CA: Port Hueneme’s Marijuana Industry Has Left The Gate

Photo Credit: JUAN CARLO

Just over a week ago in an underutilized strip mall, Port Hueneme’s first cannabis shop quietly opened.

The business, Freedom First Association, is part of what city officials hope becomes a thriving industry, delivering much-needed revenue along with flowers, ointments and edibles.

No other city in Ventura County has opened its doors as wide as Port Hueneme has to cannabis operations. And property owners, investors and entrepreneurs are eager to get a share of the market.

So far, there are seven other businesses in the pipeline looking to sell, grow and/or manufacture the product, City Manager Rod Butler said.

The Tatums proudly boast a “family-run and -operated” business at Freedom First, 2675 Ventura Road. Oxnard resident Bob Tatum said he invested heavily in the operation, more than a year in the making. He helps run the business along with his son Mark Tatum, resident product expert. Bob’s wife, Pat Tatum, handles bookkeeping and is in reception, while Mark’s sister Laura Tatum works on inventory control.

The family spent much of late 2016 and all of 2017 in prep mode, tracking and weighing in on Port Hueneme’s medical marijuana ordinance, which went into effect in July. An updated ordinance regulating recreational use went into effect last month, although Butler said he doesn’t expect the first permit to be issued until at least June. Police want first to see what, if any, impacts medical marijuana-based businesses have on public safety.

Port Hueneme’s requirements include having a security guard present when a business is open, wide-ranging security measures inside and turning over 5 percent of all gross profits. That’s on top of the city’s 7.75 percent sales tax and the state’s 15 percent excise tax, which was added late last year to medical and recreational marijuana sales.

The Tatums are confident that people want a safe way to access marijuana and say they are keeping prices competitive. All of the store’s more than 400 products are laboratory-tested, and having so many security measures in place means no uncertainty or fear about who will show up at the door, Mark Tatum said.

Until the 2016 voter-approved measure that legalized recreational marijuana use for adults over age 21, most jurisdictions in Ventura County had largely banned cannabis activity.

Now, deliveries are allowed in Port Hueneme, Ojai, Camarillo and unincorporated parts of Ventura County, and Ventura and Oxnard are working on rules to allow deliveries to their cities. Thousand Oaks approved a medical marijuana retailer and an experimental testing facility.

Freedom First so far is the only place in the county that allows walk-in service. Ojai’s three medical marijuana establishments require an appointment, although as of Nov. 15, an appointment no longer needs to be made at least 24 hours in advance, city officials said.

Shangri La Care Cooperative President Jeff Kroll said he is glad to see other legal businesses up and running. Like Freedom First, Shangri La tests all of its products.

“The more we can get people to go to these regulated, permitted entities the more and more successful we will become in making our community safe and healthier,” he said.

A growing industry

In Port Hueneme, two other businesses have received local approval for medical marijuana dispensaries: the Hueneme Patient Co-Op and Safe Port Medical Cannabis Dispensary, both on the north side of West Channel Islands Boulevard.

Others are in varying stages of the application process: Emerald Perspectives at 100 N. Pleasant Valley Road, Cannabis Healing Center of Hueneme Beach at 521 W. Channel Islands Blvd., and Trade Craft Ventures at 2597 Bolker Drive. Trade Craft would do both retail sales and cultivation.

DBO Investments, which operates the From the Earth brand, has applied for both medical and recreational marijuana uses. It would operate at 2675 N. Ventura Road in the same building as Freedom First. Butler said ownership of the building changed after the Tatums had signed a lease to operate there.

The city is in exclusive negotiations to sell property it owns at 746 Industrial Way to Darvey Pharms. The company is looking to open an indoor cultivation and manufacturing facility. Officials had been talking to YiLo, which has operations in Arizona, but the sides couldn’t reach agreement on the building price.

Despite a lot of planned activity, the process has moved more slowly than the city thought it would. Butler said the city now expects $150,000 to $175,000 in revenue related to cannabis sales for the fiscal year that ends June 30. The original budget factored in about twice that.

Butler said he is hopeful Freedom First, which impressed him from a security standpoint as well as how open its owners have been accepting feedback, will help activate the strip mall, which had attracted vagrant and drug activity.

“They’ve been working with us rather than challenging the other requirements and the ordinance,” he said.

Bob and Mark Tatum said it was helpful to work with Police Chief Andrew Salinas, who they said went out of his way to understand the business and make suggestions on ways to improve the layout from a security standpoint.

A change in perspective

Bob Tatum’s path to owning a cannabis operation followed decades of being firmly against marijuana. In fact, more than a decade ago, he sent his son to rehab for using the plant.

Then, about a year after moving to Ventura County in 2009, Tatum’s brother got very sick. He had heart issues, a stroke, cancer. Bob moved his brother from Chicago and discovered he had become addicted to opioids. Often, he was incoherent. Mark Tatum had used marijuana for shoulder and a torn ACL, and he suggested that it might work for his uncle.

This is the part of the story where Bob Tatum gets emotional.

This is the part in his life where he began to believe cannabis could be healing. Desperate, he was willing to give it a shot. His brother protested.

“His first reaction was, ‘No way, that’s illegal,’” recalled Bob. But in California, it wasn’t actually, not for medical purposes. He agreed to a piece of a medical marijuana brownie.

Eventually, his brother got off opioids, Bob said, and began to be present again. It helped with the pain.

“My brother died, but he told me that these were the best years of his life,” Bob said.

Bob is hoping the state eventually changes its position on medical marijuana and removes the 15 percent excise tax.

“Our concern is the medical patient that we really don’t believe should be taxed as high as adult use,” he said.

Mark Tatum said his family is motivated by bringing a better quality of life for patients who receive relief from cannabis. Seniors and military veterans get a discount.

“We’re pretty proud,” Bob said. “What we really do believe is in helping the community.”