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Opinion: The San Diego region is inexplicably slow on legalizing cannabis commerce

Wilkinson is a parent of four, cannabis consultant and entrepreneur who serves on the board of directors of the South County Economic Development Council and chairs the Content Subcommittee for the National Cannabis Industry Association. She lives in Coronado.

A new Pew Research Center poll finds that an overwhelming 91 percent of adults think cannabis should be legal, with 60 percent saying for recreational as well as medical use. A vast majority of Californians, after passing Proposition 64 almost five years ago, have stated they want access to dispensaries in their own neighborhoods. Yet planning commissions in San Diego County and local municipalities hesitate unnecessarily, citing fears of cannabis businesses increasing crime and turning their neighborhoods into fearful places. By applying traditional crime metrics, research proves those fears are unfounded. Our cities are not just missing out on an enormous economic opportunity, they are now willfully neglecting a public safety one.

Thirty-seven states have already legalized cannabis commerce. That includes conservative states like Oklahoma, with over 10,000 cannabis businesses and 2,200 retail stores. Fifteen states have authorized adult-use cannabis. Oregon and Colorado have robust, legal cannabis commerce, and have established ratios of 16.5 and 14.1 cannabis retail stores per 100,000 population, respectively. Oklahoma, Montana and Alaska also maintain more than 12 stores per 100,000 population. Tiny Desert Hot Springs in California is thriving because of cannabis. We are not breaking new ground here.

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By Oregon’s ratio, San Diego County can support 570 of these retail outlets economically. And there are only 50 open. The city of San Diego has only 22 adult-use retail stores licensed by the state and open to operations. Vista has 11 and they are all medical only. The county of San Diego has several medical storefront dispensaries that are provisionally operating under a sunset clause which the county just voted to amend on Wednesday of last week. The city of Chula Vista has one adult-use store operating. North County has recently licensed a few as well, medicinal only.

Our region is inexplicably slow. Illegal outlets and illegal cultivation thrive, needlessly endangering law enforcement, poisoning our environment and harming the few licensed, law-abiding outlets that are actually selling safe, tested products, and paying taxes that fund libraries and parks.

Researchers in 2018 showed property values actually went up in Denver when dispensaries in the neighborhood were converted to allow retail sales, and other studies support this. Obviously residents prefer legal, regulated retail stores to street-corner drug deals. Even more surprising, teen use has not shown the initially feared increases with cannabis legalization, according to several recent Pediatric Journal of American Medical Association studies.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s own website, there has never been a death attributed to a cannabis overdose — never. National Institutes of Health data showed 458 people died from acetaminophen-associated overdoses in a single year. Based on Department of Veterans Affairs Directive 1315, physicians can now recommend cannabis to treat post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans. UC San Diego has since 2000 run the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research. Patients suffering from AIDS, cancer, depression, childhood epilepsy and other illnesses have successfully used cannabis for relief and greatly improved quality of life. Those are undisputed facts.

Racist attitudes also play into old laws. “Marijuana” was a pejorative term coined to make cannabis sound “foreign and scary” in 1933 when Harry Aslinger headed the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. After the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 passed, Mexican Americans were arrested at nine times the rate of White Ameicans for possession of “marijuana.” And so the “war on drugs” and mass incarceration of minorities was born, devastating lives and families for generations. It’s past time to fix this terrible injustice.

Some people fear cannabis based on emotion, not facts. That’s understandable. Decades of scary television news stories about violent drug cartels on our border and dangerous drug raids affected opinions. Yet in two-plus years of legal cannabis sales in the city of San Diego, there has been little criminal activity at legally licensed stores. Why?

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Because cannabis businesses are specifically designed to deter crime. Store design, required state-of-the-art electronic 24-hour surveillance and employee training have made them safer than banks. All applicants must prove their worthiness with plans for youth prevention, neighborhood security and more prior to approvals. According to a 2019 study published in the Regional Science and Urban Economics academic journal, cannabis dispensaries in a Colorado neighborhood are not significant public security risks.

The exceedingly slow pace of cities in San Diego County such as Encinitas, Del Mar and Imperial Beach — which had the three highest voter approvals for Proposition 64 at 65.2 percent, 64.9 percent and 62 percent, respectively — have unwittingly driven the illegal market by dragging their feet on ordinances and permits. They still have no legal dispensaries open. By contrast, the city of Vista had its 11 dispensaries up and running within months after citizens’ Measure Z — the Vista community’s response driven by a recalcitrant City Council — got on the ballot and passed. Vista cannabis tax revenue delivered $4 million to city coffers this year — almost four times what the city budgeted.

Let’s plan for San Diego’s future by accelerating the economic recovery, cannabis jobs and access our citizens demand. It’s time to respect scientific data, law enforcement and the will of our voters for safe, legal, regulated local cannabis access in our own communities.