Pubdate: Wed, 29 Jul 2015
Source: San Diego Union Tribune (CA)
Copyright: 2015 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
Note: Seldom prints LTEs from outside it's circulation area.
Author: David Garrick


San Diego Officials Gaining Upper Hand at Shutting Illicit 
Dispensaries As Demand Shifts to Legal Operations

San Diego's efforts to shut down illegal pot shops have become more 
successful just as several of the city's first wave of legal medical 
marijuana dispensaries are set to open this summer and fall.

Fifteen illegal dispensaries are somewhere in the long and 
complicated process of being closed by the city, down from 69 one year ago.

Community leaders have lobbied the city to shut down illegal shops 
quickly, saying they are unregulated, attract crime and operate in 
inappropriate locations near schools or businesses that attract children.

City officials say their increased success is the result of greater 
focus on the problem, becoming more familiar with the process. Also, 
fewer illegal shops are opening based on expectations that demand 
will shift to legal dispensaries when they open.

In addition, the city had to dig itself out of a large backlog of 
illegal dispensaries that opened when former Mayor Bob Filner 
suspended enforcement of zoning laws that made unpermitted 
dispensaries illegal for much of 2013.

The Development Services Department and the City Attorney's Office, 
which work in tandem to shut down the illegal shops, have both been 
devoting more personnel to the process.

"Because we've dedicated the resources to quickly get to the cases 
and deliver them to the city attorney, I think word gets out on the 
street that we have this effort under way," said Mike Richman, deputy 
director of code enforcement for development services. "People know 
we're serious."

Richman said his investigators have also become more savvy, partly 
through experience and trial and error.

"We've gotten better at our investigations - we have some techniques 
that are helping us out," said Richman, declining to describe them to 
avoid aiding the operators of illegal dispensaries.

Richman said the time that elapses between discovering an illegal 
shop (either through a tip or seeing an advertisement) to bringing 
the city attorney that case has shortened and is now two to three 
weeks in most cases.

Gerry Braun, spokesman for City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, said things 
have also advanced on the legal side of the equation.

"When we first began shutting down illegal dispensaries, defense 
lawyers challenged the legal basis for doing so while constantly 
bashing our office and the city attorney personally," Braun said. 
"Every time we won an issue, the lawyers would raise a new legal 
issue. Eventually, we won them all, and judges have consistently 
found the legal basis for shuttering illegal dispensaries."

Jessica McElfresh, an attorney who represents illegal and legal 
dispensaries, said the shutdown rate has noticeably increased and 
that it figures to get even faster with eight recently approved legal 
dispensaries expected to open this summer and fall.

Those dispensaries will join the city's first legal dispensary, which 
opened in Otay Mesa in March. The other eight include three in Kearny 
Mesa and one each in Barrio Logan, Mira Mesa, San Ysidro, the Midway 
District and eastern Pacific Beach.

"Once we have a lot of them and there's more stability, I think 
patients will want to go to permitted ones," McElfresh said. "They 
will be nicer, more reliable and more regulated."

McElfresh said it's reasonable to expect the number of illegal shops 
to eventually dwindle to almost none, citing Oakland and San 
Francisco as examples.

"In cities where we have permitted dispensaries, there are virtually 
no illegal ones," she said.

San Diegans for Safe Neighborhoods, a group that lobbies against both 
legal and illegal dispensaries, agreed that the number of illegal 
dispensaries has dropped sharply within San Diego.

They estimated that there are roughly five more shops the city hasn't 
yet begun efforts to close, making their estimate of illegal shops about 20.

They said, however, that San Diego's more aggressive efforts have 
prompted many illegal operators to begin opening just outside the 
city's borders in La Mesa, El Cajon and unincorporated parts of the county.

"It's a sign they don't want to waste their time in San Diego 
anymore," said Scott Chipman, the group's leader.

Another effect of the city's efforts has been fewer illegal 
dispensaries within San Diego including their addresses on ads in 
newspapers like The Reader and CityBeat, Chipman said.

Richman, the city official, agreed.

"They used to be more bold in their advertising, and now they're 
getting a little more secretive," he said.

Shutting down dispensaries is harder than some other illegal 
businesses because the city uses zoning laws instead of criminal 
laws, so they can't simply raid them and shut them down.

The zoning approach essentially contends that dispensaries are 
illegal not because they're selling drugs but because they violate 
the city's land-use rules.

Goldsmith began pursuing that option when criminal prosecutions of 
dispensary operators began yielding disappointing results a few years 
ago, primarily because state law has allowed medical use of marijuana 
since 1996.

Complaints regarding illegal marijuana dispensaries may be referred 
to the city's code enforcement division at (619) 236-5500.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom