City officials and police are continuing efforts to shut down medical-marijuana dispensaries that are still operating and those that have recently emerged, but the process is painfully slow and full of litigation. Staff photo
Even with a new city medical marijuana ordinance in place and applications pending for licensed cooperatives in the Peninsula, a number of pre-existing, unlicensed dispensaries continue to fly under the radar.
Weedmap online lists about a half-dozen cooperatives currently operating in the Point Loma-Ocean Beach area, including Cloud 9 Co Op on West Point Loma Boulevard, Point Loma Patients Association on Rosecrans and Lytton streets, Starbuds Inc. on Midway Drive, Happy High Herbs on Newport Avenue, Happy Head Foot Reflexology and Massage - Sports Arena on Midway Drive and Super Max on Newport Avenue.
A matter of continuing frustration for local residents and legislators alike, District 2 City Councilman Ed Harris said recently that of 63 illegal medical dispensaries operating citywide, 17 are in the beach areas he represents.
Harris said shutting down unpermitted medical-marijuana dispensaries is not an easy task, however.
“Closing down illegally operating medical marijuana dispensaries is time consuming and often involves months of litigation,” he said. “There is a great deal of money to be made in this business, and often dispensary owners do whatever they can to remain open. That said, I am confident the City Attorney’s Office will get all of these shut down.”
Meanwhile, Harris said, “I have asked city staff to report on their efforts to close down these dispensaries during the Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Council Committee meeting on [Thursday] Sept. 18 in order to make the process more open and transparent to the public.”
Neighborhood Code Enforcement and the City Attorney’s Office are actively working to close illegal dispensary storefronts.
“The San Diego Police Department’s (SDPD’s) Drug Abatement Response Team (DART) and narcotic teams work with the city attorney’s Code Enforcement Unit and city code inspectors to address illegal medical marijuana dispensaries in the city of San Diego operating in violation of zoning laws,” said SDPD media services spokesman Lt. Kevin Mayer. “Once an illegal dispensary has been identified, code inspectors contact the dispensary operator and property owner, notifying them they are illegally operating. If the dispensary refuses to close down, a civil injunction can be obtained. If the dispensary continues to operate after the injunction is obtained, the SDPD will assist in enforcing the court order. Members of the community are encouraged to contact the police department if they believe a business is operating illegally.”
It’s been 17 years since California’s Compassionate Use Act was approved by state voters and legitimized medical-marijuana use.
The city’s new dispensary ordinance, passed earlier this year, amends the land-development code and the local coastal program to add medical marijuana consumer cooperatives as a new, separately regulated land use.
Problems with enforcing regulations governing medical marijuana dispensaries include overlapping state and federal jurisdictions. The process has also taken so long that many residents are unsure of what the rules are exactly and where — and to whom — they apply.
“I thought the cooperatives were zoned out of OB,” said Denny Knox, executive director of the Ocean Beach MainStreet Association, the community’s business improvement district. “Didn’t the City Council designate just a few places to have pot shops and OB wasn’t on the list?”
“The last time we had pot stores in OB, we ended up with seven of them — pretty overwhelming,” said Knox.“It wasn’t the best of situations. We only have one legitimate pharmacy, and then we needed seven pot stores? It seemed odd at best.
“People don’t like to believe that lots of pot stores lead to other drug availability in the neighborhood,” she said. “That was definitely our experience. The stores also brought a lot of travelers into town looking to get high at the beach. There seemed to be a lot of drug activity in the alleys when all the pot stores were open. There were lots of cars driving in the alleys getting packages from individuals standing behind buildings. Sort of like a drive-thru, but not.”
Pro-marijuana dispensary spokesman Eugene Davidovich of the Alliance for Responsible Medicinal Access (ARMA) characterized the notion that medical marijuana patients are drug addicts as “ignorant, insulting and flies in the face of much evidence to the contrary.”
Saying the claim that cannabis has medicinal benefits for relief of symptoms like tremors, seizures and nausea “is simply no longer in dispute,” Davidovich said. “What we need now is to ensure San Diego patients are able to go to well-regulated cooperatives for their medicine.
“Because there are currently no licensed cooperatives in the city, patients have no choice but to go to an unlicensed shop,” he said. “This issue underscores exactly why ARMA advocates for good, sensible regulations. Once there are licensed cooperatives in the city, there will be no more need for patients to go to the unlicensed facilities.”
Davidovich said cooperatives that are compliant with the new, strict laws will be great neighbors “both because of the rules and the level of difficulty and investment needed to secure a permit. These will not be fly-by-night operations, rather they will more resemble pharmacies and will not be unwelcome in their communities.
“ARMA urges the public to embrace the process and regulations that will result in well-operated, licensed dispensaries as the best hope for seeing the less-scrupulous operators close up shop, either by city code enforcement action or by virtue of the fact that permitted cooperatives have a market advantage,” said Davidovich. “Research has shown that regulations help to protect safe, responsible access for patients to their medicine and reduce crime and complaints in neighborhoods.”
APPLICANTS FOR LEGAL DISPENSARIES CONTINUE TO LINE UP FOR APPROVAL IN MIDWAY DISTRICT
There are presently 38 applications citywide for new proposed legally permitted medical-marijuana dispensaries under a new ordinance adopted earlier this year.
That ordinance allows conditional approval for a maximum of four dispensaries in any of the nine City Council districts, said Edith Gutierrez of the city’s Development Services Department.
Of those legal dispensary applications, 18 — or nearly half — are in City Council District 2, which includes the beach areas from Point Loma and Ocean Beach north to Mission Beach and Pacific Beach.
There are no applications in districts 1 , 4, 5 and 9. Council District 3 (Gloria) has two applicants, District 6 has nine, District 7 has four and District 8 has five.
“Applications are processed on a first-come, first-served basis,” said Gutierrez.
The new city ordinance allows medical marijuana dispensaries in industrially zoned areas. They are not allowed within 1,000 feet of churches, public parks, schools, child-care centers, city libraries, minor-oriented facilities, residential-care facilities or other medical-marijuana consumer cooperatives.
An initial deposit of $8,000 is required by the city of all marijuana medical-dispensary applicants.
In 1996, California voters passed Proposition 215, making it the first state in the union to allow for the medical use of marijuana. Since then, 19 more states and the District of Columbia have enacted similar laws.
In two states, Colorado and Washington, the sale and possession of marijuana is legal for both medical and recreational use. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the federal government has a right to regulate and criminalize cannabis. Also, if the cannabis is called “medical cannabis,” the federal law still has priority.
At the federal level, marijuana remains classified as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act. Schedule I substances are considered to have a high potential for dependency and no accepted medical use, making distribution of marijuana a federal offense.
In October 2009, the Obama administration sent a memo to federal prosecutors encouraging them not to prosecute people who distribute marijuana for medical purposes in accordance with state law.