Appeal opposing Hook Outlet to be heard by Santa Cruz City Council – Santa Cruz Sentinel | #citycouncil


A mural adorns the facade of the contested Hook Outlet and WAMM Phytotherapies dispensary, which has been opposed by community members for its proximity to nearby schools despite the location meeting and surpassing the established state and local regulations. (Aric Sleeper/Santa Cruz Sentinel)

SANTA CRUZ — An appeal to prevent a cannabis dispensary specializing in providing medical marijuana to patients with serious diseases from establishing itself at 1129 Mission St., the former site of “Emily’s Bakery,” will be considered by the Santa Cruz City Council at its meeting Tuesday.

The dispensary was given the green light in early March by the city of Santa Cruz Planning Commission in a 5 to 2 vote. Shortly after, on March 14, an appeal was filed by eight community members opposing the location of the dispensary, placing the fate of the dispensary in the hands of the Santa Cruz City Council. The appellants state in their appeal that the proximity of the dispensary to nearby schools could have a harmful effect on the health and well-being of students.

Psychotherapist, parent of Santa Cruz High School students and nearby resident Anna Paganelli is one of the appellants and is concerned above all with the health of young people, who she said are still dealing with the stress of the pandemic, climate change and world politics, and sometimes self-medicate to deal with the anxiety.

“I’m a psychotherapist and this is a really big deal for those of us that work with kids, with teenagers and preteens,” said Paganelli. “In our offices, we see kids that are struggling and when you add more and more risk factors to the kids, they tend to go downhill more and more quickly. This to me is just adding a little bit more of a doorway out that is really not helpful.”

An appeal to prevent the Hook Outlet and WAMM Phtytotherapies from operating at the former site of Emily's Bakery will be heard by the Santa Cruz City SCouncil Tuesday. The appeal was voted down by the the city of Santa Cruz Planning Commission previously in early March. (Aric Sleeper/Santa Cruz Sentinel)
An appeal to prevent the Hook Outlet and WAMM Phytotherapies from operating at the former site of Emily’s Bakery will be heard by the Santa Cruz City Council Tuesday. The appeal was voted down by the city of Santa Cruz Planning Commission previously in early March. (Aric Sleeper/Santa Cruz Sentinel)

At the March Planning Commission meeting, Santa Cruz City Schools Superintendent Kris Munro and other community members expressed a similar belief that allowing the dispensary to operate at the site of the former Emily’s Bakery would lead to increased cannabis use among students at Santa Cruz High School and Mission Hill Middle School because of its proximity.

City staff at the meeting mentioned that the Santa Cruz Police Department did not express any concerns with the proposed dispensary as it meets the legal and zoning criteria and would feature stringent ID requirements.

According to state law, a cannabis retail establishment must be at least 600 feet away from a school and in the fall of 2017, the Santa Cruz City Council adopted an ordinance establishing and reiterating the 600-foot buffer from schools and also capped the total number of cannabis dispensaries allowed in the city to five. There are currently four dispensaries in the city of Santa Cruz. Cannabis dispensaries in the city are also required to be 600 feet away from each other, parks with playgrounds, day care and youth centers, which leaves only a few small areas in the city for them to operate.

The proposed cannabis dispensary on Mission Street is 850 feet from Santa Cruz High School and approximately 1,360 feet from Mission Hill Middle School.

Compassionate partners

The dispensary would be operated by the public benefit corporation WAMM Phytotherapies — which specializes in providing free and discounted medical cannabis to patients with serious or terminal diseases such as epilepsy and AIDS — and the Hook Outlet, which has existing dispensaries in Watsonville and Capitola.

“We had been trying to find the right partnership,” said WAMM Phytotherapies Executive Director Valerie Leveroni Corral. “In this economy and this highly regulated market, looking at a way to continue the pieces of service, and medical cannabis application — within the context of the legal market, which is the only way we can survive, and which is still challenging financially — was to find someone who shared our passion, our vision, and was willing to serve in the sense of abiding by our mission, which is to support those who are sick and dying without a financial obligation, and who really practiced the level of integrity that we sought. That was difficult to find.”

