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Fresno pot shop closes amid Action News investigation

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

For the past several months, a store has been selling marijuana in the city of Fresno. The business is tucked away in an industrial complex, and operates on land owned by the city.

The young men operating this business say they have been running a legal marijuana dispensary. But the police department is now questioning it's validity.

Officers have given the collective several warnings, but they never shut down. Until Wednesday, when they found out our story was airing.

From 10:00 in the morning, until 7:00 at night, customers can be seen going in and walking out with small white paper bags.

The business is called Earth Choice Collective and workers who call themselves volunteers are selling marijuana. There's no sign on the door, but Bob Lepper says it's really not necessary. For the past 25 years, he's owned the business next door to the dispensary.

"When it finally dawned on me what it was, I was pretty offended because I'm not happy with the people coming in here," said Lepper. "Particularly the ill patients on Friday and Saturday which seem to be their busiest time. Amazing. They get sick on Friday afternoon."

The manager would not allow our cameras in. The front office is set up like a waiting room at a doctor's office.

A glass partition separates customers from workers and a display case shows different grades of marijuana and prices.

Our cameras were rolling several weeks ago when undercover narcotics officers served Earth Choice Collective with a notice to vacate. Police say the business violates the city's municipal code.

"We also warned him that this is a city wide concern so we're not anticipating or hoping that they just don't jump from location, to location to location. Because if they choose to do that then we will be following them to location to location."

City leaders told Action News they were not aware the dispensary was in business on property owned by the city.

The dispensary is selling most of the marijuana for $10.00 to $15.00 a gram. The highest grades are even more.

It means the business is bringing in $4,540.00 to $6,810.00 a pound. On the street, police say the average price of marijuana per pound is about $1,500.00 to $2,000.00.

During our investigation, some customers barely made it out of the parking lot before they fired up.

Jeff Hall owns Maximus Media. His business is in the same complex as the dispensary. He says there were problems with the pot selling operation from the start.

He said, "The very first day they were in business, I was driving in, I've been in this location for 30 years, we've never had any issue with traffic or anything and in pulling into the driveway I had someone almost back into me at 30 miles an hour and look at me like why was I there."

Hall says he's fed up with customers who trash the parking lot and even relieve themselves in flower beds.

Police are concerned for another reason, the storefront business is getting good reviews on the internet and growing more popular by the day, which brings about other problems.

"It's a target rich business where if criminals know about this business they are likely to hit it because they know there's a likelihood of either large sums of money or large sums of marijuana."

During peak hours a security guard monitors the business. Surveillance cameras also record activity both inside and out.

Action News went to the dispensary before it opened last week to ask the CEO how this collective operates. The CEO's brother told us he could not comment and called their attorney.

Sam Salhab is the attorney representing the group. He says his clients are planning to close their business because of a state supreme court ruling two weeks ago that gives cities the power to ban dispensaries.

"Whatever ordinance is telling them that they can't operate, they are willing to follow it," said Salhab. "They are willing to follow state law and do whatever authorities tell them. They are not here to make trouble with anyone here. They serve military members who come and get their medicine here, they serve the elderly."

Neighboring businesses say the dispensary is a front for drug dealing. Both Lepper and Hall say they constantly see car loads of 20 something's pull in. Customers that they feel don't act or look sick at all.

ABC30 asked the collective's attorney how this dispensary is run and if he will provide any financial information, since the law states these operations must be nonprofit.

"I think that they are just covering their costs," said Salhab. "No one has ever demonstrated that they're making any money here. They're not."

Salhab did say the group grows and cultivates the marijuana that is sold at the dispensary, which leaves police with another question. Whether Earth Choice Collective really intends to stop selling marijuana altogether.

(Copyright ©2014 KFSN-TV/DT. All Rights Reserved.)

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Tags:
medical marijuana, marijuana, fresno, fresno county, local, sontaya rose
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