At first, the city of San Diego’s decision last summer to stop allowing medical marijuana outlets to open within its boundaries didn’t attract much attention. A September police raid of some city outlets brought the matter widespread publicity. The city’s reason for halting the outlets from opening? The city had no rules for how they are supposed to operate.

One outcome of the stoppage was September’s establishment of a medical marijuana task force to help the City Council develop guidelines for addressing one of the murkiest issues in the California: How to give people access to a substance the state says they can have, but the federal government says they cannot.

Alex Kreit, an assistant professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, has chaired the medical marijuana task force since its beginning.

The task force recently completed its work, recommending to the council everything from the distance separating medical marijuana outlets and schools to background checks for employees. So far, the task force’s work has been through two City Council committees. Kreit hoped the council would pass a medical marijuana ordinance this summer, though two important actors haven’t been part of the process: Mayor Jerry Sanders and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis.

Kreit spoke in favor of swift controls, pointing to Oakland, which has a few well-regulated outlets, as a successful model and Los Angeles as an example where the slow implementation of rules led to a proliferation of unregulated outlets before a recent crackdown. The best estimates for the number of outlets in San Diego now, Kreit said, are 75 to 100.

Right now, does San Diego have a medical marijuana problem?

I think so. Any time you have unregulated entities, that’s going to pose a problem. Citizens are going to be rightly concerned that a collective or cooperative could just open up shop in a location that’s just not appropriate for whatever reason. I think you see a problem on both sides. For patients I think it’s harder for them in some ways in this kind of system, too. Because they don’t know what places are legitimate and what places are some fly-by-night operation.

Do you think that if guidelines are implemented it would end the proliferation and bust cycle that has characterized local medical marijuana policies locally? And can you address that in the context of the Mayor’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office not participating in the task force?

Once regulations are established I don’t think it will immediately end some of the uncertainty, but I think it will immediately speak to the concerns that citizens have about places that are opening up in inappropriate locations or without permits because those places will presumably have to come into compliance with whatever ordinance is passed.

Specifically with respect to the issues that you’ve talked about with the district attorney, that I think is one of the things that makes it a little trickier in San Diego. The district attorney has taken a very unusually restrictive view of what the state law says. They seem hesitant to budge from that view and they don’t seem to be willing to come to the table to come up with a constructive, sensible solution.

Even absent any city regulations it’s going to be very hard for the county to keep going into court with the legal interpretation that they have. Because the two times they’ve gone to jury trials with their argument, which is basically that in order for a collective or cooperative to be legal under state law it has to be run like a commune where everyone is coming in and giving labor, juries have rejected it very quickly. When you think about a collective and a cooperative, anybody who’s ever been a member of a food co-op knows most members aren’t growing the turnips and the radishes.

View more news videos at:

San Diego Explained: Medical Marijuana. In partnership with NBC 7/39.

What happens if the city doesn’t pass an ordinance?

I think that would be the worst possible outcome. In the absence of regulations that’s when it leaves places to just open up and then the only the mechanism really for going after them is costly and difficult criminal prosecutions.

I suspect there are a lot of places that might have been thinking about opening up a collective or cooperative and now they look at it and say the city is about to enact regulations and they’re probably holding off. If it doesn’t happen, if the city says we’re going to enact a moratorium for a year and revisit it a year from now, that’s going to be a signal to places that are going to say: ‘Oh well, we’re just going to open up shop wherever we want.’ The important thing is that more than any specific regulation, get something in place.

If you had to come up with a metaphor for how to explain how medical marijuana laws function in this state what would be the best comparison?

That’s tough because they’re in a pretty unique place. It’s a system where federal law makes it tough to have some of the regulations that most folks want. The most common thing I hear is, why can’t this just be sold at a pharmacy like any other medication? Most folks would support that on all sides of the issue. The problem is because of federal law that’s why it can’t be. It’s left to the state and the localities to come up with their own systems for how to address this. Unless and until federal law changes that’s going to be the case.

— Interview conducted and edited by LIAM DILLON

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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