The impacts that commercial cannabis in Lompoc will have on public safety, the local business community and the local economy were among a range of topics explored Thursday during a forum hosted by the Lompoc Valley Chamber of Commerce.

The Cannabis Conversation,” held in a ballroom at the Hilton Garden Inn, drew about 85 attendees. During the event, audience members were able to submit questions to a seven-person panel that included representatives from the city’s planning, police and fire departments, as well as a local attorney well versed in cannabis regulations, and the president of the Lompoc Valley Cannabis Association.

Among the popular topics during the discussion was the effect that the emerging industry could have on public safety.

Lompoc Police Capt. Joe Mariani said he was hopeful that there wouldn’t be a significant increase in crime related to marijuana businesses, but he cautioned that other cities have experienced such issues. In particular, he said, the “cash only” nature of the industry is concerning because it could lead would-be criminals to target cannabis businesses.

“We would like to think that those who are involved in the business are going to be legitimate and run good operations, but we always have to be concerned about the criminal element,” Mariani said. “I don’t want to be a fearmonger, but if you have a business where that kind of cash is going to be there, you have to have good security measures in place. We hope to work hand in hand with the cannabis community to make sure that we can do the most to promote public safety, because at the end of the day that’s our primary concern.”

Dena Pashke, the city’s fire marshal and a battalion chief with the Lompoc Fire Department, also stressed that need for a partnership between industry stakeholders and public safety officials. Pashke noted that some restrictions, like the six-plant limit for residences, are rooted in keeping residents safe, since too many plants indoors can lead to mold spores that can cause illnesses.

Pashke said she was particularly looking forward to working with professionals performing things like cannabis extraction techniques in safe, professional settings.

“If you’re [having] legitimate businesses that have laboratories and are protected by fire sprinklers with Ph.D.s and chemists doing the experiments and basically cooking what they need to cook professionally, we are going to take out some of the element that are doing it illegally in homes,” she said. “So from a fire response, I would like to go to less butane explosions in residences that are causing great bodily harm and exposing our first responders. This business, legitimizing it, can remove some of that risk.”

Lompoc Fire Chief Gerald Kuras, who was also on the panel, agreed.

“We gotta get rid of the do-it-yourselfers; that’s one of our biggest problems,” Kuras said. “Just recently, in the last month, we’ve had two honey oil explosions here in the Lompoc Valley. Those are the things that we’ve got to stop.”

The panelists also touched on some of the aspects of the state and city cannabis regulations, such as the fact that people are allowed to be in possession of legally acquired cannabis, though it is only allowed to be smoked publicly in areas where cigarettes are allowed.

People who are found to be causing trouble while under the influence of marijuana in public will be treated much the same as people who are causing problems publicly while under the influence of alcohol, Mariani said.

It was also asked during the forum whether the city had considered a cannabis business zone, similar to the so-called Wine Ghetto in east Lompoc.

Lompoc Planning Manager Brian Halvorson said that hadn’t been formally addressed, but he noted that the applications were suggesting that a high concentration of the industry could be developing on the northwest portion of the city, off Central Avenue.

Kuras said that he talked with public safety leaders in other cities last year and many of them recommended limiting cannabis businesses and having a specified cannabis zone, so as to keep a better handle on cannabis-related activity.

Lompoc did neither of those things.

Several questions at the forum were also related to the commercial cannabis licensing process and how land-use issues are settled.

Halvorson addressed several of those concerns. He noted that the city has a map showing all of the areas where commercial cannabis businesses are and aren’t allowed, due to things like schools and youth centers requiring, at a minimum, 600-foot buffer exclusion zones.

One audience member asked how an issue would be settled if, for example, a youth center relocated to an area where a cannabis business was being planned but was still in the application process and not yet licensed.

Halvorson noted that those types of disputes, in general, would be settled on a first-come, first-served basis — meaning the business with a license would take precedence — but he said that specific issues might have to be vetted by the city’s legal team.

That “jockeying for position,” as he phrased it, has been a challenge over the past year, he said.

Al Johnson, the city’s building services manager, reinforced early in the discussion that the city aims to treat commercial cannabis the same as it would any other industry. He said that the influx of cannabis applications indicates a rising economic tide in the city.

“Fortunately ... we are extremely busy and things are looking way up in the city of Lompoc,” he said.

John de Friel, president of the Lompoc Valley Cannabis Association, outlined some of the ways that the 8-month-old trade organization has helped shape the local industry. That included its work with the city this past November that led to the City Council agreeing to issue letters in support of temporary state licenses, which were needed for any business to open its doors in Lompoc in 2019.

Lompoc’s first retail cannabis storefront, a dispensary, is scheduled to open Friday at 423 W. Ocean Ave.

Local attorney Rob Traylor, who said he has advised clients within the industry, also provided insight into the state and local regulations.

He pointed out that business owners, and would-be business owners, have faced many challenges, considering the ever-changing landscape of the industry, the fluid nature of the local zoning maps, and the difficulties of dealing with banks, among others.

De Friel added to that late in the meeting when he pointed out, from his own experience as a business owner, that the cannabis industry is not recognized as legal on the federal level, but that the federal government taxes it more than any other.

The forum was held, according to Lompoc Chamber President/CEO Amber Wilson, to educate the community and clear up any misconceptions that may be perpetuating within the community and/or on social media regarding the cannabis industry.

Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.

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