Tucked between a quaint cafe and performing arts center, Golden State Collective was one of the first medical marijuana collectives to open in Pasadena, California, in 2014.
A midday stroll down this block would usually yield nothing more than chirping birds and the soft bustle of patrons convening for lunch, but on the afternoon of Dec. 12, 2018, this tranquil side street in Pasadena, where the world turns its attention each New Year's Day for its Tournament of Roses Parade and Rose Bowl college football championship, was suddenly inundated by a Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team assembled to conduct a raid on Golden State Collective.
Three employees were arrested, more than two dozen pounds of cannabis flower was seized, and Shaun Szameit, the president of Golden State Collective, suddenly lost his long-standing operation in the blink of an eye.
When Weedmaps News visited the shuttered storefront four months after the raid, the inside of the now-defunct medical marijuana collective resembled the scene of a robbery. Glass display cases were emptied, safes were smashed open and strewn across the floor, and Szameit stood wide-eyed behind a cash register that hadn't seen a dollar in months.
“There are patients suffering, my family is suffering, my employees have been subjected to undue harm and punishment and paraded around by the police and embarrassed,” Szameit said about the raid.
After the police raid, which forced Golden State Collective to close down, Szameit teamed up with other local dispensary owners and residents to launch a petition initiative. The initiative aims to allow the city's pre-existing dispensaries, opened before the Pasadena City Council enacted its first ban on commercial cannabis in 2016, to be grandfathered into the new regulatory system.Local residents have been affected by the dispensary ban. While some unlicensed adult-use shops remain open in the city, Pasadena patients who want to consume cannabis from a legitimate medical dispensary have been hung out to dry. Click To Tweet
Szameit wasn't the only one affected by the ordinance, nor was he the only one who attempted to rectify his situation through an initiative. Mike Sargsyan, owner of the Revo in Pasadena, a dispensary that voluntarily closed down as a result of the ordinance, went to the City Clerk's office to submit an initiative of his own.
“The city clerk notified him that there was another individual, which was me, that was submitting an initiative,” Szameit explained. “Mike dropped off his initiative in my dispensary's mailbox, so I contacted him and I let him know I thought it'd be a good idea if we worked together.”
The pair of disenfranchised dispensary owners formed a committee, comprising local residents and businesses, to act as a vehicle to drive the initiative. The petition was submitted to the City Council by three Pasadena residents. Szameit and Sargsyan also assembled a team of volunteers to help collect signatures for the petition.
“The proponents of the initiative are members of both myself and Mike's dispensaries,” Szameit said. “They also are volunteer signature-collectors. I would say we have between 10 to 15 volunteer signature-collectors who are going out five days a week for 4-hour shifts.”
While Szameit and his team must collect at least 8,500 signatures, or 10% of the registered voter population in Pasadena, they are on track to submit somewhere between 12,000 and 13,000 signatures, about 30% of the city's voter population, as of April 24, 2019. Once submitted, the City Council will either have to adopt it or put it up for a vote during the city's upcoming general election in 2020. As city officials are now in the process of approving and welcoming up to six new dispensaries into the city, the petition is a last-ditch effort for pre-existing dispensaries to continue serving patients in Pasadena.
“Now they're rushing to open six dispensaries right away, they did that regulation on purpose to kick out the existing dispensaries,” Sargsyan told Weedmaps News. “The existing dispensaries are no different from any existing dispensary right now. They operate the same way, they're not doing anything illegal, the only problem is that we don't have a permit, so we can't pay our taxes.”
“We basically have no choice anymore, the only chance we have is with this petition.”
Lengthy City Council Battle
Incorporated in 2012, the Golden State Collective started as a collective cultivation project that taught individuals how to grow their own cannabis. From there, the entity transitioned into a caregiver that operated under the medical marijuana collective model. At the time, Szameit noticed that the city had no proper ordinance in place for medical cannabis collectives, and so, he tried to operate in adherence to state regulations.
Despite the lack of local regulations, Szameit claims he tried to communicate and work with the city to implement a proper medical marijuana system. While medical dispensaries were technically illegal at the time, he contested that his business was not a dispensary, rather it was a medical collective that was membership only.
Szameit filed a lawsuit against the city in 2014, challenging attempts to shut down his dispensary by arguing that it was operating in full compliance with state law, despite being in violation of the then-newly implemented city zoning rules banning cannabis businesses.
“The reality is, at that time, they thought that they could stand behind their ordinance,” Szameit said. “On paper, they were able to, but I think they ignored the reality of what the residents desire, the fact that there are patients suffering, that we brought a lot of good to the community.”
But instead of putting forth an ordinance to allow dispensaries to operate, the City Council enacted its first ban on commercial cannabis activities in 2016. Then, city officials put an ordinance into law in 2016, allowing officials to shut off utilities for any business that had a code enforcement violation, which Szameit claims was “masked for marijuana operators,” but was applicable even to residents.
