Pubdate: Sun, 13 Mar 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


SAN DIEGO - A sharp increase in illegal pot shops across San Diego 
has prompted a new outcry from residents, community leaders and the 
owners of 13 legal medical marijuana dispensaries the city has approved.

They say the illegal shops are dangerous because they don't conform 
to zoning rules designed to ensure businesses selling marijuana are 
far away from housing, schools, parks, churches and other sensitive uses.

The illegal shops are also being called unfair competition for the 
legal dispensaries, which were more expensive to open because the 
owners had to pay about $500,000 each for permits, consultants and lawyers.

The illegal shops also don't face the costs of city-mandated security 
guards and cameras at legal dispensaries, and they don't pay sales 
tax, costing the city many thousands of dollars.

City officials had predicted illegal pot shops would start closing 
once the legal dispensaries started opening, which began last spring.

But seven of the 13 approved dispensaries are now open and the number 
of illegal shops has doubled since last summer, from 15 to between 29 and 40.

Prompted by complaints, Councilwoman Myrtle Cole has called for 
hearings at City Hall and a City Council committee is scheduled to 
discuss the issue in April.

Meanwhile, a group representing legal dispensaries is calling on City 
Attorney Jan Goldsmith to step up efforts to shut down the illegal shops.

"The city spent nearly four years developing regulations and our 
members spent nearly two years - and hundreds of thousands of dollars 
- - to meet the conditions needed to obtain their permits," said Chris 
Siegel, president of the Association of Cannabis Professionals.

"But despite having jumped through all of these hoops and costs - in 
order to do things right - the city continues to allow unpermitted 
storefront dispensaries to operate with impunity."

Goldsmith acknowledged last week that momentum his office previously 
had closing down illegal pot shops has shifted in the other direction recently.

He blamed that on new strategies taken by attorneys representing the 
illegal dispensaries that have stymied his preferred strategy of 
using zoning laws to shut them down.

"We're seeing new tactics by the illegal dispensaries and we are 
going to have to adjust," Goldsmith said. "I really am sympathetic to 
the ones who are trying to do it legally. I want them to survive, and 
this is not right."

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

That's because state voters made medical marijuana legal in 1996, but 
the state allows cities to restrict where it can be sold.

The new tactics by the illegal shops include claiming they don't sell 
pot on the premises, but only deliver it from there, said Scott 
Chipman, leader of an anti-marijuana group called San Diegans for 
Safe Neighborhoods.

San Diego's ordinance allows deliveries, but the city could amend the 
law to limit the starting point for deliveries to legal dispensaries.

Chipman also said city officials have struggled to get search 
warrants to determine whether pot is being sold in dispensaries 
Chipman's group and other residents alert them to.

In addition, Chipman said landlords often slow the city's process by 
cooperating with dispensary owners to avoid losing a tenant.

Even when things run smoothly, including court hearings, legal 
notices and other time-consuming elements, the process is slow.

"It takes over a year to get through the court system, maybe longer," 
Chipman said.

And when the city shuts down an illegal shop, another one often opens 
nearby with most of the same people still in charge, Chipman said.

Southeastern San Diego resident James Harrison has experienced that 
problem, with two illegal pot shops opening near Little Lamb Land 
Christian Preschool in Mount Hope shortly after two other illegal 
shops were shut down in the same area.

Meanwhile, the owners of the city's 13 legal dispensaries are 
suffering financially.

"This is seriously harming us," said Dr. David Blair, who opened the 
city's first legal dispensary in Otay Mesa nearly one year ago. "Our 
business model anticipated 13 licensed dispensaries in the city, as 
the city anticipated, and five locations in the county."

Blair said he recently got a letter from Goldsmith promising to 
address the problem.

"I think they are trying, and two months ago I would have said 
they're not doing anything," Blair said.

But Blair said it only makes sense for the city to solve the problem, 
noting that he's paid $160,000 in sales tax since he opened in March 2015.

Goldsmith met last week with the Association of Cannabis 
Professionals, and a spokesman for the city attorney said the meeting 
went well.

"We have the same goals," said the spokesman, Gerry Braun, adding 
that dispensary owners could help the city with tips. "They are on 
the ground and understand what's happening."

San Diegans for Safe Neighborhoods compiles lists of illegal pot 
shops across the city and said last week they knew of at least 33.

But Dawn Kamali, an alcohol and drug prevention specialist who 
complies the list, said there are almost certainly a few more because 
it's nearly impossible to keep track when they open so quickly.

Braun said the city has 29 open cases, meaning that's the number of 
dispensaries they are somewhere in the process of shutting down. He 
said five of the dispensaries on Kamali's list have been ordered by 
judges to close.

Last July, the city had 15 open cases.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom