Pubdate: Sun, 10 Jan 2016
Source: San Diego Union Tribune (CA)
Copyright: 2016 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
Note: Seldom prints LTEs from outside it's circulation area.
Author: David Garrick


 From Ramona to Valley Center and the outskirts of El Cajon, several 
new medical marijuana dispensaries are expected to begin operating 
legally on unincorporated county land this year.

The Outliers Collective outside El Cajon has stood as the lone legal 
dispensary on county land since it opened near Gillespie Field in 
July 2014, but four additional dispensaries recently secured building 
permits and county officials say each is expected to open by the end of 2016.

Those five legal dispensaries will join 13 others approved by the 
city of San Diego, the only other local government that permits such 
businesses to operate.

In contrast to the legal dispensaries in the city that include only a 
sales area, the dispensaries in the county are expected to also 
feature large indoor cultivation rooms for growing marijuana.

The opportunity to cultivate and sell on the same site might be part 
of what's prompted the sudden sharp increase of dispensary 
applications in the county, medical marijuana attorneys and county 
officials said.

Other potential contributing factors, they said, could be new state 
medical marijuana laws that took effect Jan. 1, expectations that 
California voters may approve recreational marijuana use this year 
and more investors entering the industry based on recent momentum.

Lance Rogers, a local attorney who represents one of the county 
marijuana applicants, said industry insiders are surprised by the 
recent rush of projects in the county, which has a relatively strict 
medical marijuana ordinance that some have described as prohibitive.

The ordinance's land-use and zoning restrictions limit the number of 
eligible properties countywide to about 40, and the law takes the 
unusual step of having the Sheriff's Department play a key role in 
approving dispensaries and inspecting cultivation areas.

"It's one of the most restrictive and conservative ordinances in the 
state, and many critics view it as a de facto ban," Rogers said. "So 
with all of these moving forward, I think we're seeing lemonade being 
made out of lemons."

Rogers said one area where the county law is looser than many 
jurisdictions is allowing cultivation, suggesting that may be what's 
motivating the surge.

New state laws approved last fall, the first time Sacramento has 
comprehensively addressed medical marijuana since state voters 
approved it in 1996, say businesses approved for cultivation by local 
governments will have priority for state cultivation licenses when 
they become available.

Sheriff's Detective Michael Helms, who oversees dispensary approvals 
for the county, said the new state law has been a key motivating factor.

"I think the new laws the governor signed are the big push," said 
Helms, adding that most of the recent calls he's received from 
aspiring dispensary operators are from out-of-towners focused on 
cultivation opportunities in San Diego.

Jessica McElfresh, another local attorney who represents 
dispensaries, said opportunities for cultivation must be swinging the 
financial balance in favor of pursuing projects that had previously 
been cost-prohibitive.

Because of the county's land-use restrictions, many of the eligible 
dispensary sites are in remote areas that require potential operators 
to build roads or add infrastructure such as sewer and water lines.

"Some of the sites are extremely isolated," McElfresh said.

Rogers said recent momentum behind legalizing marijuana, both in 
California and nationwide, has convinced previously reluctant 
investors to get involved, making some of the relatively expensive 
projects more doable than before.

In addition, he said the prospect of California voters approving 
recreational marijuana had spurred more interest.

"We're seeing the development of a brand-new agricultural industry, 
which is something we probably haven't seen in 100 years," Rogers 
said. "It's not every day that there is a new plant that people are 
allowed to grow."

The new county facilities with building permits include three in 
Ramona - 1210 Olive St., 736 Montecito Way and 618 Pine St. - and one 
on the Valley Center/Escondido border at 8530 Nelson Way.

In addition, the Outliers Collective outside El Cajon is adding a 
cultivation area to its dispensary at 8157 Wing Ave. and plans to 
open an additional growing facility about 2 miles away at 287 Vernon Way.

The county's ordinance only allows growing facilities when they are 
financially connected to a dispensary, so no businesses devoted 
exclusively to growing are allowed. In addition, all growing must be 
done indoors and not visible to the public, so greenhouses aren't permitted.

Helms, the sheriff's detective, said Outliers has been receiving its 
marijuana from members of the collective who grow it at home, which 
has created some problems that on-site cultivation could solve.

He said things have been "relatively smooth" with the dispensary 
regarding security and operations. The problems regarding 
cultivation, Helms said, have been primarily members of the 
collective growing more marijuana on their property than the maximum 
six mature plants or 12 immature plants allowed under state law.

Three of the city's 13 dispensaries have opened - in Otay Mesa, San 
Ysidro and the Midway district - and the other 10 are expected to 
open this year.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom