Filner halts medpot crackdown

January 09, 2013

Craig Gustafson, San Diego Union-Tribune

Mayor Bob Filner ordered a halt Thursday to the prosecution of medical marijuana dispensaries in the city, using his power as strong mayor to direct police and code compliance officers to stop targeting the pot shops. The decision came two days after Filner spoke before the San Diego chapter of Americans for Safe Access, an advocacy group for medical marijuana. Filner criticized law enforcement’s crackdown on dispensaries and identified City Attorney Jan Goldsmith as an official that “has not been, what shall I say, very helpful.” He promised the group he would talk to the police chief, noting he could hire or fire him, and intimidate Goldsmith into backing off.

Goldsmith responded Wednesday with a letter to Filner that “you could have achieved your goal in less than 30 seconds.” The mayor has sole authority over civil actions against dispensaries because they involved code-enforcement violations, which are under his purview, the city attorney explained.

Armed with that legal advice, Filner sent memos titled “Stop the Crackdown on Marijuana Dispensaries” to Police Chief William Lansdowne and Development Services Director Kelly Broughton, who oversees neighborhood code compliance, on Thursday. He told them to stop code enforcement against marijuana dispensaries and to stop forwarding such cases to the City Attorney’s Office for prosecution.

The mayor’s decision only blunts one law enforcement tactic to shut them down. He has no authority over the District Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which can still proceed with prosecutions of those businesses.

In a statement, Filner said he asked for the temporary halt of city prosecutions to be in place until the city has a new set of regulations in place for distribution of the drug.

“As I made very clear during my campaign for mayor, I support the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes and am committed to ensuring the people who legitimately need it for relief of pain are not kept from accessing it,” he said. “I also want to assure the residents of San Diego that there will be the utmost safeguards surrounding these dispensaries. They will not be near schools, playgrounds or any areas where children might gather. Nor will they be allowed to infringe on the quality of life in any neighborhood.”

Filner has promised to work with medical marijuana advocates to create an ordinance in the next few weeks to allow regulated dispensaries and has offered to testify on behalf of shop owners in court.

Goldsmith said he would drop a dozen pending cases against dispensaries as a result of the mayor’s directive. About 100 cases have already resulted in shops being shuttered and Filner’s decision won’t reverse those outcomes. What it means for shops that attempt to open now remains to be seen.

Federal prosecutors have issued warnings that marijuana sales and distribution is illegal under federal law and property owners face criminal prosecution and potential loss of their property if the outlets do not close.

Goldsmith said he began prosecuting dispensaries in 2011 at the behest of the police and code enforcement officials, who provide the evidence. Some neighborhood activists had complained about the unregulated proliferation of pot stores, contending they often led to crime and the recreational use of the drug.

Goldsmith said Filner’s directive means the city won’t cooperate with state or federal prosecutors on dispensary cases as it has in the past.

“If we don’t get the evidence, we don’t file a lawsuit,” Goldsmith said Thursday. “I don’t know what the reaction will be from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”

A spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy said she was out of town Thursday and unavailable for comment. Chief Lansdowne had yet to receive the cease-and-desist letter from Filner and therefore couldn’t comment, a spokeswoman said.

More than 200 medical marijuana collectives have been closed down in San Diego and Imperial counties since Duffy and her colleagues announced in 2011 sweeping enforcement actions aimed at distributors in California. Some closures were attributed to settlements with the City Attorney’s Office — before and after medical marijuana activists in the city failed to qualify a regulate-and-tax initiative for the November ballot.

The legal limbo for dispensaries dates to 1996 when state voters approved an initiative to allow people with recommendations from state-licensed physicians to possess and cultivate marijuana for personal use. The ballot measure did not affect the federal law making marijuana illegal.

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