Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

La Mesa Opens Doors To Medical Marijuana

Customers buy products at a medical marijuana dispensary, April 20, 2016.
Associated Press
Customers buy products at a medical marijuana dispensary, April 20, 2016.
La Mesa Opens Doors To Medical Marijuana
La Mesa has begun accepting applications to open medical marijuana dispensaries, three months after voters approved a measure to allow them within city limits.

La Mesa began accepting applications to open medical marijuana dispensaries on Monday, three months after voters approved a measure to allow them within city limits.

City officials were expecting a flood of interest in the "conditional use permits" that marijuana business owners will need to start operations. By Monday evening, however, they had received only 14 applications for marijuana dispensaries, one for marijuana cultivation and one for manufacturing marijuana by-products.

Will Senn, who holds licenses to operate four medical marijuana dispensaries in the city of San Diego, submitted his application in La Mesa on Monday morning. He said he's been impressed by the speed with which city staffers have worked to implement the will of the voters.

La Mesa Opens Doors To Medical Marijuana

"It was very efficient in La Mesa," Senn said. "Other jurisdictions...have to figure it out as they go. And that's tough, sometimes, on a tight window. These guys did a great job."

RELATED: San Diego City Council Unanimously Approves Recreational Marijuana Regulations

Measure U won 53 percent approval from La Mesa voters in November, over opponents who voiced concern that the measure did not include enough safeguards against crime. The measure does require that shops cannot be within 1,000 feet of another dispensary or "minor-oriented facilities" such as childcare centers, schools or playgrounds. The city has posted a map of areas where dispensaries might be allowed. The measure also allows marijuana cultivation for personal use, as well as "supply chain" operations such as commercial cultivation, transporting and distribution.

A similar measure in Lemon Grove to allow medical marijuana dispensaries eked out a victory by a mere 90 votes. The Lemon Grove City Council has until March 20 to approve land use regulations for the dispensaries.

The rules in La Mesa are slightly less restrictive than those in the city of San Diego, where the 1,000-foot separation also applies to churches and where the overall number of dispensaries is capped at four per city council district. Some council districts have no places where dispensaries could legally operate, however, and advocates for the cannabis industry complain that the rules are too strict and encourage the black market.

La Mesa Director of Community Development Carol Dick, who is overseeing the permit applications, said she did not expect La Mesa to become a hub for marijuana businesses in the county.

"We're also smaller (than San Diego)," she said. "And there's going to be a natural cap (on the number of dispensaries) just because of geography and the separation requirements." Dick said applications face reviews that include notifying neighbors and environment checks, which means dispensaries may not actually open until as late as the end of the year.

Direct democracy

Senn said the process so far has gone relatively quickly in La Mesa because the zoning and land use regulations for dispensaries were written into the text of Measure U and were approved directly by voters. In San Diego, land use regulations were approved by the City Council in 2014 after a years-long process that involved a special task force and vetting by multiple committees and volunteer neighborhood planning groups.

While legal access to marijuana appears to have broad support among voters across San Diego County, city councils from Chula Vista to Oceanside have shown little willingness to permit that access within their own boundaries.

Senn said Measure U provided a big opportunity for La Mesa to serve medical marijuana patients in East County, where he said most access to the plant was through unlicensed operations.

"I think with the right regulation and oversight, (marijuana) could be a boon for the local economy here in La Mesa," he said.

While Measure U was limited to medical marijuana, Proposition 64, the state referendum that legalized recreational marijuana, also won broad support in La Mesa. Dick said the city would focus on rolling out its medical marijuana rules before addressing the question of whether to allow recreational marijuana, as well.

"We understand that Prop 64 is going to be implemented once the state starts issuing licenses (in 2018)," she said. "So we've got some time in there, and we do expect to go to the City Council to ask for direction on that shortly."

While Prop 64 made it clear cities and counties have the authority to ban marijuana businesses, it also contains incentives for those jurisdictions to allow them. The law requires the state to collect taxes on marijuana cultivation and sales, and to distribute that tax money to cities to help them deal with the impacts of legalization. But cities that choose to ban marijuana cultivation and sales forfeit their eligibility for tax money.

Editor's note: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story said Measure U will bring tax revenue to La Mesa to help mitigate the costs of adding dispensaries. The measure did not include any earmarked revenue.