There isn’t much to look at in this industrial area on the outskirts of Adelanto. Many of the drab beige and gray buildings, mostly warehouses and factories, appear to be abandoned. The ones actually doing business amongst the Joshua trees dotting the hot and dusty landscape of this small desert town also have little consumer appeal.
But that’s OK. Here aesthetics take a backseat to the product being manufactured and sold: Cannabis, the new economic king of this small San Bernardino County community of 33,000. And Critical Mind Inc. is primed to assume the throne of this emerging empire with a multimillion-dollar high-tech cannabis growing, extraction, distribution and sales operation that would make “Breaking Bad’s” teacher-turned-meth dealer Walter White envious.
The 20,000-square-foot building once housed a furniture factory. Today, the cavernous hangar-like space contains freezers, laboratory setups, extraction equipment, lots of storage space and everything else needed to exploit marijuana to its maximum financial potential.
“The medical and recreational cannabis industry is going to make billions,” says Spencer Vodnoy, a former Pasadena High School student and attorney-turned-pot entrepreneur who is part owner of Critical Mind. His partner, Gene Stonebarger, is a prominent Northern California attorney specializing in class-action cases.
“We just hope to get a nice chunk of that,” Vodnoy continues. “We know what’s already out there and we know we have a great product.”
Vodnoy is perhaps best known for his role in representing an Altadena interracial couple from a confrontational LADP sergeant who lived next door and objected to their relationship. Their story, which first appeared in the Pasadena Weekly, became the premise of the film “Lakeview Terrace,” starring Samuel L. Jackson as the troublesome, spiteful and racist cop.
He and Stonebarger, who have known one another since the late 1990s, are among a number of other investors to help create Adelanto Mayor Richard Kerr’s vision of turning that financially struggling city into what Kerr has dubbed “the Silicon Valley of medical marijuana.”
Currently, Vodnoy and his partners grow marijuana in four climate-controlled trailers sitting adjacent to the main facility. An electrical upgrade of the cultivation portion of the warehouse is being completed so the growing operation can move inside. The manufacturing part of the facility, however, is up and running.
“If we only get a 3 to 5 percent chunk of the market, it will be spectacular. But, of course, we are aiming for more than that,” Vodnoy says. “We need to be part of the movement that provides alternatives to opioids, and one of those is through cannabis derived products.”
The company cultivates cannabis for smoking, but it also manufactures concentrates, oil cartridges and disposable vape pens under their own brands, Aces and The Truth. Later this month, the owners plan to launch their own version of legendary comedian Tommy Chong’s brand, Chong’s Choice.
If their business plan is successful, Critical Mind will provide cannabis products to as many as 1,200 dispensaries in California. The partners already have another cultivation and manufacturing facility in west Sacramento. Vodnoy hopes to one day set up a flagship shop in Pasadena.
Late last year, Pasadena passed a law barring pot shops, but the ordinance allows for the delivery of medical marijuana. In January, however, the City Council reversed itself, unanimously approving a motion to prepare an initiative for the June ballot that would regulate sales and taxation of cannabis. If the measure is approved by voters, the city will allow six shops to operate in Pasadena.
“I think [Pasadena] is too big of a city not to take advantage of the cannabis-related taxes, especially if you are going to allow people to deliver it into the city anyway,” says Vodnoy.
A Long Wait
In 1997, as law students, Vodnoy and Stonebarger were both studying in Europe when they met up in Amsterdam. There they visited a coffee shop where they were amazed by
what they saw.
“Over there all the coffee shops are weed houses,” Vodnoy explains. “Bulldog’s Coffee Shop is a commercial business just like a Starbucks. We were blown away and we kept saying, ‘Why can’t we have a place like this back home?’”
One year earlier, California voters passed Proposition 215, the Compassionate Care Act, allowing the use of marijuana for medical purposes.
The federal government, the state Attorney General and the state medical board, however, aggressively went after physicians recommending cannabis for medicinal reasons, and as a result 15 physicians were forced to fight to keep their medical licenses.
