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The Dying California Desert Town Where Cannabis Is the Only Remaining Hope

From cul-de-sac-fever-dream gone bust to vertically integrated weed opportunity zone, the high desert town of California City is hoping the winds of fate will finally blow its way.

by Mickey Revenaugh
Nov 12 2019, 3:09pm

Image by Lia Kantrowitz

Mayor Chuck McGuire wants his lake back. When McGuire was a kid growing up here in California City in the early 1970s, back when speculators still believed they could sell all 50,000 lots platted into the scrublands 100 miles northeast of LA, the man-made, aquifer-fed lake in the center of town had a bowling alley, swank hotel and boat launch on its shores. Today the pond in Cal City’s Central Park hosts the kind of life you’d expect from a back-bedroom town of 12,000: ducks pecking at McDonald's wrappers in the weeds and a $1,000 wedding on the Community Center patio. The long-defunct Lake Shore Inn is on the Atlas Obscura abandoned Americana tour. McGuire and his fellow civic leaders have high hopes that the marijuana business can change all that.

McGuire is pushing to make California City a cannabis industry center because he wants the tax revenue to support an expanded lake alive with Jet-Skis every weekend and a fireworks barge on the Fourth of July—that, and at least one urgent care center in town. Former City Manager Tom Weil, under whose administration the cannabis push got started, wants the city police and fire departments to be on solid fiscal ground. City Councilman Donald Parris hopes local veterans will find pain relief right here in their hometown. “It’s a quality of life thing,” the mayor told VICE, repositioning the souvenir Sweet Dreams THC candy container next to the silver framed photo of his California Highway Patrol retirement party on the credenza in his spotless office at City Hall.

In hitching its wagon to the pot business, California City stands nearly alone in Kern County, home to nearly 900,000 people in the lower belly of the Golden State. While California legalized recreational cannabis effective January 2018, the state left it up to municipalities to allow or prohibit sales. Kern County and the City of Bakersfield outlawed all cannabis retail, leading to the closure last May of dozens of dispensaries that had been operating since medical marijuana came onto the scene in the 1990s. But two small outlier Kern communities voted to go the other way: Arvin, a farming town still figuring out its next marijuana move, and California City, which is all in on production, retail and delivery.

Signs of Cal City’s weed aspirations are everywhere across the sparse 203 square miles that make this, by land area, the third largest city in the state. Off of Highway 14 on the way into town from the west, the real estate signs every mile or so are decidedly 420. “Cannabis Business Park” declares one headline above a rendering of tasteful beige brick buildings surrounded by trees more verdant than anything for miles around in real life. “Greenhouse or Indoor Options…Purchase/Lease Build to Suit.”

Across the railroad tracks, Attil Farms is constructing a cinder block wall around its one-acre site to shield the emerging compound of greenhouses, processing area and delivery hub. (Less ambitious developers might surround their parcels with Canna-Fence, advertised ubiquitously to help businesses comply with the city’s “not visible from the road” requirements.) Closer into town, a low-rise building housing a gun store and a beauty parlor now also sports a Greenstone Cannabis Retail sign in the parking lot, which has been packed every day since the dispensary’s October 5 soft-open. The first of nearly 20 marijuana-related businesses approved by the local City Council in Spring 2019 are gradually coming online, and the mood is elevated around City Hall and the Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s the beginning of an image change for us,” Mayor McGuire said. “We won’t have to be known as Cal Shitty anymore.” Apologizing for his habit of “spewing compound bad words,” McGuire added, “It’s not like we really wanted to be a marijuana hub. But just about every other industry gave us the big middle finger.”

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Image: Mickey Revenaugh

How California City staked its claim as an oasis in the cannabis retail desert is just the latest twist in a 50-year storyline already full of kinks. There must be something about the endless open spaces here that sparks the speculative imagination.

Back in 1965, when the city incorporated, it had a vision of being the next-but-better Palm Springs, with meticulously planned middle-class homesites emanating out to the horizon from the white pagodas of Central Park. A decade later, with less than five percent of the population it was built for, Cal City became the domain of Great Western Cities Inc., a multi-million-dollar land speculation outfit associated with the Hunt Brothers of Texas oil fame who spent the 1970s otherwise attempting to corner the world silver market. When Great Western went bankrupt a decade later amid charges of malfeasance, a company called Silver Saddle Ranch & Club picked up the reins, marketing Cal City as a recreation destination for off-roaders and golfers. On October 1 of this year, the state sued Silver Saddle for investment fraud over its practice of selling fractional “land bank” shares to unsophisticated immigrants hundreds of miles away in Oakland and Long Beach.

Meanwhile, the cul-de-sacs scraped into the desert floor are regularly obscured by swirling dust as Cal City’s population has inched from 2,500 in the 1960s to just over 10,000 half a century later. Bargain housing and zero traffic draws workers from Edwards Air Force Base or the state prison up the road, and soon, the Mayor and City Council hope, from the cannabis industry.

