In December 2019, The Artist Tree won the first cannabis retail license in unincorporated Riverside County.

On Friday, October 8th of this year, the Highgrove Store made district history again, this time as the first cannabis retail store to open in an unincorporated community.

Three years after the board of directors approved a regulatory framework for legal cannabis trafficking, the expected wave of pharmacies in unincorporated areas has yet to occur in light of changing regulations, a lengthy approval process and the coronavirus pandemic.

“The county had a rush of eager green entrepreneurs when applications were accepted,” Supervisor Kevin Jeffries said via email. “However, the green gold rush seems to have turned into an expensive and lengthy labyrinth to open their business doors.”

  • Lauren Fontein, co-founder of The Artist Tree, displays marijuana goods ahead of the cannabis dispensary opening in Highgrove on Friday, October 8, 2021. The Artist Tree is the first licensed cannabis dispensary to open in unincorporated Riverside County. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise / SCNG)

  • Marijuana clones are seen on a shelf during final preparations for The Artist Tree in Highgrove to open on Friday October 8, 2021. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise / SCNG)

  • General Manager Christian Kent is arranging art exhibitions before The Artist Tree retail cannabis pharmacy opens in Highgrove on Friday, October 8, 2021. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise / SCNG)

  • Artwork is displayed and sold in The Artist Tree’s retail cannabis pharmacy in Highgrove. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise / SCNG)

  • Kenny Perez, Vice President of Operations at The Artist Tree, is planting marijuana buds in a pod ahead of the retail cannabis pharmacy grand opening in Highgrove on Friday, October 8, 2021. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise / SCNG)

  • Frank Carrillo, a Stiiizy sales rep, showcases Stiiizy products ahead of the grand opening of The Artist Tree retail cannabis pharmacy on Friday October 8, 2021 in Highgrove. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise / SCNG)

  • Staff put out displays ahead of The Artist Tree’s grand opening on Friday, October 8, 2021. The Highgrove facility is Riverside County’s first licensed retail cannabis pharmacy. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise / SCNG)

That’s not to say the county’s cannabis users have nowhere legal to go. Cities like Moreno Valley and Perris have legal pharmacies, and home delivery of cannabis is available online.

The district government has land use powers in communities that are not officially part of a city. In October 2018 – about two years after California voters legalized recreational marijuana use – regulators voted 3-2 to open the door to cannabis companies after months of public contributions and work by the county planners.

The county framework, which included rules dictating how pharmacies work and where they could go – the Temecula Valley Wine Country, for example, is off limits – invited applicants to submit proposals for pharmacies and other cannabis businesses. Officials received 119 responses and 69 of them were given the green light to move forward in the approval process.

So far, the county has approved about 20 cannabis projects for unincorporated areas, including pharmacies and “micro-businesses” that combine retail, distribution and cultivation, said district spokeswoman Brooke Federico via email.

Several are expected to be ready by the end of the year, she said, adding that about 45 more cannabis projects are in the planning pipeline.

The Artist Tree, which has two locations in Los Angeles and a store in West Hollywood, submitted plans in April 2019 to convert an empty building on Iowa Avenue into a store selling cannabis and original artwork. Among other things, The Artist Tree had to submit a detailed safety plan and negotiate a development contract with the district’s lawyers.

The planning commission approved the application in November 2019 and the five supervisors unanimously approved it a month later. The artist tree presented its construction plans shortly before the outbreak of the pandemic in early 2020.

COVID-19 “threw everything off balance,” said Lauren Fontein, co-founder of The Artist Tree, via email.

The county approved the construction plans “after many months in limbo,” but a problem discovered during the demolition forced changes, Fontein said.

“Riverside County wasn’t set up to operate remotely, and it took time for everyone in the county to learn how to use the new online system,” she said. “To make matters worse, since the district offices closed, we haven’t been able to reach anyone by phone or visit in person to solve problems when we run into roadblocks.”

It took about eight weeks for the plans to be approved again, after which construction resumed, Fontein said. The artist tree also required permits from the fire, construction and security, planning, waste resources, transportation and environmental health departments, and the state water board, as well as permits from the state cannabis control department, among other things.

“Dealing with so many people to ensure compliance was logistically challenging and time consuming,” she said. “Getting all of this paperwork done while getting ready for a retail store, hiring staff and sourcing products was no easy task and explains why” The Artist Tree is about to open.

When Riverside County first began accepting applications for cannabis business licenses, officials used a scores-based system to evaluate the proposals, with the applications with the highest scores moving on.

Courtney Caron, a Santa Monica-based attorney specializing in cannabis licenses, said the board of directors “saw the performance-based process through, but months later it opened license applications to anyone who wanted to apply, regardless of whether he took part in it ”. in the performance-oriented process or not. “

“Several performance-based license winners protested this change in fairness to the previously implemented process,” she added.

The abolition of the benefit system also wiped out applicants’ carefully calculated business plans, which were based on a limited number of competitors, said Caron.

“When the number of competitors suddenly becomes infinite, you don’t know what your profit margin will be.”

Negotiations on development agreements also take a long time, and no two pharmacy agreements are the same, said Caron. It can also take multiple public meetings to approve a project, and getting on the planning committee and board of directors’ calendar can be challenging, she said.

The pandemic also made it difficult to get required documents notarized, she said. For example, a pharmacy landlord refused to meet in person to sign documents, Caron said. Some planners or regulators would ask why an applicant didn’t meet with them in person to discuss plans, but applicants were told these one-on-one interviews were not available, she said.

Despite the problems, Caron credits Riverside County with being one of the first counties to put rules in place for cannabis companies, and she said those problems weren’t unique to the county.

“Is it done perfectly? Can I really blame them? Not really, because no one got it perfect, “she said, adding that while West Hollywood came close,” no city or county has seamlessly managed to accommodate all of the problems that might arise. “

Caron hopes the licensing process for cannabis companies in unincorporated Riverside County will be easier to use in the future.

“I could imagine things going a little smoother for others because the people who work at the administrative level know what to expect,” she said. “The planning commission has set standards” that others should follow.