Corral, a pioneer of medical cannabis who co-authored Proposition 215, which legalized medical cannabis in the state, found the compassionate business partners she was looking for in Kyle Giorchino and Bryce Berryessa, co-owners of the Hook Outlet, about two years ago.

Since they decided to join forces, the team has been working on establishing one location that would serve as a new home for WAMM’s compassion program and a retail outlet for the Hook.

“When I opened my first dispensary in the county, I really looked at WAMM as an inspiration,” said Berryessa. “I was originally a cultivator and when I would go into Greenway and Granny Purps trying to sell my medicine, I noticed that people would ask about compassion programs or discounted medicine and they would always just send people to WAMM. I was like, what’s WAMM? I started to do research and then later I got to know Val over the years and that really inspired me to operate a dispensary that gave back.”

In the Winter 2023, Corral and the Hook owners approached the city of Santa Cruz Planning Department to begin the process of establishing the dispensary in the city. They also had an independent planning consultant review the Emily’s Bakery site and the zoning details. Both the city staff and independent consultant determined that the 1129 Mission St. site was a suitable location for a dispensary.

“With the consultant and the city staff saying that this is a home run, we bought the business and had to sign a personal guarantee on the lease, which we had never done before,” said Berryessa. “Then in July, we applied for the license transfer. We never heard back from the city about any issues with the license transfer, and generally they have 30 days to notify you if there’s a problem.”

WIth the transfer of the cannabis retailer license from WAMM Phytotherapies to the Hook Outlet completed, the Hook Outlet owners moved on to the next phase of establishing the business, an administrative use permit application.

“We got our administrative use permit application in August,” said Berryessa. “And while we were working on that, we got a call from (Santa Cruz Director of Public Works) Lee Butler in September letting us know that the school had an issue with it and asking if we’d be willing to change locations.”

Berryessa expressed to the planning director at that time that he had already purchased the business, which met all the legal requirements and had been working with the city’s planning staff for about seven months. Berryessa thought he could try and talk the issue out with the concerned community members and asked to be put in touch with Superintendent Munro, who agreed to meet.

“Munro couldn’t attend but I met with the principal of Mission Hill and a few other senior administrators,” said Berryessa. “In that meeting, they shared with us that there is a substance use problem on campus and they felt that youth rates of cannabis consumption have increased over the years and that they are concerned kids are wearing paraphernalia to school and that a dispensary on Mission Street would further normalize and destigmatize cannabis use. That was the core of the concerns.”

Good neighbors

Berryessa said he left the meeting feeling confused by their concerns, but with the feedback from the school administrators in mind, he made some changes to the building’s design and the amount of signage outside.

“Originally, we were going to have signs on the building but we reduced it to a single monument sign and a green cross,” said Berryessa. “We were going to have a glass facade where you could see into the dispensary like Kindpeoples and Reefside. I changed that and now there is no visibility into the dispensary.”

Later, Berryessa asked city staff to add a condition to the permit that restricts the dispensary from selling to anyone younger than the age of 19.

“We didn’t have to do that,” said Berryessa. “I just wanted to show that we’re serious about being a good neighbor and being willing to compromise, so we recommended that as a condition of approval, and that was approved by the Planning Commission. We’ll be the only dispensary in the county and one of the few in the state that can’t transact sales to medical users who are 18.”

The Hook Outlet team also created a website from scratch with its own time and money called safecannabis.net, which features resources and information for parents.

“We’re now in the middle of a social media campaign, which we will do annually,” said Berryessa. “Although it was inspired by that conversation, it was a good motivation because it builds off the work that we’re already trying to do in the community and it turned into something great.”

Goal posts in motion

In December 2023, Berryessa received an email from Butler requesting that he and Corral meet with him and the city attorney the following week. Berryessa then asked the planning director for a meeting agenda so that he could prepare. Hours later, Berryessa received a phone call from Butler.

“He calls me Friday night and he tells me that he has made the unfortunate determination that WAMM’s license is expired and is ineligible for transfer,” said Berryessa. “If WAMM’s license can’t be transferred to us, we can’t open.”

Berryessa expressed to Butler that he had worked with the city’s planning staff for nearly a year and there were no concerns brought up about the retail license transfer before that day.

