Former Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman / Photo by Sam Hodgson

Every municipality in San Diego County that limits or bans the sale of marijuana has cited public safety as the justification without much detail.

That’s what made Shelley Zimmerman’s testimony in September 2017 unique.

San Diego’s police chief at the time, Zimmerman urged the City Council against allowing cultivation, manufacturing and distribution facilities. The negative consequences would be “enormous,” Zimmerman argued. She cited 272 police radio calls for “burglaries, robberies, thefts, assaults and shootings, just to name a few,” at medical marijuana dispensaries over a two-and-a-half-year period as evidence of the kind of activity such facilities invite on a neighborhood.

“Some of you have said that public safety is also your No. 1 priority,” she told the City Council. “I hope you do keep that in mind when you cast your vote today.”

Although the City Council ultimately voted to allow the facilities, Zimmerman’s testimony influenced at least one dissenting Council member.

It was also misleading. And it’s now being used across the region to dissuade other governing bodies from allowing marijuana businesses in their communities.

Earlier this month, Zimmerman’s stats appeared in a memo written by Oceanside Police Chief Frank McCoy to the City Council, which decided — against the recommendations of a subcommittee — not to allow retail shops. Her remarks were also cited by anti-pot activists in Imperial Beach who helped slow down marijuana regulations there.

Tom Hetherington, a San Diego resident who owns an apartment building in Imperial Beach, warned that City Council about what a marijuana storefront would do to real estate values and summarized Zimmerman’s testimony.

“There is a real issue of policing,” he said, “and I’m concerned about that, and I am an investor.”

Late last year, members of the San Diego chapter of Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group, filed a public records request for details of the 272 radio calls that Zimmerman cited. At the group’s request, Diane Goldstein, a retired Redondo Beach police lieutenant, analyzed the records, which were made available on the city’s website in March. She concluded that the Police Department’s presentation was “sloppy, unprofessional and based on ideology.”

“This is their way of trying to undermine the passage of Proposition 64,” said Goldstein, who chairs Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a national group that opposes the war on drugs.

Zimmerman declined an interview. “I’m really not interested in talking to you,” she said when reached by phone, and hung up.

Voice of San Diego independently reviewed the reports, which provide basic information about the time and location of 911 calls and brief descriptions of how officers responded. The address listed on more than a quarter of those reports were to neighboring business, not a marijuana facility. Several of the city’s legal dispensaries existed then — as they still do — within shopping malls or office complexes.

An office complex in Mission Valley, where The Healing Center San Diego, or THCSD, marijuana dispensary operates. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

For instance, the medical marijuana dispensary Healing Center San Diego, or THCSD, is located inside a medical office building on Camino del Rio South in Mission Valley. On May 1, 2017, a woman fell in the parking lot and was having trouble breathing, possibly suffering a stroke. The address on the report belonged to a nearby pain management center. Yet the call was among those cited by Zimmerman as evidence that medical marijuana facilities attract crime.

Harbor Collective, another dispensary, sits on a street in Barrio Logan near the shipyards. On Feb. 27, 2017, police officers received a report of a fuel tank driver who was driving recklessly on the freeway and met the caller, another driver, on the same block as the dispensary to get more information. That call, too, was included in Zimmerman’s statistics.

On Aug. 30, 2016, police got a report of a man digging through a dumpster behind a shopping center in San Ysidro. He’d threatened to shoot another person, but left by the time officers arrived. Zimmerman’s presentation suggests the dispensary Southwest Patient Group is to blame for that.

And so on.

Many of the reports do not list the specific suite number of a dispensary. Instead, they offer the general address of a shopping mall or office complex, so it’s difficult to tell whether a dispensary employee or customer was the reason for a police response. The stats also include dozens of crank payphone calls to 911 operators made in the parking lot of complexes that house dispensaries and other businesses, dozens of false security alarms and even a couple requests to tow automobiles.

Only a fifth of the total reports reviewed by Voice actually cite a dispensary as the location of a potential crime — some of which were undoubtedly serious offenses. A Mankind Cooperative security guard broke up a fight between several people on June 13, 2017. A Torrey Holistics employee was robbed at gunpoint on Sept. 15, 2016, possibly while making a delivery.

Other reports are mundane. They include things like graffiti and vandalism complaints, water leaks and men being refused service because they couldn’t bring a dog inside the shop.

During her testimony to the City Council, Zimmerman noted that there’d been shootings at medical marijuana dispensaries in San Diego between 2015 and 2017. In the data, Voice found three reports of weapons being discharged.

In one instance, a Harbor Collective employee thought a bullet had been responsible for a broken window, but it was a rock. In another instance, a security guard accidentally fired a gun while cleaning it. And in the third instance, a security guard appears to have fired at a group of burglars in the middle of the night.

In April, the Oceanside City Council approved permits for marijuana businesses that produce and distribute marijuana products, and agreed to give law enforcement more time to research the possible effects of a walk-in dispensary. Disappointed by the compromise, a regional marijuana trade group has renewed work on a ballot measure that would legalize recreational dispensaries and more.

Last week, the Oceanside City Council revisited the topic again and this time agreed to allow two companies to deliver to medical marijuana patients, the Union-Tribune reported.

McCoy, the police chief, asked for more time so that he could capture more information from other cities. He didn’t give a deadline but noted in a June 13 memo to the City Council, “At that time, our Department can then return with meaningful recommendations to ensure that any dispensaries opened in our City will be able to meet the needs of those desiring Medical Marijuana, as well as address the overall safety of our community.”

McCoy rounded up crime stats from several California cities, and his memo briefly mentions a homicide in San Diego. Although McCoy’s office did not respond to an interview request, it’s likely the police chief was referring to a 2014 shootout inside an illegal medical marijuana dispensary in North Park, where an armed robber was shot and killed by a security guard.

A trend of violent robberies that the Sheriff’s Department identified last year stemmed from the region’s unlicensed dispensaries, which operate underground and without the security protocols mandated by the city and state. Legal dispensaries in San Diego are required to keep two licensed, armed security guards during business hours and at least one around the clock. A third-party company monitors the alarm systems. There are sensors mounted around the facility to detect motion, lights, the opening of doors and windows.

Alex Scherer, who founded the Southwest Patient Group and co-founded the United Medical Marijuana Coalition trade group, said he’s always shocked to hear law enforcement throw out stats, because the numbers conflict with his own impressions of what’s happening inside his store and others. It’s led to a sense among the licensed shop owners, he said, that reporting minor problems to police may be counterproductive, because those calls will later be used against them.

Many of the calls to the city’s dispensaries between 2015 and 2017 could have come from just about any retail business, Scherer said. “It’s not a consequence of us being a dispensary, but just the way things are.”

Jesse Marx is Voice of San Diego's associate editor.

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