Southern California’s Little Green Lighthouse
Written by Paul Pot
Port Hueneme, a small but significant port city located in Ventura County, California wants to become their region’s little green lighthouse that could.
The city is located halfway between Santa Barbara’s posh confines (an hour’s drive to the north), and Malibu, (a similar distance to the south along an incredibly scenic stretch of California Highway 1). The city’s name is derived from Spanish for “resting place,” a rather serendipitous term for a budding, canna-business haven.
Though its recently earned the nickname, “Pot Hueneme,” this city isn’t necessarily bonkers for cannabis. There is, however, an exemplary spirit of cooperation among its open-minded city council, eager to find new revenue for a small town of about 20,000; a family-owned-and-operated debut collective who are doing it for all the right reasons; and a chief of police who works hand-in-hand with the community. Together they are determined to set the right example for medical cannabis businesses before rolling out recreational cannabis sales this summer.
The Port of Hueneme was completed in 1940, and is the only deep-water port on the coast between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It is also the only Navy controlled harbor between San Diego Bay and the Puget Sound in Washington.
A wide variety of imported goods arrive here, destined for all parts of California and beyond. Some common products coming through are automobiles, bananas, strawberries, and flowers. Now they are ready to add cannabis to the local cash flow. Known as the “Friendly City By The Sea” they are surrounded by the Port Hueneme Naval Base and the city of Oxnard, California. But they are determined to carve out their own identity.
City councilman, Jonathan Sharkey, was a supporter of the city’s action to permit licensed collectives and businesses. “Port Hueneme is limited in the types of revenue we can generate. We’ve had some interesting characters show up here (since passing the local legislation) making all sorts of promises about the revenue they could generate,” he added, “I regarded these with some skepticism.”
Sharkey believes “the applicants who have made it through our permitting system are quality operators. Right now, being early out of the gate we are in a boom phase,” he explained. “I expect things to settle down. I am not looking at cannabis as a magic bullet.” Rather, he said he sees it as an industry that wants to come to town and be a stable part of the community.
He finds the other city council members somewhat divided. “From what I’ve seen we’ve got a spectrum of opinions from adamant opposition to unequivocal support,” he stated.
The city opened the doors on it’s first licensed cannabis collective on February 3, 2018 — SkunkMasters — a true family-run establishment. Located behind a strip mall at 2675 Ventura Road, the business is owned and operated by the Tatum family. Bob Tatum, entrepreneur and manager, is the mastermind, while his son, Mark, is the resident expert in goods and services. Bob’s wife, Pat, takes care of bookkeeping and Mark’s sister, Laura, handles inventory control. Each brought prior skills to the table along with some real dedication and persistence to become the city’s first licensed collective.
For those who think this process is easy, Bob said that, “Port Hueneme put a comprehensive ordinance in place that exceeded state regulations. We had to work through both state and local regulations and we had to provide a mountain of applications,” which he described as a 4,000 page document. “It’s a highly detailed process plus employing accountants, lawyers and the like,” he explained.
But the Tatum family has dealt with tough issues before. Cannabis inspired Bob after his brother became seriously ill and dependent on opioids. Mark suggested CBD products, which helped him through some serious pain management. It freed him from the opioids, making him present again. Although they eventually lost him to cancer, he told them how much their efforts had helped him and made his final years more endurable. So for all the right reasons they wanted to bring medical cannabis to their community.
SkunkMasters, whose corporate title is Freedom First Association, gives five percent of it’s gross sales to the city by agreement. They have also given money to various funds like a $5,500 donation to Reach programs and police department’s “Toys for Tots” programs locally. They are intent on being good citizens.
Inside the city’s first dispensary, customers are met with a security guard and a smiling and friendly staff. Mark reports, “Each patron is individually treated and guided to what they need.” Once a new patient is signed up, they enter a 1,300 square foot facility with glass display cases and more friendly staffers. They offer more than 160 menu items, which altogether total approximately 500 different choices. That includes flower. About 60 percent of sales are comprised of flower, while vape pens and refills comprise another 20 percent. The remaining 20 percent in sales is split between edibles, concentrates, beverages, and oils. It all comes with plenty of guidance and information. Seniors and the military receive a discount.
Bob said that, “About 87 percent of our customers so far are from within Ventura County. The average age is in their 40s. The others have come from more than 177 other cities and towns in California.” Part of that customer base has been created through their delivery service that began in December. That would indicate an underserved population in the region and one Port Hueneme is looking to support.
“So far there are seven other businesses in the pipeline looking to sell, grow and manufacture the product,” reported City Manager Rod Butler in a recent interview with the Ventura County Star. Two are reported to be collectives and have been approved to open their doors in the near future. Others are in different stages of the process.
“One may be a bed and breakfast,” conjectured Bob. Butler was impressed with SkunkMasters security and community concerns and how open Tatum’s group was to accepting feedback and “working with us rather than challenging the other requirements and the ordinance.”
The other major element in this story of cooperation is local police chief, Andrew Salinas. “He helped us design from a safety aspect. He was very open to work with us,” said Bob.
Chief Salinas reports, “The relationship with SkunkMasters has been extremely positive as both parties realized the importance of making the first medicinal dispensary in Ventura County a successful one. While legalized by California voters, the public is still skeptical about having a dispensary in their own backyard,” he said. “The public doesn’t know what to expect so we are trying to work together to be as transparent as possible. SkunkMasters has been very open and available to giving city, county and dignitaries tours of the facility.”
A skeptical mayor was reportedly encouraged by one such visit. The Chief continues, “Since their opening, I have been providing reports to the city council on the status of the dispensary.” Since opening, he added, “there have been no complaints from adjacent businesses or the nearby neighborhood. We have received no complaints regarding odor, noise or vagrancy. The homeless that had frequented the area have moved on… most likely due to increased security.” This would square with recent reports from Colorado that show rather than creating problems in the neighborhoods, property values are going up around dispensaries.
When asked if legalization had created special problems or how it competes with the black market Chief Salinas said that, “We have not had an increase in marijuana use in public or along our beaches. The 15 percent state tax and the 5 percent city gross sales tax still makes it difficult for a dispensary to compete with the black market. I know the state is considering temporarily lowering the state tax to help with this problem which is being felt statewide.”
Now that adult-use has been approved by California voters, how will The Friendly City by the Sea deal with the legal market? To that, Chief Salinas said, “In late June the city will start allowing the sales of recreational-use cannabis. We expect this to run smoothly as the businesses selected to sell medical and recreational cannabis have been thoroughly vetted with a number of rules and regulations that each must follow,” he added, “I have met with every single owner and made my expectations very clear.”
As for the nickname, “Pot Hueneme,” opinions vary. Bob thinks it’s a negative. “We are here for a service. It’s not willy nilly. It’s something people have wanted here for a long time.”
But there remains a special spirit of working together for a better community that pervades the Port Hueneme effort. Recent city improvements include a grand new promenade along the beachfront. The city will use early proceeds from cannabis sales to reduce their deficit of almost $1 million. Then they can begin to use the money for additional resources. Chief Salinas says, “The money will be used to enhance such city services as additional police officers.” And they will be under the direction of a chief who understands how to help his community.
Bob adds, “If cities continue to do this in an organized process, having regulated cannabis in a city can actually improve the quality of life.”