Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2009 | Screwy Louie was on the phone.
A female employee of PB 420 Cheech & Chong Headquarters — or, as its city tax certificate states, Pacific Beach Care Center — burst through a door Wednesday afternoon to tell Charles Ziegenfelder, the store’s owner, Screwy Louie’s message.
“He says the police are raiding PB!” she said.
“Shit,” Ziegenfelder said emphatically.
“What should I do?” the employee asked.
“Lock the doors,” Ziegenfelder said.
Ziegenfelder left the Windexed glass cases with Train Wreck, Jack, Royal Purple, Blind Chron Keef and Morning Star marijuana inside, hurried into his office and packed a small box. Then he darted out the back, with the door slamming behind him.
A few minutes later, Ziegenfelder was downstairs in the parking garage below his shop. He said he was on his way to the bank with money from the register. The police, he said, would take cash during a raid.
San Diego has a medical marijuana problem. A problem beyond Wednesday afternoon’s sweeping battering-ram and gun-drawn police raid on what a San Diego Police Department spokeswoman called “places that call themselves dispensaries of marijuana.” A problem no matter what you think of Ziegenfelder’s operation. A problem that a newly created city task force on medical marijuana policy will come to understand soon.
It’s a problem of knowledge. No one knows how many places you can buy medical marijuana in the city. No one knows where they should be. No one knows what’s legal or permitted and what isn’t.
No medical marijuana business is allowed in the city of San Diego, according to the city’s development services director, until the city determines proper zoning requirements for them.
“At this point,” said city Development Services Director Kelly Broughton, “no.”
That decision is sure to surprise medical marijuana business owners, as it did at least one city councilman. But, for now, likely business owners’ immediate concern is Wednesday’s raid led by the San Diego District Attorney’s Office and assisted at least by city police, county sheriff’s deputies and federal drug agents. More details on the raids, police and district attorney spokespeople said, will be available at a press conference Thursday morning. It is unclear if PB 420 was busted. No one answered the phone there Wednesday night.
All of it is enough to make anyone screwy.
Medical marijuana rules have long vexed municipalities since state voters decriminalized it 13 years ago. State attorney general guidelines issued last year are supposed to provide the most clarity. “Primary caregivers” should dispense marijuana to patients who have received recommendations from doctors, the guidelines state. Patients and caregivers can form “collectives” or “cooperatives” to grow and sell marijuana among themselves. A caregiver can profit from the sale, but a nonprofit is recommended.
In San Diego, the city had issued business tax certificates for storefront collectives until mid-July when it noticed a spike in applications. Broughton didn’t know what brought on the increase, but San Diego County recently had lost a lawsuit attempting to ban issuing medical marijuana identification cards. Also, since the city of Los Angeles had begun cracking down on its marijuana outlets, San Diego noticed an increase in out-of-area phone calls inquiring about opening here.
Broughton determined that the city had no zoning category to accommodate medical marijuana storefronts. Any possible category, such as pharmaceuticals, retail sales, medical, dental or health practitioners, didn’t fit. None of those had adequate regulations on their location, say a certain distance from schools, playgrounds or residences. Broughton’s determination, written in a July 21 memo, meant that the city would stop issuing tax certificates. That decision effectively suspended medical marijuana establishments from in the city.
At the time, Broughton wrote, there were eight active medical marijuana businesses approved in various zoning categories and 30 more in the pipeline.
Those numbers are likely low.
City business tax records just in the six-week period between June 1 and July 15 show 14 tax certificates issued to businesses with “cooperative” or “collective” in their names. A quick turn through the pages of Nug magazine or a click online at WeedMaps.Com indicates more. Ziegenfelder estimated there were 200 licensed medical marijuana dealers in the city.
He’s one of them. Ziegenfelder received a seller’s permit from the state of California and a business tax certificate — issued three days prior to Broughton’s memo — from the city of San Diego. Between gulps of Mountain Dew, he ripped out the receipts from his cash register to boast of the $1,906 in sales tax he owed this month.
“If you just open a clean shop and everything what harm are they doing?” he said. “And they’re only doing… ” Ziegenfelder paused and banged three times on the cash register until it opened. “Good.”
Police raids aside, how long businesses like Ziegenfelder’s can stay open without problems depends on the kindness of their neighbors. That decision that has caused confusion at City Hall.
Councilman Todd Gloria, one of council’s point people in forming the medical marijuana task force, believed medical marijuana businesses that received tax certificates prior to the city’s suspension would be grandfathered in until the determination of new zoning rules.
“I thought it was pretty clear that those that were open would be allowed to continue,” Gloria said.
Not so, Broughton said.
His office has just mailed letters to verified medical marijuana establishments saying that their business didn’t comply with a city zoning rule.
“It’s no different than anybody else that’s doing something that isn’t consistent with municipal code,” he said.
Should the city receive a complaint about a medical marijuana business operating, it would be referred to code enforcement for review, he said.
Told Broughton’s opinion, Gloria said he needed to check back with the Development Services Department.
At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, where a task force to address all these issues was established, neither the Police Department nor members of the Development Services Department attended. Various council members and members of the public lashed out at the Mayor’s Office for their absence.
“Council decided they wanted to have this task force,” Mayoral Spokeswoman Rachel Laing said. “That’s in its purview to create and to discuss these issues, but we believe the appropriate channels for resolution of the issues already existed.”
During the meeting, patients, neighbors and policy folks all spoke to complain about the current state of medical marijuana affairs. Access was important; businesses were causing problems to nearby residents. But few, if any, spoke about anything but the need for greater regulations and enforcement.
Peter Hashagen, an Ocean Beach resident, listened to the meeting from the crowd. He had hoped to open a medical marijuana business that also featured massage therapy and acupuncture. He was about to sign a lease, but applied too late for a tax certificate.
Originally, council had wanted the task force to be finished its work in a year, but the urgency of the matter made them decide to at least address land-use issues before the end of the year.
As the meeting ended, Hashagen breathed a sigh of minor relief.
“At least it’s only three months now,” he said.
— Sam Hodgson contributed to this report.