Amanda Adolf is among the newcomers the green rush brought to Cal City. Adolf and her partner, Rick Jones, opened their Greenstone cannabis retail store in early October, and expect to kick the mobile part of their operation into gear by the end of the year with Direct Deliveries Inc., the publicly traded San Diego company that’s positioning itself as marijuana’s answer to Uber Eats. In the meantime, they preside over the only legal dispensary in a hundred mile radius. Business is so brisk that Adolf barely has time to attend to the occasional gun store customer next door, though she does keep a handgun holstered at her waist at all times.

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Amanda Adolf opened the Greenstone cannabis retail store in early October. Image: Mickey Revenaugh

From the minute Greenstone opens each afternoon at 2 until it closes at 9, a cross-section of Central California demography makes its way through the security check/wand-down into the gleaming display area. A 60-something Black woman with a walker; a young dust-covered construction worker with a permanent grin on his face; a Latinx couple conferring in serious whispers; and a trio in from Bakersfield—two sisters and brother-in-law? Former teen parents and their grown daughter? All three wear sweatpants, cropped-off T-shirts and multiple tattoos. When Adolf points out that the lollipops on the counter come in THC-infused and CBD-only variations, the older of the two women snaps her fingers and says, “Dirty, no dirty.” The younger woman mutters, “Yeah, it sucks they still drug-test at my job.”

Just up the road, Raj Milian is doing his part to bring Cal City’s weed dreams to life. Milian is a multi-hyphenate hustler, like most everyone involved with the cannabis business in these early post-prohibition days seems to be. He’s a movie producer and director—with titles like Supercroc (2007), In the Blink of an Eye (2015), and The Birthing Club (2016) to his credit—and a former Air Force linguist, part owner of a therapeutic massage business, and now manager for Attil Farms. It’s Milian’s job to make sure the giant water tanker trucks mist enough to keep the Santa Ana winds from turning his massive site into an even more massive dust cloud. It’s his job to ensure that directives from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife on protecting burrowing owls and migrating tortoises - the town sits within a designated Desert Tortoise preservation zone - are translated into Spanish, Arabic, and Urdu for his construction crew. (“Always look under truck before driving,” Milian said. “Siempre mire debajo del camión…”) It’s also his job to demonstrate steady progress to lead investor Haitham Elsaad, who named Attil Farms after his family’s original village in the Palestinian West Bank.

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Raj Milian: multi-hyphenate hustler, movie producer, former Air Force linguist and cannabis grower. Image: Mickey Revenaugh

The stakes are high for all involved with Attil Farms: By early 2020, there should be greenhouses in the back lot, warehouses mid-center for processing, and an efficient multi-vehicle fleet circulating onto and off of the site to whisk orders to Bakersfield and Lancaster and maybe even LA. Tax dollars for Cal City, returns for Elsaad, and vindication for Milian, who says he was inspired to get into the cannabis business when his very traditional, Just-Say-No Indian mother found relief from crippling insomnia and anxiety in medical marijuana. “Even with legalization, cannabis is still looked upon very negatively,” Milian said, explaining why he tries to keep his movie and marijuana worlds apart. “All I want now is to ensure safe, organic, pharmaceutical grade product for everyone who wants it.”

That “everyone” does not include himself, Milian emphasized. In fact, all of the pot pioneers of California City—every one of the entrepreneurs and civic boosters—made a special point of saying they never partake of the substance they’re all banking their futures on. Amanda Adolf can’t stand the smell, so she keeps the Air Wash filter system on high at Greenstone. Mayor McGuire said his long career in law enforcement means he’ll never be fully comfortable with recreational weed. Councilman Parris said even medical use is at odds with his Christian faith.

Instead, they’re counting once again on the varying desires of their fellow Californians. If limitless sunshine and miles of cheap land weren’t quite enough to draw the hordes to Cal City in the 20th century, maybe all-access marijuana will in the 21st. The painted tortoises strategically placed around town suggest the kind of perseverance that comes from having not a lot to lose.

Driving at dusk across the settled part of Cal City into the sparse eastside fringed with streets to nowhere, you see the lights of the prison twinkle on in the high distance. California City Boulevard turns south and heads towards 58, the Bakersfield-Barstow Highway. Twin buttes that look like they wandered in from a John Ford movie blaze orange on their west flanks, pitch black on their opposites. Then, in between the Canna-Fence displays and advertisements for Gloria’s Mexican Cafe, three billboards that speak in sequence to another side of California City’s marijuana gamble:

BUSTING ILLEGAL GROW HOUSES IS GOOD.

BUSTING KILLERS WOULD BE BETTER.

DEV SCHILLER 10-92/06-16 MURDERED UNSOLVED.

Debi Fones of California City said she was inspired by the Oscar-winning movie Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri to erect the billboards as a prod to local law enforcement to attend to her daughter’s death. Will the cannabis-funded renaissance Cal City is hoping for make that more or less likely? The endless wind is silent across the ghostly grid.

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Image: Mickey Revenaugh

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Tagged:
Weed
Economy
California
Legalization