TV crews lined up five wide at the May press conference downtown. San Diego's police chief and city attorney—flanked by other officials—took to the lectern in turns, delivering an aggressive and unanimous declaration: San Diego is through playing the cat-and-mouse game of slapping civil citations on the "hardcore" holdouts of the city's years-long campaign to shut down unlicensed pot shops. Raids and arrests are coming, they pledged, until the last of the few dozen rogue dispensaries has finally closed its doors.
"They're going to get arrested, they're going to get charged, they're going to get convicted, and we're going to ask for jail time," vowed City Attorney Jan Goldsmith. "They're going to be treated like the criminals that they are."
Officials pointed to three such raids, the most recent of which—on a fortified storefront near an elementary school in Pacific Beach—hauled in a "significant" stash of high-grade pot, $40,000 in edibles, $5,000 cash and ledgers detailing 19 months of transactions and sales.
Amid the unanimity, a fissure emerged: Would customers be part of the promised wave of raids? Prompted by a reporter, Goldsmith asserted at length that card-holding patients will not find themselves in the legal crosshairs unless they are "aiding and abetting" the dispensary.
"Let's be clear what we're talking about: This is not the drug war," he said.
But barely a few minutes earlier, the city's lead narcotics investigator said clients of raided shops "could be contacted by law enforcement at any time"—and more.
"If anyone is planning to or in the process of purchasing medicinal marijuana at any of the unpermitted, unlicensed and illegal dispensaries," said Capt. Brian Ahearn, "they could be subject to criminal enforcement as well."
The City Attorney's office has since reiterated it won't pursue charges against people who are merely patronizing an illegal dispensary—though a spokesman did acknowledge that police arrest people who don't get prosecuted "all the time." The SDPD did not respond to several requests for comment.
The half-decade battle against unlicensed dispensaries in San Diego is a saga shaped by mixed messages, political foot-dragging and uneven enforcement that combined to create "an atmosphere of non-compliance," said Kimberly Simms, a San Diego marijuana lawyer.
In her view, city officials are reaping what they sowed after taking so long to enact clear regulations.
"Any effort to bully patients and make threats that they can be arrested if they go to the unlicensed shops is just so incredibly distasteful and disgusting," she said. "And it is not an effective way to shut down the illegal shops."
The answer to the dispensary dilemma, she said, is to add enough licensed dispensaries to meet San Diego's demand for medicinal marijuana.
"San Fran and Oakland have unpermitted shops, but you don't see it the way we have it here," she said. "History has borne out that more robust regulations and more opportunities to be part of a regulated market is what eventually replaces the black market. That's what will shut them down, when the dollars and cents don't work anymore."