April 7 2015 07:54 PM

Amid Justice Department warning, locals race for pot shop permits

David Blair, CEO and co-owner of A Green Alternative

While folks scramble to open the city's first permitted medical-cannabis dispensaries, federal prosecutors said they'll continue to target such activity, despite congressional direction to lay off states.

Last week, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice (DOJ) told the Los Angeles Times that new federal rules to block the agency from going after states that allow medical cannabis, such as California, don't apply to individuals or organizations.

Lawmakers fired back, calling the DOJ's interpretation wrong. California Reps. Sam Farr and Dana Rohrabacher, who co-sponsored the amendment, voiced strong frustration.

"The Justice Department's interpretation of the amendment defies logic," Farr told the Huffington Post on Friday.

An amendment to the $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill signed by President Obama in December, the legislation defunded DOJ activity that would "prevent [states] from implementing their own state laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession or cultivation of medical marijuana."

However, the new rules have yet to be tested in the courts, and federal prosecutors seem determined to continue forfeiture proceedings against three Bay Area dispensaries, including the Harborside Health Center in Oakland.

"It does mean that dispensary owners are at risk of prosecution," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "It's unlikely, but it's a fear that they will have to live with."

That hasn't stopped dozens of entrepreneurs in San Diego from applying to run dispensaries under the city's permitting system, which the City Council approved by ordinance a year ago. The first-come-first-served system allows for 36 dispensaries, capped at four in each council district.

So far, the city has approved four dispensaries, including A Green Alternative, which opened in Otay Mesa several weeks ago at 2335 Roll Drive. The next permitted storefront expected to open will be located at 658 East San Ysidro Blvd., followed by one at 8888 Clairemont Mesa Blvd. and another at 3452 Hancock St.

Adding to the competition between would-be pot-shop owners, dispensaries cannot be located within 100 feet of residential areas or 1,000 feet of each other. That means that many folks who go through the long and costly application process may end up with nothing.

There are currently 32 applications being processed by the city, including a whopping 14 in District 2, which includes Pacific Beach and Point Loma. Council Districts 5 and 9 have no pending applications.

At the same time, city code-enforcement officials said there are currently 48 active cases against unpermitted dispensaries. The City Attorney's office estimates that it's shut down roughly 250 storefronts. 

Write to joshuas@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on twitter at @jemersmith.