecraft Farms, the city’s first licensed medical marijuana dispensary.

But the current connection between Tradecraft and the illegal shop on South Santa Fe is unclear.

The warrant’s probable cause statement indicates that the South Santa Fe property’s owner, identified as Adilla Sanchez, told an investigating deputy on Jan. 17 that “she was renting the property to a ‘Ron Walker’ for $1,200 a month.”

Sanchez did not respond to requests for comment on the assertions made in the warrant.

An email address for a Brent Walker, not Ron Walker, appears on the formal city application for 732 E. Vista Way, the location of Tradecraft Farms.

In an email response to questions about the operation, Brent Walker said that Ron Walker is is his father. But he declined to say whether he knows who operates the illegal enterprise.

“I’ve heard that we are the owners. I’ve heard it’s Armenian Mafia, I’ve heard it’s the cartel, I’ve heard other local peoples’ names as well,” Brent Walker said.

The Walker name is very well known in the cannabis world. Brothers Brent and Barry Walker are the founders of Los Angeles-based Dub Bros., an organization that lists on its website an 80,000-square-foot manufacturing and cultivation facility in Lancaster, 50 acres of “fully entitled cultivation” in Coachella and many retail locations in California and Oklahoma among its assets. Dub Bros. also isn’t shy about its work in Vista, stating on its website that it “authored the successful measure Z in Vista, CA and one of the license holders with our popular Treehouse collective.”

In his email, Brent Walker did make it clear, however, that Tradecraft Farms is a separate entity “only supplied by distributors licensed by the Bureau of Cannabis Control and operating in compliance with Bureau of Cannabis Control regulations.”

And, visiting the location on East Vista Way, that does appear to be the case. The dispensary, which has a clean, white and minimal vibe similar to an Apple store, does have a state license, a business license from the city and security at its entrance to make sure that only those with valid medical marijuana prescriptions can buy products that range from vape cartridges to edibles.

Legally, it really doesn’t matter whether or not the owner of a licensed shop previously operated an illegal storefront. Measure Z, as a “frequently asked questions” list posted on the city’s website attests, “does not permit the city to take those prior illegal actions into account when issuing licenses.”

An emailed joint statement by the Sheriff’s Department, district attorney’s office and code enforcement department said that deputies made three arrests when the property was shut down in February, but the District Attorney’s Office did not move forward with any charges. The statement indicates that the details of the arrests were reviewed, but the DA’s office “declined to file charges at that time citing an inability to prove them beyond a reasonable doubt.” A separate statement said the county could not simply seize the property because “there is no authority to seize a building for a code compliance violation.”