Medical marijuana shop. Image via Wikimedia Commons

By Dr. James Harrison

What’s wrong with this picture: The San Diego City Council advances an ordinance guiding the roll-out of recreational marijuana sales in the face of a staffing crisis within the San Diego Police Department.

The police officer shortage has been a pivotal topic of the City Council’s recent budget deliberations. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, the department had 205 vacancies — 1,834 officers filling 2,039 budgeted slots – as of May 30. That’s an increase from 170 vacancies last October.

The officer shortage is expected to grow even worse: Applications are down 36 percent over the last two years, and close to 600 of the department’s 1,834 officers are eligible to retire in the next five years.

Why should San Diegans be concerned? Because San Diego police officers serve on the front line of a battle to protect our city’s quality of life from a defiant, profit-driven marijuana industry.

In the years since the City Council passed a legal framework for regulating medical marijuana dispensaries, our law enforcement partners have been swept up in an interminable game of whack-a-mole.

In brazen disregard of the law, and operating in a legal “gray area” they carved out of California’s Compassionate Use Act, marijuana profiteers swiftly established a network of black market storefronts. According to the San Diego City Attorney’s office, nearly 300 illegal marijuana dispensaries were opened for business and eventually closed down by city prosecutors. These unpermitted, unregulated businesses operated with impunity. No sooner would law enforcement officials close down an illegal pot shop when another one would open in its place.

I have experienced the lawlessness of the marijuana black market firsthand. Early last year, the Christian preschool I own and operate with my wife was besieged by three illegal marijuana dispensaries, each one located within a one-block radius of our childcare facility.

Angered by the presence of these drug dealers in my Mount Hope neighborhood, and concerned for the safety of the children in my care, I stood on the corner of 42nd and Market Streets for an hour on Friday afternoons, a bullhorn in hand, demanding the closure of the illegal pot shops and calling for the prosecution of their outlaw operators.

It wasn’t long before members of the community joined my weekly protests. Our collaboration inspired Operation Pull the Weeds, a grassroots campaign calling on our elected officials to empower law enforcement to halt the proliferation of illegal marijuana dispensaries in our community.

Our advocacy campaign hit its mark: Since March 2016, the police and the city attorney have shuttered 59 illegal pot shops, and put illegal actors on notice that opening new ones would not be tolerated.

​But San Diego’s marijuana black market continues to grow and thrive. Upwards of 100 illegal marijuana delivery services are open for business; unpermitted marijuana farmers markets are popping up in neighborhoods stretching from Bankers Hill to Serra Mesa; illegal marijuana advertisements are plastered on billboards and pedicabs, and twirled on street corners by professional sign spinners.

The idea that city officials expect our understaffed police department to enforce the law and protect neighborhood safety in this Wild West environment is unacceptable.

Considering the illegal marijuana industry’s track record of defying the rule of law — and the harmful impacts illicit drugs pose to the health and safety of our community — the City Council must hold the line on issuing business licenses for recreational marijuana sales until the police department’s staffing shortage is resolved.

Compounding the problem is the impending retirement of Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman. Wouldn’t it make sense to craft and implement an ordinance for licensing and regulating recreational marijuana dispensaries that reflects the ideas and priorities of her successor?

The City Council has an obligation to stand up for the men and women who are sworn “to protect and serve” the residents of San Diego. Delaying the roll-out of recreational marijuana sales, until the police department is fully staffed, makes sense. It’s the smart and honorable thing to do.

Dr. James Harrison is the co-owner of Little Lamb Land Christian Preschool in Mount Hope and founder of Operation Pull the Weeds, a grassroots campaign calling on elected officials to empower law enforcement to halt the proliferation of illegal marijuana dispensaries.