Kent Johnston is forging onward with what could be coined his mission for medical marijuana.

The retired police officer is looking for a few recruits of his own to work toward establishing a marijuana dispensary for business in Ventura County.

“I urge the people of Ventura County to go to their city council meetings, show their faces, don’t be embarrassed and don’t fear arrest,” he says.

When Johnston went before the Westlake Village City Council last week with a request to open a dispensary there, officials turned down the Thousand Oaks resident before giving the matter even the scantest of considerations.

The onetime 20-year sheriff’s deputy had hoped pursuing Westlake, which straddles the line of Los Angeles and Ventura counties, would be an easier sell. L.A. has up to 70 dispensaries of its own, and Johnston, himself a registered medical cannabis patient, is employed at one.

Johnston says at least 20 percent of the Canoga Park facility’s clientele — that’s 200 to 300 people — hails from Ventura County. A county-based dispensary, Johnston says, could service the same people, many of whom are impaired or immobile, avoiding the need to drive out of town for medications that should be readily — and locally — available.

“What I’m doing is looking for any city that has a friendly landlord, so I have an actual, physical location I can request to the city for my business,” he said.

The pursuit of an operational marijuana dispensary in Ventura County is yet to be successful, flying in the face of conservative NIMBY values, false stereotypes of drug users, and legal loopholes disputed by Johnston.

Across the board, the idea of medical marijuana dispensed in Ventura County has been greeted with everything from neutral and apathetic voices to total avoidance altogether. According to the respective city managers of Ojai and Santa Paula, Jere Kersnar and Wally Bobkiewicz, it’s been a nonissue in both cities.

Camarillo officials, says City Manager Jerry Bankston, have taken no stance on allowing/disallowing dispensaries, though a moratorium is in effect until June. The City Council can then apply for a further one-year extension on the hold, he said, before approving or rejecting a dispensary within city limits.

Ventura, Oxnard and Thousand Oaks don’t have ordinances on their books directly prohibiting marijuana dispensaries from coming to town. But like Westlake Village, dispensaries have been passed over in these cities largely because an operating marijuana supplier, however legal, doesn’t conform to local zoning laws.

“If someone wanted to attempt to open a (dispensary), they’d have to apply for an amendment to the existing ordinance,” says Andrew Powers, a spokesman for the City of Thousand Oaks.

“Right now,” says Ventura City Attorney Ariel Pierre Calonne, “the City does not have a zoning district that permits medical marijuana dispensaries.”

Johnston believes lawmakers may be skirting the issue, allowing key decisions to be colored by their true feelings about marijuana culture. If the drug is effectively legal when prescribed by a doctor to a licensed patient, he says, a dispensary selling cannabis for that express use should also be allowed, legally, without question.

“They’re holding onto municipal codes and whatever they can. They refused to issue a permit because of the prejudice of my product,” Johnston said about the Westlake decision.

However, depending on the outcome of upcoming developments, the zoning issue could be a moot point. According to Calonne, there is litigation currently pending in Anaheim disputing whether a city must be required to set up special zoning to accommodate marijuana dispensaries.

The passage in 1996 of Proposition 215 (the Compassionate Use Act) and, later, Senate Bill 420, allowed the growth and prescription of medicinal marijuana. But they didn’t address the notion of dispensary sale, making it a murky issue for people like Johnston looking to establish themselves in the retail end of things.

“When you look at the medical marijuana initiatives, they didn’t really contemplate a retail supply of operation. It contemplated self-cultivated marijuana,” says Calonne. “The commercialization of medical marijuana is what’s the core of the problem. Nobody’s contending you can’t make medicinal use of self-grown.”

Oxnard is dealing with a similar legal situation. According to its city attorney, Alan Holmberg, the Oxnard City Council is awaiting clarification from the Supreme Court on a conflict between Prop. 215 and the Controlled Substances Act. The former allows medicinal marijuana use, yet the latter prohibits sale of the drug.

For the time being, medical cannabis patients in Ventura County must make the drive down to Los Angeles County or up to Santa Barbara County, or have their medications delivered to them.

The VC Kush Collective, a medical marijuana delivery service, serves about 40 clients countywide.

“Most of the time we go to their home,” says Michael Williamson, who manages the collective. “We come across quite a few (patients) who are legally blind, disabled. It works out great for them because they don’t need someone to give them a ride. People have been pretty happy with the service.”

Williamson predicts dispensaries are not that far off in Ventura County; it just takes time.

“It’s just the conservatism,” he says. “Ventura County’s pretty conservative. One good sign is that they’ve allowed (patients) to get state cards.”

Would dispensaries, then, spell the death of delivery services? No, says Williamson, who believes most will make the switchover to dispensary format. It’s all about store supply and customer demand, he says. For example, V.C. Kush carries up to 10 different forms of the medicine; select L.A. storefronts, Williamson said, supply up to 100.

“I would imagine, if they allowed dispensaries, that deliveries will fade away,” he said. “People are generally hands-on and see exactly what they’re getting. At a storefront, they have more choices.”

He also noted that keeping those patients in Ventura County gives more money back to the local economy.

“I know for a fact it will be an attraction to Ventura,” Johnston said. “It will show it’s educated, that people will know about the effects and benefits of medical marijuana, and the business will be helping the economy.”

He continued: “I’m not trying to change the opinion of the public on marijuana. I’m just trying to get a license.” 

paul@vcreporter.com