Red Tape in Ponca City


by Michael Kinney 

All Sergio Villarruel wanted to do was open a marijuana dispensary in his hometown. He was one of the first people in Ponca City to apply for a license when SQ 788 was passed. At that point, it looked like it would be clear sailings and he and his wife Candace would soon be welcoming customers through their front doors.  

However, what Villarruel didn’t know at the time was that he and his family would be in store for a two-year battle that pitted them against the city’s local government. It would cost the family thousands of dollars and their reputation in parts of the community.  

But Villarruel refused to give in and is now the proprietor of Life Leaf Dispensary in Ponca City.   
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Buckle Up by Michael Kinney | Art by Tim Jessell

“We just spent so much money just trying to hang on, to get something open that, it’s almost devastated us financially just trying to get it open,” said Sergio’s wife, Candace Villarruel. “And we have four kids; we cannot be devastated financially. We’re 30-somethings with four kids. We have to make this work and we believe in it. That’s the thing, we believe it is so positive. It can be so positive and beneficial.”  

Sergio Villarruel first got the idea to open a dispensary more than 10 years ago. His father, who was a bail bondsman in Ponca City was diagnosed with cancer.   

The prevailing method at the time was to pump him full of prescription drugs just to deal with the side effects.  

“My father ended up getting cancer in 2010. And afterward, after they cut out the infected area of his large intestine, they put him through radiation and chemo,” Villarruel said. “Well, a lot of the treatment of radiation chemo ended up giving him peripherin. So he had neuropathy from knees all the way to the toe and that led all the way through his fingers. And so he was in constant pain. They had him on two 100 milligram Fentanyl patches, four 60 milligrams OxyContin, and then six 30 milligram OxyContin, all in a day.”  

Villarruel said the number of drugs his father was taking on a daily basis he described as enough to kill a bear. And he knew there was a better way.  

“So mainly, my reason why I started, I wanted to do this. It’s always been a dream of mine at first then, and secondly is to help people like my father,” Villarruel said. “My dad is a Vietnam vet. He worked at Conoco for 40 years and so, he got a very good reputation. And he worked his butt off for me and my two brothers, by himself; I never knew my mom or anything. He’s a very good person. Everybody loves him. And it’s just hard to see him go through this and not be able to do nothing. Well, now I can with the cannabis industry.”  

Eight years later, Oklahoma passed SQ 788 and Villarruel rushed to get his license. But that is when the trouble began.   
Art of Design by Michael Kinney

Before SQ 788 passed, the Ponca City Board of Commissioners voted to enact ordinances to establish zoning regulations for retail sales of medical marijuana. The ordinance did not allow for the cultivation and processing of cannabis inside city limits.   

Those businesses who planned to be involved in the retail sales of marijuana could only do so in areas that were zoned C2.   

The first building Villarruel attempted to set up shop was in a pharmacy that shared property lines with a church. It was also zoned C1.   

After a back and forth and sometimes contentious and confusing interactions with the zoning board, Villarruel was forced to give up on the property.  

This happened three more in which the Villarruels would find what they thought was the perfect spot and the zoning commission would find a reason to deny them clearance to use it. One of those times came after the Villarruels had already started rehabbing the building and working on the foundation.   

During this entire time, they were not making any money. And with four children to take care of, it was putting the Villarruels in a tough spot.   

“We’re looking at least a $100,000, at least that we have spent,” Candance Villarruel said. 

“We were just sitting on our hands. Not only are we still hemorrhaging money, every step of the way, we’re not able to make money because both of us, we stopped working. This was what we were doing. We thought we were going to be open in August of 2018. We fully planned on that.”  

“So, I mean, I’d say we’re probably easy into the $100,000 range. And that’s not even considering nothing is coming in, just money going out.”  

It wasn’t until January of this year that the Villarruels found a place that seemed to work for all interested parties.   
OkiePristine by Michael Kinney

“It was crazy. It’s been an ordeal, but again, at least we’re up and running now and we’re happy. And we have a beautiful, beautiful shop now, it’s historic. Very cool,” Candace Villarruel said. “It is in the historic Rock Island Train Depot, built in, I believe, 1910. It’s beautiful. It’s a very cool building. It’s been restored and we could not be happier. It has made it a perfect place for a dispensary. It’s been a good home for us.”  

The Villarruels didn’t get near the same type of push back from Ponca City officials as they had with previous attempts. They believe a big reason is due to the location.    

“This one is in what a lot of people would consider an undesirable area of town. It’s in our South part of town. I lived in the South part of town for years and I never had any problems,” Candace Villaruel said. “I like the south part of town, but apparently it is not as desirable. But we have no neighbors. It’s just a freestanding building. I think it just has to do with location. And it had been for sale… The people that we are currently in a lease situation with, they had a coffee shop and it didn’t get a lot of traffic. People weren’t willing to go off the beaten path for a cup of coffee, but for some medical cannabis, they’re more willing to come to us.”  

While their journey to this point has been a difficult one, the Villarruels like where they have landed. Yet, they have not forgotten what they have been through or the people who put them through it.   

“A lot of these small communities like Ponca Cities are shutting out what should be legal,” Sergio Villarruel said. “Like Ponca City cannot process or grow in city limits, which there is nothing in the law or the Oklahoma statutes that says that. I’d like to get it out that they’re doing this. I’m not trying to make any more trouble or of anything, because God knows, I’ve probably made enough trying to open up this business. I want to recognize the fact that Ponca City is doing what they want, not listening to the state laws.”  

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