Business / Economy

Hollister Council revokes AgriPharma operating permits

City staff said they discovered multiple violations related to tracking and tracing cannabis products during a surprise inspection.
HPD posted the notice on AgriPharma's doors to stop all cannabis operations. Photo by John Chadwell.
Mayore Velazquez said AgriPharma failed to meet the city's high standards and had to be shut down. File photo by John Chadwell.
Councilwoman Carol Lenoir said she believes the police and city staff. File photo by John Chadwell.
Councilwoman Honor Spencer said all records requested should have been complete and available. File photo by John Chadwell.
Councilman Rolan Resendiz said the move to revoke AgriPHarma's permits wasn't personal. File photo by John Chadwell.

The Hollister City Council unanimously passed three resolutions Aug. 3 that effectively put AgriPharma LLC and its three divisions—nursery, extraction and distribution—out of business, according to city Cannabis Affairs Manager Maria Mendez.

Mendez told the council that AgriPharma, which had received its Cannabis Regulatory Permits for its nursery and extraction operations in November 2017, and a permit for distribution in January 2018, that there was a series of events beginning in May that led to the staff’s recommendation to revoke the Israel-based company’s permits.

On May 13, she said representatives from the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) and Hollister Police Department inspected AgriPharma’s cannabis facility at 1851 Airway Drive.

“During that inspection, they discovered multiple violations related to the tracking and tracing of cannabis products,” she said. “On May 19, the Hollister Police Department issued a ‘Notice to Comply/Order Produce.’”

On May 21, HPD issued a “Notice of Violation” after the company failed to provide requested records. On May 22, according to the resolution information packet, Carlos Reynoso, interim police chief, recommended that because of “repeated and egregious violations of the Hollister Municipal Code, and the permit and licensing agreements,” the city should revoke the three permits. He also recommended that Brett Miller, interim city manager, issue a “Notice of Violation” and “Notice of Regulatory Permit Revocation.”

Mendez told BenitoLink that she notified the two owners, Elliot Spitz in London and Liam Gal-on in Israel, and notices were posted on the door to the facility.

The council’s vote on Aug. 3 made the revocation official, Mendez said.

During public discussion of each of the three resolutions, AgriPharma attorney Gulomjon “John” Azimov attempted to sway the council to give the company another chance, but to no avail. He confirmed that on May 13, a Friday, CDPH and HPD came to the facility at 3 p.m., telling him to respond by the following Tuesday. He said he tried to explain that no one would be working over the weekend, which left him only one day to produce the documents the authorities wanted.

Azimov claimed he asked for more time, which he said was denied.

“They said ‘no, because of policy,’ and I still don’t know what policy,” he said. “May 19 was the deadline. We provided information on the 19th. [HPD Cannabis Safety Officer Chris Wells] was not satisfied. We already had a suspension. There was no time to evaluate what was wrong.”

He said the Chief Operating Officer Steve Chapo came to the city from Pennsylvania to speak to the authorities, but was not allowed to do so.

“Mr. Wells removed his access,” Azimov said. “I asked Mr. Wells multiple times to give me the law, give me the regulation under what you removed his access because he’s the only individual who could fix the problem. On June 22, [Wells] says ‘under the laws and regulations he’s not an employee so I removed his access.’ I still don’t know what law he was relying on.”

Later in the meeting, Wells told the council that Chapo had told him he was not the chief operating officer, and did not want to be involved.

“This industry is in transformation,” Azimov said, apparently attempting to justify the company’s regulatory lapses. “We will make mistakes, but it should not be a drastic measure to immediately suspend the license. Just fine us. We’re okay with that. Show us our mistake and help us to solve the problem.”

He gave similar arguments for all three resolutions, explaining the owners had been sheltering-in-place due to COVID-19 in London and Israel, and that the employees who were supposedly working at the facility had walked off their jobs and quit without telling anyone. He said the cannabis plants in the facility were not only immature—which meant they did not fall under the regulations being used to shut the operation down—but all of them were dead from a lack of care.

While Councilmembers Rolan Resendiz, Carol Lenoir and Honor Spencer said they supported the cannabis industry, when it came down to who they believed, they sided with city staff.

“When you’re in this type of industry you need to be sure you cross all your T’s and dot all your I’s,” Resendiz said. “We all look bad when these infractions occur. It’s not personal. We just need to hold people to a certain standard. We’re taking a chance of not only allowing this industry into our community, but we need to make sure it’s a legitimate one.”

Spencer said, “As a business owner these records should have been right there and up to date. The records that were requested should have been handed over, completed and everybody knows where all the product came from. It is on you that that was not done right.”

She added that the company should not be coming to the council “begging for another chance.”

“I think they had time to get the documents,” said Lenoir. “You knew what the requirements were from the track-and-tracing program. I feel you’re not working with staff. You threw some derogatory comments about Officer Wells, when he’s been with the process since the beginning and just because you don’t like what’s coming out of his mouth, sorry. He’s representing the city of Hollister, and I’ll stand by Officer Wells and Lieutenant [Dan] Winn.”

Mayor Ignacio Velazquez did not comment during the meeting, but on Aug. 4 told BenitoLink by phone, “This is what I’ve said since early on for this industry, we’re not going to play this game of ‘oops, sorry, let us have another chance.’ We’re going to hold everyone to the highest standards, and if you fail there, that license is going to get pulled. And that’s exactly what happened.”

Mendez told BenitoLink that the three permits are available for anyone who wants to apply for them, except for Agripharma owners Spitz and Gal-on, who did not respond to BenitoLink’s request for comments.

 

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John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a BenitoLink reporter and an author. He has many years experience as a freelance photojournalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer who has worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and underwent graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John has worked as a script doctor and his own script, God's Club, was released as a motion picture in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime that are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: johnchadwell@benitolink.com.