Pubdate: Wed, 10 Aug 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 - More than two years after San Diego approved legal sales 
of medical marijuana, the city has just eight dispensaries - far 
fewer than predicted - with no others even close to opening.

Medical marijuana advocates blame the relatively small number 
primarily on restrictive city zoning and regulations, but six 
dispensaries got final city approval months ago yet still haven't 
opened for a variety of reasons.

The struggles could mean recreational marijuana, which state voters 
might approve on the November ballot, could be harder to find in San 
Diego than in many other cities.

Whether San Diego creates a separate approval process for 
recreational dispensaries or allows medical dispensaries to also sell 
recreational marijuana, the zoning restrictions and regulations are 
expected to be similarly tough.

The relatively small number of dispensaries is also being blamed for 
the persistence of dozens of illegal or "black market" pot shops 
across the city.

Critics say that if there aren't enough legal dispensaries to serve 
an estimated 100,000 medical marijuana patients across the county, 
then patients will continue to rely on the illegal shops despite them 
having no standards for product testing or security.

City officials also call the illegal shops 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.

City regulations allow 36 dispensaries, a maximum of four in each of 
nine council districts.

Because of restrictive zoning and other regulations in the ordinance 
San Diego adopted in March 2014, medical marijuana advocates 
predicted only about 20 legal dispensaries would open.

A year later, that number had been whittled down to somewhere between 
12 and 17 because of new problems and roadblocks faced by applicants, 
such as being disqualified by the proximity of little-known "open 
space" areas that city officials designated as parks.

In one way, those predictions appear to be about right. Fourteen 
dispensaries have final approval and a 15th appears likely to follow 
this summer.

But in another way, those predictions were significantly off because 
six of the 14 approved dispensaries haven't opened many months after 
getting final approval.

Some have run into typical problems faced by any business, such as 
construction snafus, money problems or city rules regarding the 
striping of parking lots.

Others have faced more unusual challenges, such as key people dying, 
landlords getting cold feet or building associations banning 
dispensaries by updating codes, covenants and restrictions.

And while financial problems aren't unusual when starting a business, 
some applicants have complained they ran out of money because 
obtaining a city permit ended up being much more expensive than they expected.

"Every one is its own story," said Jessica McElfresh, an attorney 
representing three of the eight dispensaries that have opened. "I 
think the reasons are pretty unsexy. I had hoped more dispensaries 
would be open by now, but this happens with these kinds of projects."

Lance Rogers, an attorney representing two of the six approved 
dispensaries that haven't opened, said the two situations are far different.

A dispensary approved in March 2015 for 8888 Clairemont Mesa Blvd. is 
the subject of ongoing litigation, with the landlord being sued for 
$3.2 million because he backed out of the lease shortly after the 
dispensary got its initial city approval.

The landlord says breaking the lease was warranted because of 
city-imposed restrictions on the dispensary the applicant agreed to - 
without the landlord's consent - after the lease was signed.

Rogers said he's hopeful there might be a settlement that would allow 
the dispensary to open. But he also said the litigation has been 
complicated by the death of the dispensary permit owner.

Another dispensary approved in December 2015 for just north of the 
Washington Street trolley station has been delayed because the 
applicant has ambitious plans, Rogers said.

"They are taking time to fully construct the building because they 
view this as a long-term business and want to invest a lot of money 
to make it a nice place," he said.

Another dispensary approved in July 2015 for 4645 DeSoto St. in 
eastern Pacific Beach may be taking a similar approach. McElfresh 
said the applicants had to demolish part of a building as part of construction.

A dispensary approved for 1028 Buenos Ave. in April might not be 
facing any unusual hurdles. It typically takes a few months for 
approved dispensaries to open because sites must undergo city 
inspections and employees must pass background checks. But the 
applicant hasn't submitted some city paperwork crucial to the process.

A dispensary approved in December 2015 just southeast of downtown in 
Stockton recently began background checks. The intended operator of 
the dispensary changed after city approval, complicating the process.

A dispensary approved in July 2015 for 8863 Balboa Ave. in Kearny 
Mesa faces perhaps the steepest path to opening.

The site is in an office building jointly owned by tenants, and the 
owners association decided to forbid dispensaries after the applicant 
received a city permit. Also, in an apparently unrelated development, 
the applicant committed suicide.

Prospects appeared to improve this spring for three proposed 
dispensaries beyond the 14 approved when a comprehensive update of 
city codes made it easier to open dispensaries within 1,000 feet of 
schools, parks and other sensitive uses if there is a freeway, wall 
or some topographical feature in between.

But only one of these three, a dispensary proposed for 3455 Camino 
del Rio South in Mission Valley, is being recommended for approval by 
city planners.

That dispensary is within 1,000 feet of Indian Hills open space park, 
but because of differences in elevation, the dispensary meets the new 
city guidelines.

Two proposed dispensaries in Grantville - one at 4417 Rainier Ave. 
and one at 4410 Glacier Ave. - initially seemed likely to benefit 
from the new rules.

They are within 1,000 feet of a riparian open space area behind the 
Black Angus restaurant on eastern Friars Road, but Friars Road 
creates a separation that meets the city's new criteria.

However, they no longer meet zoning criteria for dispensaries thanks 
to a recent re-zoning of much of Grantville when the City Council 
adopted a new community plan for the area.

Because their dispensary application was already under way during the 
rezone, they can continue. But they must use the version of the 
municipal code that was in place at that time, a version that didn't 
include the exemption from the 1,000-foot rule if a freeway, wall or 
topographical feature is in between.

City planners are recommending both proposed dispensaries in 
Grantville be rejected.

No additional dispensary applicants have entered the city's approval pipeline.

The United Medical Marijuana Coalition, a group representing the 
city's legal dispensary operators, said it is still optimistic.

"Our group expects still more will eventually open, and that there 
will be enough dispensaries to serve patients even if we don't reach 
the maximum 36 allowable citywide," the group said in a joint statement.

They also reiterated requests that the city crack down on black 
market pot shops and illegal delivery services.

The legal dispensaries that have opened: 3703 Camino del Rio South in 
Mission Valley, 2335 Roll Drive in Otay Mesa, 3452 Hancock St. in the 
Midway District, 658 E. San Ysidro Blvd., 2405 Harbor Drive in Barrio 
Logan, 7128 Miramar Road in Mira Mesa, 5125 Convoy St. in Kearny Mesa 
and 10671 Roselle St. in Torrey Pines/Sorrento Valley.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom