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City may get tougher on illegal marijuana dispensaries

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SAN DIEGO — The city of San Diego is beginning to shift its enforcement of illegal marijuana operations to unpermitted delivery services, which are proliferating throughout the region, officials said Wednesday.

Phil Rath, who represents legal marijuana outlets in San Diego, estimated that at least 100 illegal delivery services are operating in the area.

A city ban on deliveries from unlicensed dispensaries went into effect in April, and officials are working to implement enforcement strategies, Chief Deputy City Attorney John Hemmerling said during a meeting of the City Council’s Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee.

“It might seem like it’s going unchecked, but it’s not, we are already on this,” Hemmerling said about the deliveries issue. He promised to report on progress to the committee in four to six months.

The switch to reining in delivery services comes as the number of unpermitted storefront marijuana outlets has dropped. According to the City Attorney’s Office, it is aware of just three operating in San Diego right now. The drop was credited to both enforcement and the rise of the delivery services, which can be contacted via smartphone apps.

“It’s just illegal drug-running,” Councilwoman Lorie Zapf said. “They’re all on wheels now.”

Scott Chipman, an anti-marijuana activist, told the committee that pot shops open, build up a clientele and after they’re closed down by the city, they simply become a delivery service.

Shutting them down will take strong action by the city, according to Rath. He said no one sees them, so the city’s Code Enforcement Division has received no complaints.

“Proactive enforcement is really the only way this is going to happen,” Rath said.

“(Delivery services are) not going to accidentally be made known to the city by people sitting in their homes or driving around,” he said. “We think that covert enforcement, sting operations, impounding of people’s cars who are doing this and not associated with a legal shop are the types of mechanisms that will have to be considered.”

He said his association is willing to help the city with costs. Legal dispensaries are being undermined financially by illegal operators, who offer lower prices and/or convenience.

Committee Chairman Chris Cate made two suggestions that received support from his colleagues and might be taken up when the City Attorney’s Office reports back:

— declaring illegal dispensaries to be a public nuisance, which would fast-track the abatement process and give the City Attorney’s office a legal tool for prosecution; and

— shutting off water and electrical service to shops that refuse to cease operations after numerous warnings, citations and city-issued orders.

Cate’s proposal to consider “placing a level of responsibility” on consumers of illegal dispensaries were opposed by council members Barbara Bry and Chris Ward. His idea to make dispensaries police-regulated businesses, like retailers of tobacco and alcohol products, could create a conflict for officers since the drug remains illegal at the federal level, police Chief Shelley Zimmerman said.

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