San Diego Mayor not out to shut down medical marijuana shops

San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders will not increase efforts to shutter medical marijuana dispensaries, instead opting to preserve the status quo while collective operators look to forge their own path to legitimacy. Last month, the City Council rescinded restrictions on the businesses rather than pay as much as $1 million for a public vote. Council members were forced to act after a coalition of medical marijuana advocates collected enough valid signatures to place a repeal on the ballot. There were about 165 collectives when the rules were approved in April, all of which were operating illegally under current zoning laws. It remains up to code compliance officers to investigate complaints against collectives and tell them how to address problems, mayoral spokeswoman Rachel Laing said.

“We’re still approaching this on a complaint basis,” she said. “And I suspect that will continue to be the case.” That Sanders has chosen not to engage in the contentious and potentially expensive process of regulating the proliferation of dispensaries should come as no surprise. City planners were not involved in drafting the regulations, which were slated to take effect without the mayor’s signature. The prospect of closing down collectives poses logistic and legal problems at a time when the city is straining to provide basic services. San Diego face a $40 million deficit in a $1.1 billion operating budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2012.

“The best use of resources is to get regulations that everyone can live with,” said Bob Selan of Los Angeles, CEO of Kush Magazine and a spokesman for the Patient Care Association. “We applaud the mayor’s decision and think it’s a good idea for everyone involved to have some breathing room.” Cooperative directors and medical marijuana patients decried the repealed rules as too strict, even as collectives mushroomed at a velocity that has confounded city officials and touched a nerve with some neighborhoods. The groups successful in overturning the ordinance — Patient Care Association, Citizens for Patient Rights and the California Cannabis Coalition — are working to craft regulations that wouldn’t consign dispensaries to far-flung industrial areas of the city.

Recent recommendations from the city’s medical marijuana task force would serve as a solid foundation for a proposed ordinance or initiative, Selan said. The repealed rules sought to limit dispensaries to some commercial and industrial zones. Cooperatives would have to be at least 600 feet from schools, playgrounds, libraries, child care and youth facilities, parks, churches and each other. Still, some community leaders and officials advocated an outright ban. Scott Chipman, chairman of San Diegans for Safe Neighborhoods, for months has been calling on the city to more aggressively enforce existing regulations.

Chipman said inaction on illegal businesses sends a powerful message to all residents that neither they nor city officials need to respect the rule of law where marijuana is concerned. As it stands, all other businesses must have a business tax certificate, submit to inspections by government agencies such as the health department and comply with a state law that defines the conditions for manufacturing, packaging, labeling, advertising and selling food and drugs, Chipman said. “With proper code enforcement the mayor could have shut down pot shops as they opened and could still shut down all existing pot shops,” he said.

Many cities and counties have struggled to deal with the rapid growth of dispensaries since state voters approved marijuana for medical use in 1996. Most municipalities waited until the past few years to begin establishing clear rules for storefront operators. Regionally, only San Diego County has land-use regulations and a formal application process that applies only to unincorporated areas. The vast majority of local cities have either passed bans on dispensaries or used zoning laws to prohibit them. As a result, none have struggled as much as San Diego. Since April 2009, code enforcement officers have opened 225 cases against dispensaries and made 79 referrals to City Attorney Jan Goldsmith. Code compliance has closed 56 cases, 11 of which were referred to Goldsmith.

Twenty-six collectives have closed down as a result of city attorney enforcement. Five are tied up in litigation brought within the last year and an additional 38 are in various stages of investigation, negotiation or pre-filing status, said Gina Coburn, Goldsmith’s spokeswoman. The difference between police and code compliance cases is the latter are sometimes filed in civil court with a lower standard of proof. “As prosecutors, the City Attorney’s Office will take enforcement action when law enforcement or code compliance provides sufficient evidence to meet our standard of proof,” Coburn said. “We will not look the other way on enforcement of the law on these or other cases. Again, however, there are circumstances where enforcement action is taken without the necessity of filing a legal action.”

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