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California

San Diego advances ban on marijuana billboards near schools, parks and youth centers

A billboard for MedMen, a cannabis retailer, on Pacific Highway in San Diego
San Diego is proposing new rules on billboards for cannabis companies, like this one on Pacific Highway, to keep them away from children.
(San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego is moving forward with a crackdown on cannabis billboard ads as part of a package of new city regulations and rule changes.

In addition to limiting where billboards can be placed, the city is proposing to loosen restrictions on the locations of marijuana dispensaries and production facilities, such as indoor farms and factories making marijuana edibles.

The package of rule changes also includes replacing the word “marijuana” with “cannabis” in all city codes and documents. The goal is to match the language used by state officials and in a 2016 ballot measure in which city voters approved a special tax on the drug.

The San Diego Planning Commission is scheduled to consider the proposed regulations Oct. 24, with the City Council expected to give final approval by the end of the year, city officials said.

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The cannabis billboard crackdown, first proposed by Councilman Chris Cate in spring 2018, aims to keep the ads away from children.

The proposal would ban such billboard ads within 1,000 feet of schools, public parks, playgrounds, day-care centers or youth centers.

State law already prohibits the billboard ads within 1,000 feet of some places with “sensitive use” status, but the state list doesn’t include parks. Cate had proposed also including libraries, churches and residential care facilities, but those aren’t included in the city proposal.

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In addition, Cate wanted to ban the ads within 100 feet of residential housing, but that was also excluded.

The city proposal does include Cate’s request that the restrictions apply to legal and illegal marijuana businesses. State law has been criticized for leaving open the question of whether it applies to illegal businesses.

Though San Diego officials have shut down nearly all of the illegal dispensaries in the city, an estimated 100 illegal delivery services have taken their place in the black market.

Cannabis billboards have become increasingly common across the city since legal recreational sales of the drug began in January 2018. Many of the city’s legal marijuana dispensaries rely on billboard ads to attract customers.

The ads cost several thousand dollars a month, depending on location. Leaders of the local marijuana industry have said they welcome the new billboard rules, especially the effort to differentiate between legal and illegal dispensaries.

Opponents of marijuana legalization have also praised them, but some have expressed concern that the city plans to use code enforcement officers instead of police to handle citations and fines for violations.

City officials also propose to further soften rules that prohibit cannabis businesses within 100 feet of housing and within 1,000 feet of churches, parks, schools and youth-oriented facilities.

When the city first started allowing marijuana businesses in 2014, the distance was based on a straight line from the business — without regard to topographical features or path of travel.

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The city subsequently softened the rule to take into account topographical barriers, such as canyons, and constructed barriers, such as freeways.

Now city officials propose to shift to a standard based on the most direct and legal pedestrian path of travel between property lines.

Gina Austin, a leading local marijuana attorney, said she expects the change to make only a small difference in an isolated case or two, at most.

“They are just making it very simple: ‘path of travel,’” Austin said, noting that Chula Vista uses the same standard. “You may get a few extra feet out of it.”

Scott Chipman, a Pacific Beach resident and member of Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana, said the change is another instance of city officials bending rules to suit the local marijuana industry.

“We are completely opposed to any code changes that further normalize this dangerous drug and the drug dealers that are selling it in our community,” Chipman said.

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Garrick writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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