When Cary Weaver took over a lease on an industrial building seemingly perfect for a medical cannabis dispensary, he knew there would be risks.
However, the opportunity proved too appealing to pass up. Having worked in real estate most his life, he started, several years ago, growing medical cannabis for a local dispensary.
“I think there's a perception that people who are in this business are bad people, and there are some, but most of the people are business people,” said the 43-year-old San Diego native.
While owning a dispensary can be lucrative, opening one can be costly, especially in San Diego where laws have created a dog-eat-dog competition for a limited number of viable locations. Over the last 18 months, Weaver estimates he's spent around $250,000 on the process, including costs for surveyors, architects and lawyers.
“It's extremely hard and stressful,” he said. “It's a huge, life-changing decision. If I fail, it's bankruptcy for me.”
Weaver is one of 53 original applicants, 10 of which have been approved since April 2014 when officials started the first-comefirst-serve process. Because the City Council capped the number of permits at 36, four per council district, many knew they were taking a chance.
However, under the restrictions of a hotly debated city ordinance, officials now anticipate permitting only 14 medical-cannabis dispensaries in total, with de-facto bans in four of the nine City Council districts.
The rules have proven so strict in practice that advocates for patient access who initially supported the ordinance have started questioning the process.
“I don't think that having limited access in the outskirts of town and not in every district is acceptable,” said Eugene Davidovich, president of the Alliance for Responsible Medicinal Access. “I think the intention of City Council was to have limited, regulated, safe access in every district.”
The Planning Commission, which reviews appealed applications, requested the city hold a workshop to take public testimony and consider refining the ordinance, which has led to intense legal wrangling among applicants.
Under the city's rules, dispensaries cannot be within 1,000 feet of each other or sensitive sites, including public parks, churches, playgrounds or schools. Applications are limited to specific industrial and commercial zones.
In the run up to approving the ordinance for permitting dispensaries in February 2014, councilmembers, led by Marti Emerald, whose District 9 is expected to face a de-facto ban, beefed up the list of sensitive sites to include broad terms, such as “minor-oriented facility.”
As a result, the number of viable locations where an applicant could open a dispensary shrank considerably. At the same time, lawyers from competing dispensaries looked for any excuse to disqualify those ahead of their clients in the first-comefirst-serve queue.
“The zones are very, very limited, so when they did find a zone that allowed it, we had multiple applications that were literally next to each other,” said Edith Gutierrez, development project manager for the city. “It was definitely a race to be first to a hearing.”
In nearly eight years on the Planning Commission, chairman Timothy Golba said, this process has been the “wildest” he'd ever seen. “To a certain degree it was sort of like taking the ordinance and covering it in raw meat and putting it out in the desert and just waiting for the buzzards to come picking at it.”
However, the City Council has refused to revisit the issue, which has come to be seen as political kryptonite. Opposition from a small but vocal group of anti-cannabis activists, San Diegans for Safe Neighborhoods, has proven extremely effective.
“I.Q., depression, schizophrenia, they're all negatively impacted by marijuana use,” said the group's cofounder Scott Chipman, “and it's very, very serious the younger the user.
“There are a huge number of people who are engaged in psychotic acts, these serial shooters that have no real reason for it,” added the 63-year-old construction contractor. “There doesn't seem to be any motive, and you find out they're marijuana users.”
Reaching out to the mayor's office, as well as members of the City Council with fewer than two dispensaries slated for their district,CityBeat received one response. Gina Jacobs, spokesperson for Mark Kersey, whose District 5 faces a de-facto ban, told CityBeat the councilmember was “fine with that.”
That's not good news for Weaver, whose project was recommended by city staff last winter for approval, only to find out recently that he's too close to a “public park.”
Located in Councilmember Scott Sherman's District 7, which faces a de-facto ban, the warehouse Weaver has rented is located south of Friars Road in an industrial area east of Interstate 15. Unfortunately for him, it came to the city's attention that a section of the San Diego River, technically a “public park,” runs by the area within the prohibited distance.
Weaver, who leads the way in the district's first-come-first-serve application process has faced appeals and challenges to his project from applicants looking to establish dispensaries within 1,000 feet of him. However, this particular challenge he blames on Chipman and San Diegans for Safe Neighborhoods.
“I don't think he's a bad guy,” Weaver said. “I don't know what to think about Scott Chipman.”
Arguing the law was intended to shield children, Weaver and his lawyers have argued the ordinance should be amended to read “active public park.” If he can't convince the city to accept his application, he said, he'd likely file a lawsuit.
“It's really just one word they have to add in the ordinance in my case… which is the whole intent, a public park were kids play,” he said.
Chipman admits that his group will use any legal means to oppose the opening of dispensaries, whether or not a particular project follows the intent of the ordinance.
“This is an illegal activity,” he said. “The people who are engaged in it are essentially all lawbreakers.”
Cannabis advocates, such as Davidovich, argue that such tactics will backfire, creating conditions that threaten safety, such as long lines at dispensaries that could attract criminals.
“It's not enough access for the thousands of patients that live in our communities,” he said. “Some of the challenges that we could face are the challenges [City Council] wanted to avoid, like people having to drive long distances or creating a small monopoly where the price could be affected.”
Officials expect to finish the permitting process by the end of the year. The city has two permitted dispensaries currently operating—A Green Alternative in Otay Mesa and Point Loma Patients Cooperative in Midway.