Medical Marijuana

David Pizza works at the counter at Outliers Collective near El Cajon, San Diego County's only legal medical marijuana dispensary. It is permitted by the county. — K.C. Alfred
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Region's only legal pot shop opens

Sep 15, 2014


Dispensary seen as milestone for marijuana advocates; concern for others

EL CAJON  — San Diego County recently joined a growing list of places across the country where people can legally buy marijuana, when a county-approved dispensary opened just outside El Cajon in late July.
Local marijuana advocates are hailing the opening of the county’s only legal dispensary as the fulfillment of a long-time goal and something that helps catch San Diego up with much of the nation.
Twenty-three states allow the sale of medical marijuana, which the dispensary near El Cajon is allowed to sell, and two others — Colorado and Washington — allow the sale of recreational marijuana.
Many other cities and counties in California, one of the 23 states where medical marijuana is legal, have approved licensed dispensaries.
But until the legal dispensary opened near El Cajon six weeks ago, the only dispensaries operating in San Diego County were dozens of illegal shops that authorities have been struggling to shut down one by one.
“This is a very exciting time and a great step forward for people who need permanent and safe access to medicine that works,” said Eugene Davidovich, who leads the Alliance for Responsible Medicinal Access. “It clearly is possible for localities to regulate this issue where legitimate folks have access to the medicine they need and our communities remain protected and safe.”
Marijuana advocates also say the lack of fanfare and controversy when the new dispensary opened shows many San Diegans have accepted as a societal norm that people can legally buy marijuana, a drug that had been illegal for decades.
“Maybe the key thing to take away from this is how normal it’s become to buy marijuana,” said Lance Rogers, a longtime attorney for multiple dispensary operators. “It’s no longer about flag-waving and protests. It’s the possibility of a new industry, a new economy and new job opportunities.”
Critics have no problem with the particular dispensary, where the Sheriff’s Department says there haven’t been any issues so far with crime, loitering or other violations of the county’s relatively strict medical marijuana ordinance.
Critics complain, however, that allowing legal sales of marijuana anywhere will sharply increase usage, make it harder to keep pot away from young people and create social problems akin to those blamed on alcoholism and addiction to legal pain killers.
“We’re already dealing with alcohol, tobacco and pain killers,” said John Redman of the group Californians for Drug Free Youth. “Why do we want to take another drug and push it into the realm of commercialization?”
Advocates say marijuana plays an important medicinal role in many people’s lives, so it’s crucial for local governments to allow independent businesses to provide a continuous and reliable supply of legal pot to customers.
San Diego appears to be headed quickly in that direction.
The Outliers Collective, which opened in late July on the northern edge of El Cajon next to Gillespie Field, is expected to be joined by several more legal dispensaries this winter when the city of San Diego begins approving its first legal pot shops.
Jessica McElfresh, a local attorney who’s represented dispensary operators for years, said a legal pot shop opening locally shows the region is catching up with a fast-moving national trend.
California voters approved the sale of medical marijuana in 1996, but determining how the state will allow those sales has been chaotic.
Recent momentum in San Diego and elsewhere, McElfresh said, has been partly spurred by the federal government’s announcement one year ago that it would no longer try to shut down locally-approved dispensaries if they are well-regulated and don’t become part of larger criminal enterprises.
Before that shift in stance, threats from the federal government prompted the shutdown of San Diego County’s only previous legal dispensary. The Mother Earth Collective operated as a county-approved dispensary from June 2011 to August 2012 at the same site next to Gillespie Field as the new Outliers Collective.
Rogers, who represented the operators of Mother Earth, said things were running smoothly until a threatening letter from the U.S. Attorney prompted the landlord to seek an eviction he eventually got.
“The owners were shocked because they thought they were the gold standard of what a dispensary should be,” Rogers said.
While Mother Earth was praised by law enforcement for complying with all restrictions, the dispensary was still controversial. Opponents protested, while others suspected it might be an undercover sheriffs operation, Rogers said.
The re-opening of a legal collective on the same site, albeit with a different ownership team, is evidence that strong support for legal pot is here to stay, McElfresh said.
“The fact that it’s returned in a short amount of time shows people’s commitment to medical marijuana,” she said.
That commitment will lead to negative consequences for society, Redman, the marijuana legalization opponent, said.
“People voted for compassion in 1996 because they thought grandmothers in their dying days shouldn’t suffer,” he said. “But studies have shown only 3 percent of people use it for the ailments we voted on: chronic diseases.”
Redman said most dispensary patients take marijuana for anxiety or back pain or simply use it recreationally. And when it can be bought legally instead of from illegal shops, access will increase and so will usage and problems, he said.
Redman said he’s pleased that Outliers Collective, which is surrounded by industrial parks and an airport, isn’t near housing or schools or other youth facilities. But he said the drugs bought there will still end up in places where young people are.
Redman said cities and other governments, such as the county, should exercise their right under state law to decide against allowing any legal dispensaries.
Advocates, however, say the absence of legal pot shops keeps demand high for illegal ones. They say the opening of many legal dispensaries this year and next will lead to the closure of most illegal ones.
“It reduces demand and wipes out one of their key arguments” in court, Rogers said. “From a legal standpoint, they can no longer say they’re providing marijuana and there’s no other way for patients to get it.”
Tyler Strause, co-owner of Outliers Collective, said he’s been pleased with the smooth and relatively quiet opening.
“I’m not trying to make a big splash in the community,” he said, noting that the collective has about 800 members after six weeks of operation. “The community is slowly and surely discovering us and coming to check us out.”
Strause has apologized for what he characterized as a misstep: when the collective first opened, it placed racy ads in a local paper that gave people the wrong impresssion.
“It’s not a boobs and bongs type of a place,” he said. “We’re trying to build a business with repeat customers. I don’t see why a medical marijuana dispensary needs to be treated or viewed by the community differently than a liquor store or anything else that’s going to raise some public safety and quality-of-life concerns.”

Source: U-T San Deigo

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