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Few Crimes Linked to Legal Pot Dispensaries in First Half of 2018

Industry players say the lack of trouble and a change in police leadership has allowed them to rebuild their relationship with law enforcement.

The Mankind Cooperative marijuana dispensary operates within a shopping mall in Miramar. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Well into the first year of legalization, only a small number of crimes, nearly all of which are non-violent, can be attributed to San Diego’s legal pot shops.

Those findings should reassure not just San Diegans who might live near or patronize a dispensary, but also officials across the county who’ve expressed concern that legal marijuana storefronts will attract crime.

Facing possible ballot measures that would force legalization in their communities, some cities have urged voters to wait and see how the dispensaries perform elsewhere. They’ve also cited public testimony from former San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman, who warned the City Council that the negative impacts of marijuana businesses are “enormous.”

A Voice of San Diego review of emergency calls between January and June 2018 — which include basic details of the time and location and brief descriptions of what happened — suggests that authorities respond to one of the city’s legal dispensaries about three times per week. Considering that the city has 13 licensed storefronts, that’s an average of about one call per dispensary per month.

The volume of calls was not evenly distributed. Some dispensaries appeared in a dozen dispatches. Others, like the Apothekare in Mission Valley and Goldn Bloom in Stockton, were responsible for a single call during roughly the first six months of the year. One call involved a stolen dockless bike and the other a suspicious-looking vehicle in the area.

Indeed, most of the requests for police assistance were low-priority and included mundane stuff like false security alarms and calls from mentally ill people who hung up on authorities. “Chronic caller mumbling about monsters,” reads one report. Another says, “Rambling about Obama.”

Both those conversations came from public payphones. In fact, most calls to authorities appear to have come from the general area of a dispensary and not necessarily from a dispensary itself. Several of those businesses sit in busy shopping malls, surrounded by other retail shops and fast-food restaurants.

In only about a third of the calls, it’s clear that a marijuana customer or employee was either the caller or the subject of a complaint, according to the VOSD analysis. That equates, on average, to about one call per dispensary every three months.

“They take up a lot of parking space,” said Marlon Rubi, a digital marketing manager at the Mattress Pavilion, which is located underneath the Mankind Cooperative in Miramar. But considering the amount of foot traffic — about 50 to 100 people per hour — the dispensary is quiet, he said. “I’ve never seen any cops, and I’ve been here a year and a half.”

As he spoke, a private security guard, hired by the dispensary, patrolled the first floor of the shopping mall, watching the lot.

In some parts of the city, a dispensary’s presence is mutually and commercially beneficial to other businesses. Mankind, for instance, has a promotional deal worked out with the neighboring LouZiana Food, a New Orleans-style restaurant: Show the server a pot receipt and get 10 percent off the next meal.

A handful of the citywide dispensary calls contain serious allegations involving attempted burglary and assault. There were two arrests in the first half of 2018. In one instance, a homeless man was accused of hitting a security guard. Many of the dispensaries deliver, and on at least two occasions, a driver was robbed.

Several employees at different dispensaries were also suspected of theft.

In February, a Southwest Patient Group manager accused an employee of stealing a pound of marijuana, valued at approximately $2,500, but the shop decided not to press charges. Instead, the manager told police that the dispensary would consider taking the matter to civil court.

By number alone, the worst of the thefts occurred at The Healing Center, also known as THCSD, in Mission Valley, where approximately $41,000 went missing.

Ray Taylor, the co-owner and president, said an accountant noticed a large discrepancy in the inventory at the end of the 2017. He alerted the state, but because the theft had occurred before the official start of legalization — Jan. 1 — regulators couldn’t do much.

Taylor believed the theft was an inside job and assured regulators, he said, “I think we got rid of the rats.” He made changes to both his staff and the bookkeeping process, he added, and hasn’t had a problem since.

Police are still investigating.

Like other dispensaries, THCSD is a modern fortress. It has bullet-proof walls and glass. It’s surveilled from all angles and has sensors to monitor motion, lights and the opening of doors and windows. THCSD gets a monthly report of who went through what door at what time.

All licensed dispensaries in California are also required to employ two armed-security guards during daytime hours and one overnight.

Members of the United Medical Marijuana Coalition, a San Diego-based trade group, have a running email chain in which they notify one another of compliance and public safety issues. If one dispensary is ever robbed, the rest could know about it quickly.

The same can’t be said of the black-market dispensaries throughout the region that’ve popped up faster than law enforcement can shut them down. They are, by definition, unaccountable to the public, and they’ve been the site of violent robberies and death.

THCSD, specifically, has gotten high marks from officials over the years. It’s also been the target of youth and anti-drug activists.

At an August 2015 Planning Commission hearing, the group debated whether to give THCSD — which was only looking to trade in medical marijuana at the time — a conditional use permit. Warning of the health and public safety effects on the community, one activist complained that marijuana businesses were inherently lawless.

Commissioner Anthony Wagner came to the dispensary’s defense, saying one of his biggest pet peeves was when people conflate the illegal and legal marketplaces.

“You can’t mix the two and you can’t assess a crime value with a legally conforming, zoned appropriately dispensary,” he said.

Opponents of legalization believe the distinction is irrelevant. Marijuana can be grown and sold in California and San Diego, but the federal government still considers it a class one narcotic, on par with heroin.

At the time, Wagner acknowledged that the industry was still in uncharted territory, but he argued that the regulatory process would ensure “dispensaries don’t disproportionately contribute to crime, violence, harm.”

“You could have your July 4th picnic out in the parking lot because it’s a damn safe place to be,” he said.

Wagner would go on to lead the Responsible Growers Council, which represents marijuana farmers.

Despite the vote of confidence on the planning side, there’s a lingering sense of nervousness among San Diego’s dispensary owners from the days of former Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman.

Although Zimmerman did not stand in the way of allowing the city’s medical marijuana dispensaries to expand into recreational sales last year, she adamantly opposed the creation of new permits for cultivation, manufacturing and distribution facilities. In September 2017, she warned the City Council that those businesses would attract crime, citing police radio calls to medical marijuana dispensaries over the previous two-and-a-half years.

A closer look at the calls, however, revealed that Zimmerman had wildly overstated her case. Calls to dispensaries between 2015 and 2017 were similar to calls to dispensaries in 2018: They included plenty of false security alarms, 911 hang-ups and nearby traffic stops.

Yet Zimmerman’s testimony has been uncritically echoed over the last year by opponents of marijuana to try to dissuade officials from opening new markets throughout the county. Some in the industry wonder whether calling police for minor problems isn’t counterproductive, because those calls will later be included in statistics that make them look bad.

“It absolutely creates a disincentive to pick up the phone and report something,” said Phil Rath, executive director of the UMMC. “I don’t know that that’s necessarily happened.”

The relationship between law enforcement and the dispensaries is strained, but it has improved since Zimmerman — who once went undercover at Patrick Henry High in Del Cerro to bust teenage drug dealers — retired in February.

Recent meetings between the industry and law enforcement have helped put faces to names and open the lines of communication, Rath said. The dispensaries have looked to the city for advice while understanding that the police department is not a security consulting firm.

“That’s not their job,” Rath said. “But it’s about sharing information, and they’ve encouraged us to ‘please call if something strange happens or you need help,’ and we’ve said OK.”

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