SCOTT SIMON, host:
More than 30 people were arrested in San Diego last week on charges of illegally distributing marijuana. They were caught up in a crackdown on medical marijuana dispensaries. These raids in San Diego show there's still plenty of disagreement over what's medical and what's recreational when it comes to marijuana.
Tom Fudge of member station KPBS has this story.
TOM FUDGE: Mission Boulevard runs about a block from the Pacific Ocean and through the community of Mission Beach in San Diego. Until last week, it was the address of the Green Cross Collective, a medical marijuana dispensary. Now that business, which is right over here, has closed down and its owners face charges of illegal drug sales. Police responded to complaints from neighbors like Kat Ohlman.
Ms. KAT OHLMAN: There was a time I was having dinner and one of these cars parked underneath my window. And it was a group of people that were talking about how they were anxious or couldn't wait for so-and-so to get back so they could get really messed up.
FUDGE: Green Cross Collective was one of 14 marijuana dispensaries shut down in San Diego County earlier this month. District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis says the undercover investigations that led to the raids reveal these dispensaries were not medical at all.
Ms. BONNIE DUMANIS (District Attorney, San Diego County): These so-called businesses are not legal. They appear to be run by drug dealers who see an opening in the market and a way to make a fast buck.
FUDGE: Legal medical marijuana dispensaries in California are required to be non-profit collectives. The pot is supposed to be grown and used only by members of the collective. Marijuana users must have a doctor's recommendation. Dumanis says raids of the 14 dispensaries turned up guns and lots of cash. She says financial records at one shop showed sales of $700,000 in six months. Police say the dispensaries were selling to anyone who walked in the door, a practice not in line with the spirit or the letter of the law.
Mr. STEVE WALTER (Assistant District Attorney): This was something that was sold to the electorate as a proposition that was going to help those who were grievously ill.
FUDGE: Assistant District Attorney Steve Walter says Proposition 215, which legalized medical marijuana in California, has become a bit of a joke.
Mr. WALTER: I think the vast majority of people that are doing this are just doing it to get high.
FUDGE: San Diego County officials have a history of being uncomfortable, to say the least, with the legal sale of marijuana. The County Board of Supervisors filed suit to block the requirement that they give legal protection to medical marijuana users, and they took their case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Last May they lost when the Supreme Court refused to hear their case.
San Diego attorney Patrick Dudley has represented people accused of illegal use of medical marijuana.
Mr. PATRICK DUDLEY (Attorney): Most people would say that the last battleground for medical marijuana is San Diego.
FUDGE: Dudley says San Diego law enforcement has shown no inclination to help dispensaries understand how to follow the law. Their approach, he says, is to arrest first and ask questions later.
Mr. DUDLEY: In San Francisco and Los Angeles, other jurisdictions, there's definitely been some guidelines and approaches as to what's going to be allowed and what's not going to be allowed. In San Diego, from the county government to the district attorney's office, there's definitely been a zero-tolerance approach.
FUDGE: San Francisco has an ordinance that regulates the location of marijuana dispensaries. They're not allowed to be located within 1,000 feet of the school. Los Angeles currently has a moratorium on the establishment of dispensaries. The L.A. City Council is considering an ordinance similar to the one in San Francisco. If adopted, it would require many dispensaries to close. But district attorneys enforce state law and they're not limited by city ordinances.
Joseph Esposito with the L.A. County District Attorney's Office says he does not believe the San Diego crackdown is out of step with other communities. He says local officials in Los Angeles have also raided and closed dispensaries, though there is one difference.
Mr. JOSEPH ESPOSITO (L.A. County District Attorneys Office): There have been approximately about 40 dispensaries that have been shut down. But you got to keep in mind that, I mean, we have a lot of dispensaries here. I think San Diego has a total of about 60 and we have somewhere between 800 and a thousand.
FUDGE: The San Diego City Council has voted to create a taskforce to examine ways to regulate medical marijuana storefronts. This week, San Diego County extended its moratorium on dispensaries in unincorporated areas until next summer. County officials say it will take that long to come up with a workable ordinance to permit and regulate the businesses.
For NPR News, I'm Tom Fudge in San Diego.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.