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La Mesa’s Lone Medical Marijuana Shop Closing Under City Orders

Cooperative on La Mesa Boulevard funneled more than $100,000 in sales tax to the state, says Paul Peterson—a Helix High School alumnus who ran the cannabis clinic.

La Mesa’s only medical marijuana shop will close Sunday—under city orders to shut down after running afoul of zoning ordinances and state law.

“We’re not going to fight it,” said Paul Peterson, 31, president of the dispensary called The PAC, for Pacific Alternative Care, at 7882 La Mesa Blvd. “We’re not a big enough cooperative.”

The shop began operations in September 2009 after securing a business license as a holistic health center, but La Mesa police and license officials discovered its marijuana role after receiving a complaint.

Bill Chopyk, city community development chief, said Thursday that the complaint had come from “a nearby religious institution.”

In a letter dated Jan. 27, Chopyk wrote the Mission Valley owners of the PAC building: “The Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church and School is within the prohibited 600-foot radius area” of the shop, and thus violated the state Health and Safety Code.

“Accordingly,” Chopyk wrote, “you are required to cease and desist all Medical Marijuana Dispensary uses on the property by March 14, 2011. Failure to do so will result in this matter being forwarded to the City Attorney to commence a legal proceeding against you and the tenant.”

Peterson said Chopyk gave him the option of seeking an amendment to the citywide zoning law, which prohibits any medical marijuana dispensary. But the fee to seek such a change is $15,000, and Peterson decided he didn’t want to “gamble” on winning.

In October 2009, then-Assistant City Manager David Witt sent letters to commercial property owners that the city “has made it clear to all who have inquired that medical marijuana dispensaries are not a permitted use in La Mesa.”

Peterson said more than 1,000 people were members of The PAC cooperative—where individuals grow the marijuana for the shop to sell.  Several hundred people a week used its services—including classes in yoga, breathing, self-defense and pot-growing.

He said about 80 percent of the shop’s revenues came from marijuana sales but asserted the original depiction of the shop as a “holistic center” was accurate because “we felt like that was a fair description of what our business entailed.”

“We didn’t open this place with the intention of solely being a weed clinic or a pot clinic or being classified under any of those negative statements,” he said Thursday, sitting in the classroom area of his 1,200-square-foot leased space.

City officials say Peterson paid for his business license on Aug. 17, 2009, and described the operation thusly: “This store will feature a variety of New Age/spiritual products like Native American artwork, books, candles, skin care and aromatherapy items. Yoga and art classes will also be offered.”

Peterson, who said his mother in Tahoe still uses marijuana after overcoming cancer symptoms with its help, said he laid off seven part-time employees after getting notice.

His patients will now have to find other sources—probably in San Diego.

“They’re really sad. They’re really bummed,” Peterson said. “They’re sad to see us go because they feel like they found a place where they can gain safe access to the medicine where it’s not ‘sketchy’ … [It’s] a very friendly atmosphere.”

He said The PAC was the easternmost source of medical marijuana in the county—and had paid more than $100,000 in sales tax to the state Board of Equalization, which returns a share to La Mesa—which in 2009 had $877 million in taxable sales.

“A lot of people in La Mesa, and east of here—El Cajon, Lakeside, Alpine—those people have to travel even further now to get their medicine,” he said.

But he said El Cajon Boulevard alone has a half-dozen cannabis outlets operating west of La Mesa—even though San Diego is moving to limit those shops as well.

He said one cane-using La Mesa resident, on daily kidney dialysis,  is sick of taking prescription pills and will miss the La Mesa dispensary. He’s in an “extreme amount of pain,” Peterson said.

Chopyk, the city land-use director, said The PAC was the only marijuana dispensary in the city that “I’m aware of.” But it’s not the first.

A similar cease-and-desist order several years ago led to the shutdown of the East County Cooperative at 7200 Parkway Drive, near the old Coleman College campus, he said.

Told the story of the dialysis patient losing his La Mesa source of marijuana, Chopyk said: “I’m sorry. There’s conflicting [state and federal] law. It’s been illegal [in the city]. We’re not at that point in La Mesa where that’s allowed.”

He said, “You or anyone can pursue an amendment to the zoning ordinance. It’s up to the policymakers of the city—ultimately the City Council to decide.”

Peterson—who said he attended Helix High School in 1995-96 as a sophomore and junior but didn’t graduate—will look for work as a retail store manager.  He once worked for Puma, the sports shoe company. He said he’ll sell his store fixtures to cooperative members and put other things on Craigslist.

He said he’s been a proponent of medical marijuana since 1996, when state voters made such shops legal and his mother, Barbara Peterson, began using it.

In November 1996, California voters approved Proposition 215 (called the Compassionate Use Act) allowing the use of medical cannabis.

Peterson said he didn’t consider moving his cooperative to San Diego because that city, too, was moving toward closing shops—with council action expected March 28.

Saying he did “everything by the book” to avoid being perceived as a marijuana-for-anyone supplier, Peterson indicated he turned people down “every single day” for not meeting residency rules or medical-doctor scrip requirements.

