August 16, 2010

California dispensaries' effect crime elicits mixed bag of views

In Southern California, the operations are called breeders of crime; in the north, good neighbors.

By John Richardson jrichardson@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

BERKELEY, Calif. - No place has had more experience with medical marijuana dispensaries than California.

click image to enlarge

Security personnel stand outside as a patient enters Harborside Health Center in Oakland, Calif. The city limits its number of dispensaries and regulates them closely.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

But even here, there is no agreement on whether the operations promote illegal drug use and violence or discourage it.

In Southern California, where dispensaries have multiplied in number and operated with little regulation, they're called breeders of crime. In northern California, where dispensaries are more closely regulated, they're considered good neighbors.

Critics point to a rash of recent robberies and shootings at Southern California dispensaries. And they say the dispensaries promote teen drug use and other illegal use because it's so easy for Californians to get a doctor's recommendation to legally buy the drug.

"As soon as you turn 18, you can go complain of knee pain and get marijuana and then go home and sell it," said Leslie McGill, executive director of the California Police Chiefs Association. "I'm sure there are a lot of parents out there who really don't want their kids to go and smoke and then drive stoned. It's becoming more of an issue, absolutely."

More than 100 California communities, mostly in the southern part of the state, have banned dispensaries because of such concerns.

"They pop up in neighborhoods and crime follows," said Steve Walter, deputy district attorney for San Diego County. There have been violent robberies of dispensaries, for example, and some patients have come out of dispensaries and then sold the drugs to undercover officers, he said.

"There were three murders at three separate dispensaries" in recent months in Southern California, said Moses Johnson, attorney for the city of Anaheim, which has banned dispensaries. "These places cause a host of problems."

Police tell a different story in northern California communities. Berkeley and Oakland, for examples, limit the number of dispensaries to just a few and do not have problems with the current operations, police said.

"We have no crime at the dispensaries," said Holly Joshi, spokeswoman for the Oakland Police Department.

Oakland, like neighboring Berkeley, does have violent crime around large-scale marijuana growing operations. But those growers are supplying the illegal market, not selling to the medical marijuana dispensaries, police said.

Berkeley did have crime problems with one dispensary five or six years ago, including a robbery by suspects armed with shotguns and AK-47 rifles, said Sgt. Mary Kusmiss, spokeswoman for the Berkeley Police Department. That dispensary was shut down soon after, she said.

Since then, things have been peaceful at the city's three dispensaries, she said. Berkeley Patients Group, which is affiliated with dispensaries slated to open in Portland and three other Maine communities, is especially well respected here.

The last time Berkeley police got called to that dispensary was in 2006 when someone tried to steal the safe. "Essentially, they police themselves very well," Kusmiss said. "We as a police department rarely go in there."

Roger Ramirez said crime has actually gone down in his neighborhood since the Berkeley Patients Group opened a few doors away from his business, Berkeley Auto Service.

"If anything, there's a lot of security here since these guys came in," Ramirez said. "That place is like Fort Knox."

Portland Police Chief James Craig said his department will monitor the city's new dispensary and assess its security.

But Craig, a former police commander in Los Angeles, said there is no data to support claims that such operations encourage youth drug use. And, he said, dispensaries that are licensed and regulated, as Maine's will be, tend to be good neighbors.

"To compare Portland to Southern California, you can't compare it," he said.

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

jrichardson@pressherald.com

 

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