The embattled dispensary owner worked with the community to collect 13,500 signatures on a petition and succeeded in overturning that law. He then met with the city planning committee to discuss ordinances that would help the city develop a robust regulatory system for cannabis.
“I was told by the city that I would be applicant No. 1, and was really led to believe that it was not ready yet, but that the time would come,” Szameit explained. “I was never led to believe I was a thorn in anyone's side or causing any problems.”
Since the Golden State Collective was already operating above board, Szameit said, he figured that his business would be grandfathered in. But in December 2017, the city enacted another ban on commercial cannabis activities, giving them further tools of enforcement. This time around, Szameit and his team failed to collect enough signatures within the 30-day window to stop the ban for going into effect.
When Szameit attempted to get his own initiative on the ballot in November 2018, the city took notice and decided to put its own initiative to vote in June 2018. The city's initiative aimed to approve six dispensaries to operate in the city, but pre-existing Pasadena dispensaries, such as Golden State Collective and Revo, were not allowed to apply.
“They call us illegal, but we're not illegal shops. My shop was a medical dispensary, I didn't do recreational,” Sargsyan said. “My shop was a medical dispensary like Shaun's shop. But this is not fair from the patient's side, this is not fair from the dispensary's side.”
Szameit claims that, by the time his shop was raided, the city was already aware that he was liquidating his inventory and planning to close down his dispensary before the new ordinance went into effect in January 2019. He also told us that he welcomed city officials to tour his facility and held an open dialogue with the local police department.
The president of the Golden State Collective believes that his business was lumped in with unlicensed adult-use cannabis stores that opened in Pasadena after the ban went into effect. Despite attempting to follow state regulations and longstanding involvement with the community, the collective was forcefully shut down.
“Some council members have visited our facility, they said our efforts wouldn't be forgotten, acknowledged that what I was doing was different from the others,” Szameit explained. “They acknowledged that I was valiant in my effort and consistent and persistent. That they understood. It's just, unfortunately, I was lumped in with this other group.”
Across Southern California, crackdowns against unlicensed dispensaries are ongoing. Los Angeles police served search warrants on two unlicensed dispensaries on April 24, 2019, according to an announcement from the California Bureau of Cannabis Control and the Department of Consumer Affairs' Division of Investigation-Cannabis Enforcement Unit (DOI-CEU).
Pasadena's Dispensary Dilemma
Aside from the ongoing petition, Szameit is currently engaging with the city of Pasadena from multiple fronts. He filed a lawsuit in August 2018 to challenge the city's ordinance banning his dispensary, which is still pending in court. Despite that, he also submitted an application, which is still pending, to allow the Golden State to operate again. Szameit also believes he has a basis for litigation against the city for “disallowing my business while they're allowing others to operate.”
The city council has also pushed back against Szameit's campaign to allow his collective to be grandfathered. Pasadena Council member Victor Gordo, a representative of the city's 5th district, alleged in February 2019 that Szameit attempted to make a sketchy offer to him, as reported by the Pasadena Star-News. Szameit has strongly denied the allegations and claims that Gordo misunderstood the words from his email correspondence with the councilman.
“I think that the majority of the city council knows that I stand by what I say, and I believe in what's best for the city. I've been very transparent in my efforts,” he explained. “But I think that there was an unintended miscommunication. I think my efforts to get a dialogue with him might have pushed him away.”
The Pasadena City Council has not responded to repeated requests from Weedmaps News for a comment on the ordinance and its interactions with Szameit.
In hindsight, Szameit believes the city might have mistaken his passion to help patients in Pasadena for ill intentions.
“I think that some of my passion came across as overprivileged or disobedient,” he said. “But I think my intentions were pure, and I think we can prove that by the amount of time and money we've given to the community.”
Beyond his own business, local residents have also been affected by the dispensary ban. While some unlicensed adult-use shops have remained open in the city, Pasadena patients who want to consume cannabis from a legitimate medical dispensary have been hung out to dry.
“It's about more than just these operations, there's a gray area right now where medical patients and residents of the city don't have anywhere to readily access their medicine right now,” Szameit said. “They have to go to these adult-use shops that have popped up overnight or go to Los Angeles. It's just a bad situation for all.”
Aside from his efforts to get the Golden State Collective grandfathered, Szameit is also starting new business ventures outside of Pasadena. Unfortunately, the city's ongoing legal action against him could dictate his future in California's budding cannabis industry.
“My goal is to operate again in the city of Pasadena, to clear my name, and to build our brand throughout the state of California,” Szameit stated. I've dedicated my entire adult life to the industry, I've been waiting for this time, and I would absolutely hate to be removed from the industry I've dedicated my life too.”
Featured Image: Shaun Szameit stands inside what was Golden State Collective, his now-shuttered dispensary, which was raided by Pasadena, California, police's Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team on Dec. 12, 2018. (Photo by Tyler Koslow)