“They come in with a passport—that doesn’t establish [state] residency,” he said. “If they have their ID card that their doctor gives them, but not their original scrip, they get turned away. If their driver’s license is expired, they get turned away.”

People have this idea that it’s young kids, not sick people coming in for marijuana, he said. But if they have the proper papers, he said, “who are we to say: You don’t look sick?”

Story updated at 1:20 p.m. March 14, 2011.

La Mesa Man March 11, 2011 at 03:37 PM
Ahh, La Mesa. Pot stores must be more than 600 feet from schools, but a gun store less than 600 feet from an elementary school is OK. (Fine Firearms and Lemon Ave Elementary)
USA Born and Proud! March 11, 2011 at 05:10 PM
The poor USA of the past is gone. What ever happend to the critical thinkers and the realistic minds of yesteryear? Now the USA is the World's whore, if you have the money, anything is for sale, including a $15,000 bribe to get a varience on a plant. Did the people vote on this matter as outlined in the Constitution, or is this another unlawful decree by a few individuals who look to prevent the rest of the population from enjoying "our" freedoom?
joe March 11, 2011 at 06:06 PM
So you have a fall-down drunk for mayor who holds secret meetings with local -- untaxed-- religious leaders to set the city's direction? Here's an idea: Why don't they make pedophilia illegal within 1,000 feet of MMJ shops?
Ben March 11, 2011 at 11:41 PM
Great coverage. On March 28th the San Diego city council may vote to shut down ALL the collectives in the city of San Diego as well, there is a large campaign under way to oppose the proposed ordinance. To get involved or find out more check out www.stopthebansd.org www.facebook.com/stopthebansd
DDAMM March 12, 2011 at 01:05 AM
God forbid we as humans decide to smoke pot. 10 dollars of pot and a person goes to sleep 10 dollars of alcohol and a person could kill your family members and might die from alcohol poisoning. Who else loves alcohol and double standards!
Vinnie Lopez March 12, 2011 at 02:28 AM
I would be willing to bet that if the Mayor needed this medicine there would be no problem.
Terrie Best March 12, 2011 at 07:03 PM
Thanks for the great coverage on this issue. This is such a shame and possibly illegal. Case law suggests that cities are not allowed to ban collectives based on the inconsistencies between state and federal law. Choypk's statement: “I’m sorry. There’s conflicting [state and federal] law. It’s been illegal [in the city]. We’re not at that point in La Mesa where that’s allowed” exposes the city to a law suit, in my opinion. Terrie Best San Diego Americans for Safe Access
Trevor Polischuk March 13, 2011 at 07:07 AM
Are collectives in La Mesa causing crime? No. Loitering? No. MMJ patients get their medicine and go straight home. They don't cause trouble, they don't sell it to kids because collectives sell marijuana at higher than street value prices, and they Check IDs, which drug dealers don't do. La Mesa's policy of "all collectives are illegal because none of them are licensed, but we have no license to apply for" is a complete lack of gall from the council to address the issue. Prop 215 passed 15 years ago, what's taking so long to enact reasonable regulations?
Janet Mercer-Grey March 13, 2011 at 01:54 PM
No doubt! Where are you Mr. Mayor on this issue? Come on dude. Call a press conference in front of the new police center to show your compassion. Aren't these sufferers deserving of your support as much as the marine who bought a dog at Pet Works? He didn't even live in La Mesa. Man-Up buster!
Ken Stone March 14, 2011 at 08:20 PM
Business license application cited: “New Age/spiritual products like Native American artwork, books, candles, skin care and aromatherapy items. Yoga and art classes will also be offered.”
Trevor Polischuk March 14, 2011 at 08:31 PM
Hi Ken, When applying for a business license, collectives HAVE to apply as alternative healing centers/spiritual centers because listing yourself as a dispensary will just get denied. People who simply oppose medical marijuana because of their personal belief and misunderstanding about it's medical benefits and relative harmlessness use bureaucratic hurdles to stop the implementation of Prop 215. In the city of San Diego and in unincorporated areas of the county the DPLU vigorously enforces things like handrails in bathrooms for the disabled, when really all they want is to shut them out of the process. Local enforcement agencies that don't have the authority to shut them down also refer to the IRS, who then goes after their banks for "drug related transactions" to have their accounts closed. That's why collectives have to deal with cash instead of operate as a legitimate operation. The problems city officials and law enforcement are struggling with (or think they are struggling with) like crime and children getting access to marijuana are caused by their prohibition and unwillingness to actually regulate the industry.
Marcus Boyd April 19, 2011 at 04:29 AM
If there is anyone in La Mesa that is interested in heading a Stop The Ban - La Mesa campaign, please contact the San Diego Chapter of Americans for Safe Access (SDASA) www.SafeAccessSD.org. Or, contact www.StopTheBanIB.org for all the assistance you'll ever need to Stop The Ban in La Mesa!

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