“I said to him, ‘I have been talking to your staff since February. I have talked to you multiple times. We submitted our license transfer in June. You had 30 days to let me know if there were any issues or deficiencies and you did not. It was confirmed in October that the license transfer had been approved by all departments,” said Berryessa. “I told him I wasn’t comfortable talking to him without my attorney present and that I’d be at the meeting and that my attorney would be there too.”

Berryessa and Corral then had to prove to the city that the license had been in active use and never expired, which they did, over the winter holiday break. The Santa Cruz City Council then determined in closed session in January that the cannabis retail license could be transferred and city planners soon contacted Berryessa to let him know that they could then bring the project to the planning commission March 7.

“Then things get kind of quiet,” said Berryessa. “Two weeks before the planning commission, things fire up. I hear there’s a petition against us and some of my colleagues forwarded an email that the school superintendent had sent out to every parent in the school district to oppose our dispensary and sign the petition against us.”

Despite the pushback from Santa Cruz City Schools employees and community members, the planning commission determined that the dispensary fit all the local and state guidelines already established and could move forward. A week later, the appeal contesting the dispensary was submitted.

Normalizing cannabis use

The appeal, composed by community members such as Paganelli, claims that the dispensary would have an adverse effect on the health, safety and welfare of students from Santa Cruz High School and Mission Hill Middle School, and because of that does not conform to the city’s municipal code and general plan.

In the appeal, the appellants claim that the signage and presence of the outlet would normalize cannabis use among students. The appeal letter paraphrases research about the adverse effects of cannabis use on youth but doesn’t directly cite any specific study except for one concerning tobacco retailers and youth in school neighborhoods.

Despite the appellants’ concerns about the dispensary normalizing cannabis use among students, and the Santa Cruz City School District passing a resolution opposing it, a large banner advertising the California cannabis firm “Bloom Network” hung from the fence near the football field on the campus of Santa Cruz High School. The Sentinel confirmed the banner was still present on the school’s campus as of Friday morning.

On the campus of Santa Cruz High School, a banner promoting the cannabis company Bloom Network hangs near the athletic field. (Contributed)
On the campus of Santa Cruz High School, a banner promoting the cannabis company Bloom Network hangs near the athletic field. (Contributed)

Paganelli said she was unaware of the banner and Principal of Santa Cruz High School Michelle Poirier had the banner taken down Friday afternoon after she was informed of its presence there.

“Obviously, the banner was removed as soon as the administration and athletic director were made aware of the nature of this particular business,” said Poirier. “Any business that markets products that are illegal for minors cannot advertise on any school campus. This sponsor transaction— which was handled by a previous coach, no longer employed by the district, who may not have even known the nature of this business himself —  has prompted a revision of our protocols around banner sponsorships.”

Moot moratorium

With the appeal hearing on the books for May 14, the Santa Cruz City Council considered a proposal in early April, created by Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley and Councilmember Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson, to impose a temporary emergency moratorium on the establishment of new commercial cannabis businesses in the city of Santa Cruz. Because the grounds for an emergency were shaky, the proposed moratorium failed to move forward and was even pulled by the mayor before it went to a vote.

“We have a city that, after seven months and hundreds of thousands of dollars and countless hours of work, is telling us that the license transfer is null and void and we have to fight for that,” said Berryessa. “Then we have a mayor that was supposedly on our side trying to do a one-sided moratorium to stall the process and change the rules from underneath us. This is not how government is supposed to work.”

A banner promoting the cannabis company
A banner promoting the cannabis company “Bloom Network” hangs on the campus of Santa Cruz High School. The school board recently passed a resolution opposing a cannabis dispensary on Mission Street in part because of its signage. (Contributed)

Corral, who was recently praised for her decades of work in an op-ed by Sen. John Laird, added that politics too often drive the gears of government, and if the council ultimately approves the appeal against the dispensary, WAMM Phytotherapies will not be able to recover.

“If the City Council decides to vote against us, they are actively voting against serving the sick and dying, whether they’d like to admit it or not,” said Corral. “And if they want to speak to us, saying that they care, I won’t buy it. We’re not asking for a special dispensation. We’re just asking for the right to be treated like every other dispensary in the city and have the opportunity to serve sick and dying people.”

To read the appeal and meeting agenda, visit cityofsantacruz.com.


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