Marijuana dispensaries face tough entry into backcountry

August 21, 2011

Chris Nichols, North County Times

More than a year after the county passed a strict law governing medical marijuana dispensaries, no county-blessed medical pot shops have opened in North County's backcountry.

While one shop opened near El Cajon this summer, medical marijuana advocates say the dearth of shops elsewhere shows the Board of Supervisors' June 2010 ordinance wasn't intended to regulate the dispensaries, but to ban them.

They added that the county made the costs so high and the locations so few that no one can open in North County's rural areas. The law was strengthened in January when the board approved an $11,000 annual sheriff's fee for all medical marijuana shop operators ---- by far the county's highest sheriff's fee charged for any type of business.

Critics, including District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, have labeled the shops "fronts for illegal drug sales." They've also said they are a drain on local law enforcement services.

Some say there's no problem with the strict law.

In a statement on Friday, North County Supervisor Bill Horn said the one medical marijuana dispensary to clear county permitting hurdles (Mother Earth's Alternative Healing Cooperative Inc. outside El Cajon) is evidence that "the ordinance is working."

"The county is in full compliance with state law when it comes to dispensaries that distribute marijuana," Horn said. "My office has had virtually no complaints from North County's rural residents. It seems to me that if one opened and is operating in the county, then the ordinance is working."

California voters approved the use of medical marijuana in 1996. The thorny issue of how to legally and safely distribute medical pot has challenged local jurisdictions ever since.

Complicating matters, marijuana remains illegal under federal law for any use. Some local law enforcement agencies, including the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, have participated in federal raids on medical marijuana establishments across the county.

In August and September of 2010, county planners received two applications to open medical pot shops, both on Ramona's Olive Street. They returned them to the applicants requesting revisions and corrections but never heard back from them, said Gig Conaughton, a county spokesman.

Their applications are due to expire within weeks, he said, adding they are the only ones on file at the county.

The spokesman added that a third person later requested an application for a shop in Alpine, but he never submitted plans.

Calls to the applicants were not returned this week.

Eugene Davidovich of the San Diego chapter of Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group, said shops haven't opened in the backcountry because "the county has made (the permit process) so cost-prohibitive."

Davidovich said his group estimates there are 70,000 medical marijuana patients in San Diego County.

In February, Taylor Griffith, one of the Ramona applicants, told the North County Times that she expected to have to pay potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars to meet all the county's requirements.

She said those included upgrades to nearby gutters, sidewalks, roads and streetlights plus the security cameras the ordinance requires any dispensary to install.

Conaughton, the county spokesman, said he could not verify on Friday afternoon how extensive the county's requirements were for the Ramona properties.

Even if cost was not a concern, applicants must find a legal location to open a medical pot shop. County officials estimated earlier this year that there are only 12 to 15 sites across the entire unincorporated area that legally work.

The reason is that the county's ordinance prohibits the shops from operating within 1,000 feet of a long list of places, such as parks, churches, residences, schools, libraries and other medical marijuana facilities.

Bob Riedel knows the location challenge first-hand.

He operated Mother Earth's Alternative Healing Cooperative in Fallbrook for six months until he was forced to close it in February 2010 because he lacked a county permit.

But once the county's dispensary ordinance went into effect later that year, he had to search for a new property because the Fallbrook location conflicted with the new rules.

So, after more than a year of work, he reopened the cooperative in July near Gillespie Field outside El Cajon.

Riedel said the Ramona properties are about the only sites that will ever work in North County under the county's rules.

To open up more legal access in North County's backcountry, Riedel said, "you would have to have some zoning changes or an amendment" to the county law.

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