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

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.

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