Today, the Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act — approved by California voters in 2016 — permits the recreational use of cannabis. It also allows cities to pass their own ordinances regulating marijuana dispensaries, giving cities like Pasadena the power to limit the number of marijuana dispensaries that can operate within city boundaries.
More than 20 years after their first experiences in Amsterdam, changes in public perception about marijuana along with legislation have made it possible for Vodnoy and Stonebarger to become successful businessmen with Critical Mind.
Vodnoy placed his law career on hold and decided now was the time to realize a dream he had since the 1990s. “Part of it was I didn’t feel like I was accomplishing anything that I would look back on and be proud of,” Vodnoy says. “While I was really excited to help my clients, I thought there was something more I could be doing, and when this opportunity presented itself, I did not hesitate.”
The company almost landed in Desert Hot Springs after
Canndescent, the first medical marijuana cultivation facility in Southern California, opened there, but the business partners did not think it was a good fit.
Shortly after Desert Hot Springs began issuing permits to marijuana cultivation centers, Adelanto started attracting cultivators as well.
The small community had tried everything to generate revenue, even building prisons and an immigration detention center to combat a growing fiscal emergency that forced city leaders to consider bankruptcy.
Vodnoy jumped at the chance, but there was just one problem: Adelanto only allowed non-volatile substances, such as CO2, dry ice and water, to be used in extracting the psychoactive cannabinoid THC and the nonpsychoactive cannabinoid CBD.
Vodnoy convinced Adelanto city leaders to pass an ordinance that would allow volatile manufacturing, which uses substances such as butane to extract those chemicals from the plants more quickly and efficiently.
“That was significant,” Vodnoy says. “They only wanted people with a good background involved with this type of manufacturing, so they could show they were doing things right and it could be done safely. I was positive it was a great fit for us and the city.”
During a tour of the facility for investors and the press, Vodnoy opens a jar and the group inhales some “White Walker” cannabis buds, one of Critical Mind’s most popular strains. He can’t hide his excitement. Neither can the other investors who wait patiently as Vodnoy passes out samples.
“My wife and I decided to invest in the cannabis industry because we’ve been part of the culture for decades,” says investor Kaleo Sallas, who’s put $50,000 into Critical Mind. “We know the medical, psychological and emotional benefits of this wonder plant. We have been waiting to get into this booming industry for years because of the financial opportunity to invest in an amazing market prior to it becoming completely saturated and normalized by big business.”
The medical cannabis business in California is expected to clear $3.7 billion this year, according to the website Business Insider, and profits are expected to soar to $5.1 billion in 2019.
To put that into some perspective, cannabis is projected to make more money than beer, which exceeded $5 billion in sales for the first time in 2017.
“I’ve seen the financial opportunities that occurred in states such as Colorado and Washington,” says Robbie Castro, who has also invested in the business. “I have been looking forward to this and I was excited to get involved.”
Cannabis has been shown to alleviate cancer symptoms and is a less harmful alternative to opioids for pain management. It also provides benefits to people suffering with multiple sclerosis and seizure disorders, such as epilepsy.
Castro sees big potential in cannabis and believes it can change the world.
“I think the sky is the limit with the cannabis industry, both medicinal and recreational, especially once it starts to put an end to the opioid epidemic our country is facing” he said.
Medical marijuana can be traced back as early as 2737 B.C., according to Mitch Earleywine, professor of psychology at the University of New York at Albany.
However, by the late 1800s the public’s attitude toward marijuana began to turn negative after morphine addiction ran rampant in the United States.
When the Food and Drug Administration was formed in 1906, marijuana was not mentioned in its guidelines, but the intent to control chemical substances further curtailed its use.
By 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act levied high taxes on physicians prescribing cannabis, retail pharmacists selling cannabis, and those cultivating medical cannabis, essentially ending its use for treatment.
But eighty years later, it appears cannabis is back and taking the country by storm.
“This is a dream come true,” Vodnoy says. “John Wooden had a saying; ‘Luck is just preparation meeting opportunity.’ As it relates to me, I feel like truer words were never spoken.”