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Aug. 1, 2017

Should communities embrace marijuana business?

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Scott Chipman

By Scott Chipman
As marijuana has become more commercialized we see more and more examples of the "business" of marijuana. Is this good for our communities, business districts and neighboring businesses?

For those of us who have watched carefully what we see is a lawless industry. Indeed, many marijuana businesses open without a business permit, license or proper zoning. When and if they are closed down -- after months of investigation costing the city thousands of dollars -- the business typically closes for a short time then reopens in a new location. The code violation process then starts all over again requiring a citizen complaint and another lengthy investigation. The penalties are typically so low they are considered the cost of doing business for the law-breaking marijuana dealers.

Then there are the marijuana business that close their doors with the contact information of sometimes thousands of customers. The marijuana business continues to operate as an un-permitted "delivery service." Hmmm. Unlawful delivery of drugs. We used to call that getting a fix from a dealer.

But what about "permitted" pot shops? Aren't they ok? Aren't they following the rules?

The reality is the lawlessness of the industry doesn't fit well with regulations. Trying to regulate a populous that tends to operates in an "altered" state of mind is nearly fruitless. For example, it is illegal to smoke pot in public or at concerts in Denver. Yet, people in the Mile High City complain of pot smokers on nearly every street corner and the likelihood of a contact high when attending concerts.

In my city, nearly all the pot shops (they call themselves "dispensaries") have been violating codes related to signage. When the city issues permits and tries to regulate marijuana, it encourages the drug's acceptance. That creates a larger market for pot and more lawlessness.

In fact, crime is common near pot shops, including assaults, robberies and shootings. Knowing this, city officials may require security guards. However, pot shop security guards have themselves been victims of violence, such as the shooting this month four of individuals -- including a security guard -- during an attempted robbery at a Los Angeles pot shop. The security guard died. It so happens that another security guard of gunshot wounds at the same pot shop a year ago.

Indeed, drug gangs don't perceive marijuana "dispensaries" as pharmacies. They see those pot shops as rivals.

When pot shops open in a business district, complaints by neighboring businesses are often numerous. That includes increases in fights, public drug use and street-level drug dealing in proximity to the pot shop. When such a less-than-family-friendly business opens, the type of clientele to that area often changes. This can impact the karate studio, the ice cream parlor, the real-estate office and the nearby motel. Business districts have a character and reputation that is negatively affected when the area becomes known for marijuana sales and unlawful use.

There is also the social cost of the marijuana business. For instance, homelessness dramatically increased in the Denver and Seattle areas after marijuana legalization. Indeed, a 2015 report to Denver's mayor and city council found that the Miler High City's "downtown environment is the No. 1 complaint from meeting planners," with "nearly 50 percent of meeting planners negatively commented on homeless, youth, panhandling, safety, cleanliness, and drugs, including public marijuana consumption."

Meanwhile, commercialized drug dealing dramatically increases law enforcement costs. Indeed, a report published by the San Diego Association of Government found that 76 percent of male arrestees tested positive for an illicit substance in 2015, 8 percent higher than in 2014 and the highest level in 16 years. Those individuals weren't being arrested for drug use or possession. They were g arrested for other crimes. The report found that 52 percent of male arrestees tested positive for marijuana in 2015 — up seven percent from 2014 and another 16-year high. Twenty-four percent of arrestees reported obtaining a "medical" marijuana card. Thirty-five percent reported they commit crime to support a drug habit.

Denver District Attorney Mitchell Morrissey tried to warn us in 2016, reporting that every crime type in every community in that city increased after legalization. He said: "The Denver police department is busier enforcing marijuana laws and investigating crimes directly related to marijuana, including murders, robberies and home invasions, than any other time in the history of the city."

But it can get even worse. Pot industry profits have been used to buy political influence. In San Diego, for instance, we have had several planning commissioners acknowledge relationships with the marijuana industry or marijuana businesses. They made dozens of land use votes on marijuana businesses while in these relationships. None appeared to have had a connection prior to becoming commissioners but appear now to have been approached by pro marijuana influencers while in office.

When citizens in Colorado wanted to pursue additional regulations to protect public health and safety through the initiative process, the marijuana industry bought up all the signature gatherers in Colorado. The employed the same strategy in Arizona to thwart the democratic process.

Marijuana businesses also have received special privileges and carve outs from regulations many other businesses must follow. For instance, the marijuana industry has not had to follow food and drug regulations such as health department inspections of kitchens where "edibles" are produced or the Sherman Food and Cosmetic Act requiring testing and labeling of all ingredients that go on or in the body. There are no pharmaceutical protocols as marijuana is sold as "medicine" such as you would find at any legitimate drug store or pharmacy.

Additionally, in San Diego many businesses have distance separations from sensitive uses such as a school or church. For all businesses not selling marijuana these distances are measured as the crow flies from property line to property line. However, for pot drug dealers these distances are measured with a very subjective path of travel reducing the typical separations.

The point is that the marijuana business cannot be effectively regulated. It is best addressed with enforcement to stop it. Pot shops don't make good business neighbors. They hurt communities, business districts and society at large.

Scott Chipman is a 42 year business owner. He volunteers as the Southern California chair of Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana CALMca.org

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