Pubdate: Tue, 26 Apr 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 - Years of struggling to shut down illegal pot shops has 
prompted City Attorney Jan Goldsmith to shift gears and begin 
criminally prosecuting shop operators and their landlords.

Goldsmith has resisted a criminal approach, contending the civil 
injunctions his office has used for many years are the fastest and 
most effective legal method.

But Goldsmith announced last week that the city will start utilizing 
both civil and criminal means in the face of increasing outcry over 
the illegal shops from residents and the owners of 14 legal 
dispensaries approved under a 2014 city ordinance.

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

Owners of the legal dispensaries, eight of which have opened, say the 
roughly three dozen illegal shops are unfair competition because 
owners of the legal dispensaries had to pay roughly $500,000 each for 
permits, land-use consultants and lawyers.

San Diego previously filed criminal charges in pot shop cases only if 
illegal dispensaries refused to shut down even after a judge issued a 
civil injunction ordering them to do so.

Under the new approach, the city will file criminal and civil charges 
at the beginning of the process to provide two potential routes to 
success and add the threat of jail time into the mix earlier.

Goldsmith said the more aggressive approach will be used only when 
the operator or landlord has previously been involved with an illegal 
shop, but added that's the case with most of the remaining illegal 

"We are left generally today with what I call the hard-core 
offenders," Goldsmith told the City Council's Public Safety and 
Livable Neighborhoods Committee last week. "These are not nice 
people. None of us want the illegal dispensaries in our neighborhoods."

A spokeswoman for the Association of Cannabis Professionals, a group 
representing local legal dispensaries, praised Goldsmith for the shift.

"We're happy to coordinate with him on the new approach, and we hope 
it's effective," said the spokeswoman, Cynara Velazquez.

Scott Chipman, leader of the anti-marijuana group San Diegans for 
Safe Neighborhoods, had a more mixed reaction.

"We are hopeful the threat of a criminal prosecution will actually 
deter people from opening as well as encourage the bad operators to 
close right away," Chipman said. "We think it's an acknowledgment 
that what's been happening over the last three or four years has not 
been truly effective."

But Chipman added that dispensaries are so profitable that owners 
will seek new ways to evade the city's efforts, as they've done for years.

When the city shuts down an illegal shop, another one often opens 
nearby with most of the same people still in charge. Operators have 
also been known to recruit homeless people to sign their leases in 
order to complicate shutdown efforts.

And landlords, who also benefit financially because they can charge 
high rent to a profitable business, often team up with operators to 
stymie the city.

"I'm not very optimistic about this," Chipman said.

Goldsmith agreed that he's fighting an uphill battle.

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.

That's because state voters made medical marijuana legal in 1996 and 
the federal government ceased enforcing its laws against the drug 
four years ago.

The state, however, allows cities to restrict where medical marijuana 
can be sold. And cities can classify a zoning violation as a criminal 
misdemeanor, which Vista and some other cities have done successfully 
in recent years.

Goldsmith said the criminal approach is more difficult because the 
city faces the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard of proof, which 
is higher than what's required in civil cases.

In addition, the criminal route allows for jury trials instead of 
rulings by a judge, and defendants in criminal cases are entitled to 
review evidence through "discovery," which can make the process more lengthy.

"Our strategy of filing civil lawsuits is still the fastest way to 
shut down illegal dispensaries," Goldsmith said.

In addition, the maximum amount of potential jail time is only 180 
days, and Goldsmith said judges typically choose probation instead.

Goldsmith said he plans to press hard for at least some jail time in 
these misdemeanor cases because the illegal conduct goes beyond 
zoning violations such as adding an illegal addition onto a house.

Southeastern San Diego resident James Harrison, who has become 
perhaps the city's most vocal critic of illegal pot shops, said he's 
pleased with the more aggressive approach. But he added that city 
officials need to be doing everything possible to shut down the 
shops, three of which operate in close proximity to the Little Lamb 
Land Christian Preschool that Harrison operates in Mount Hope.

"We're the ones who have to deal with these what you call 'hard-core' 
offenders," Harrison told Goldsmith last week. "We don't want to just 
keep hearing from you 'we're working on it.' Not to be disrespectful 
or dishonoring to you because I really respect your position, but I 
wonder sometimes if you really get what we're dealing with."

Goldsmith agreed to provide the public safety committee with a 
six-month update and how much success the new approach has.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom