Pubdate: Sun, 01 Jun 2014
Source: San Diego Union Tribune (CA)
Copyright: 2014 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
Note: Seldom prints LTEs from outside it's circulation area.
Author: David Garrick


Once Legal Shops Open, Some Areas Have Few Options

SAN DIEGO - At least 54 illegal pot shops are still operating in San 
Diego and city officials doubt they can shut them all down before the 
first legal medical marijuana dispensaries begin opening this year.

When the City Council voted in March to allow a maximum of 36 legal 
dispensaries to open under a strict new set of regulations, the aim 
was having those businesses replace the illegal shops - not operate 

That goal is unlikely to be achieved because forcing the illegal 
shops to close is a complex process and many dispensary operators 
reopen elsewhere shortly after getting shut down, employees in the 
city attorney's office and the code compliance division said this week.

"We shut them down and they open a block away or reopen in the same 
place a few weeks later," said Melody Negrete, the city's assistant 
deputy director of code enforcement. "It's also hard to be sure we're 
aware of all of them - many don't put any sign on the storefront."

The city has also been playing catch-up most of this year because 
then-Mayor Bob Filner suspended for much of 2013 enforcement of 
zoning laws that make dispensaries illegal, City Attorney Jan Goldsmith said.

That allowed the dispensaries to proliferate, forcing the city to 
deal with a larger number of cases when enforcement resumed shortly 
after Filner resigned last August.

Local advocates for medical marijuana say the illegal shops have 
served the purpose of providing needy patients access to the drug 
while people aiming to open legal dispensaries navigate the city's 
approval process, which is expected to take about nine months.

"We have great sympathy for those patients who still need their 
medication during the six months to a year that applicants will go 
through this process," said Eugene Davidovich, a board member with 
the Alliance for Responsible Medicinal Access. "Unfortunately, you 
can't put cancer or Parkinson's disease on hold for several months."

Davidovich and Lance Rogers, an attorney working with several 
dispensary applicants, said they expect most of the illegal shops to 
close after the legal ones start opening.

Customers are expected to migrate toward legal dispensaries when that 
becomes an option, and the illegal shops will no longer be able to 
tout themselves as the only option for needy patients.

"The moment the city issues the first license, there is no strong, 
legal basis to remain open," Rogers said.

But in many neighborhoods, illegal dispensaries could remain the only 
option based on the first wave of applications for legal pot shops.

Twenty-four of 29 proposed dispensaries given preliminary OKs by the 
city are in three central San Diego neighborhoods: Kearny Mesa, Mira 
Mesa and the Midway District near the Sports Arena.

Five other proposed sites include three near Qualcomm Stadium, one in 
Pacific Beach and one along state Route 94 in southeast San Diego - 
leaving most of San Diego, including four of nine City Council 
districts, without any proposed dispensaries.

City officials might also continue struggling to shut them down.

Negrete said the city has 62 open cases, with 30 forwarded to the 
city attorney and 32 still working their way through code compliance.

The city becomes aware of dispensaries by tips, code compliance 
officers spotting them and frequent checking of and 
other websites that list the shops, she said.

City officials then must determine who operates the dispensary, who 
owns the building and some other details before they can issue a 
notice of violation and forward the case to the city attorney, Negrete said.

Next, the city attorney's office must file a variety of documents to 
obtain a court order to shut down the dispensary, Executive Assistant 
City Attorney Paul Cooper said this week. Things can get complicated, 
especially when the operator of the business doesn't own the building.

"Some cases are work-intensive on the investigation side to determine 
who is actually operating the business," Cooper said, noting that 
many dispensaries are quite profitable. "There can be an incentive 
for the operator to continue violating, even when the owner has filed 
an unlawful detainer as a result of our enforcement action."

Cooper said the city has been able to shut down eight of the 30 
dispensaries classified as open cases, with the other 22 in progress.

Federal officials shut down about 200 illegal pot dispensaries in San 
Diego since 2011, but the federal government has since taken a more 
passive approach.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom