Here’s where you’ll soon be able to buy weed in Merced County, dispensary owner says

Owners of a marijuana dispensary called Bang Mingo in Atwater said Monday they’ll be the first cannabis shop in Merced County.

They expect to open in July at 1780 Bell Lane, in what used to be a house behind Tractor Supply. The roughly 1,600-square-foot government-sanctioned dispensary is a new beginning for one of the owners, Ben Harris.

He was accused in 2014 of illegally cultivating marijuana and manufacturing marijuana-based products for sale. Those charges have since been dismissed.

So much is made of the recreational use of cannabis, but Harris said he’s stuck with it because of its medicinal properties.

“I’ve been cultivating cannabis for forever. It’s something I love to do,” he said. “The truth is it’s medicine first. There’s a lot of value in that.”

Harris was part of a grow collective and had a location in Merced until he was forced to close it in 2017. It’s an example of how much the views on cannabis have changed in the past few years, he said.

The Atwater dispensary will also have a 600-square-foot nursery. Harris and co-owner Mark Yandow said they also own a 10-acre patch in Sacramento County.

The dispensary has undergone many of its required security measures, Yandow said. For example, the inside of the building has been lined with a metal coating and bulletproof glass is going in wherever necessary.

Armed security will be on-site around the clock, a requirement cannabis businesses in Atwater.

The head of retail, Herb Gallaway, said customers will be buzzed in and take turns seeing the products in the back room. Display cases and refrigerators are found in the back and customers order off of a menu, a measure to keep much of the product from being shoplifted.

“If you don’t have a lot of product on the sales floor, you don’t have people try to grab and go,” he said.

There’s even a pet area for customers who come by with their furry companions.

Merced and Atwater have issued a number of permits for cannabis businesses, but the dispensaries are far from opening. “We’re going to beat them all,” Yandow said.

A business based on cannabis makes everything more expensive, the owners said. Their annual license fee is about $30,000, and they spent many tens of thousands more on security upgrades.

“We are very fortunate to get this far without any outside funding,” Yandow said.

Cannabis businesses operate entirely on cash so many have a difficult time getting banks to operate with them. The California State Senate passed a bill in May to allow private banks and credit unions to apply for state charters to handle cannabis financial transactions.

The owners look to bring on about 15 employees. The online posting drew about 2,700 applicants in three days. The owners were quick to say they want to have a “corporate conscience” and look to offer benefits to their employees.

“This is a high risk industry but there are good returns,” Yandow said.

Reporter Thaddeus Miller has covered cities in the central San Joaquin Valley since 2010, writing about everything from breaking news to government and police accountability. A native of Fresno, he joined The Fresno Bee in 2019 after time in Merced and Los Banos.