Landlords and operators of two illegal medical marijuana dispensaries in San Diego must pay $830,000 total in civil fines, a Superior Court judge has ruled.
The ruling comes less than a month after operators of two other illegal dispensaries were criminally charged under a new, more aggressive approach by City Atty. Jan Goldsmith.
Goldsmith has previously resisted a criminal approach, contending that the civil injunctions his office has used for many years are the fastest and most effective legal method.
But the city attorney is under increasing pressure to shut down illegal dispensaries now that 14 legal dispensaries have made it through the city's complex and costly approval process, established in 2014.
So Goldsmith has begun combining criminal and civil efforts to shut the illegal shops down. And the civil approach has been extended more aggressively to landlords, not just dispensary operators.
"As we warned, we are going after property owners who profit from renting to these illegal operators," Goldsmith said. "I strongly urge property owners to obey the law."
City officials say the illegal shops are dangerous because they don't conform to city zoning rules designed to ensure businesses selling marijuana are far away from housing, schools, parks, churches and other sensitive uses.
They are also being called unfair competition for the legal dispensaries, which were more expensive to open because the owners had to pay approximately $500,000 each for permits, land-use consultants and lawyers.
Based on evidence supplied by Goldsmith's office, San Diego County Superior Court Judge Gregory Pollack last week ordered fines of $175,000 to be paid by the landlord of the Green Room in the Mount Hope neighborhood of southeastern San Diego.
The landlord, Luis Eduardo Medrano, continued to collect rent with full knowledge that his tenant was illegally selling marijuana in the dispensary at 4218 Market St., Pollack said.
The city is also pursuing criminal charges against Medrano, who Goldsmith said allowed the dispensary to operate for 17 months in open defiance of a court order to shut down.
The operators of the Green Room -- North County Holistic and Hakeen Dequan Garrett -- were ordered separately to pay $600,000 in civil penalties and were banned from operating a dispensary in the city without proper permits.
Meanwhile, San Diego County Superior Court Judge John Meyer ordered the operator of the Nugget House, an illegal dispensary in City Heights, to pay $55,000 in civil penalties.
The operator, Maher Hanna, was ordered to close the dispensary at 3717 University Ave. in July 2015, but it remained open until January, Goldsmith said.
The fines bring to nearly $3 million the total the city has collected from the operators of illegal dispensaries.
On the criminal side, the operators of two other dispensaries -- a second in Mount Hope and one in Mira Mesa -- were arraigned last month on criminal charges of illegally operating an unpermitted dispensary in violation of zoning regulations.
Evidence for a third criminal prosecution was obtained last month when San Diego police executed a search warrant on a Pacific Beach dispensary that was ordered closed in August 2015.
Defendants in such cases face penalties of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine for each count.
The defendants in the Mira Mesa criminal case are Wamidh Yousif and Alian Matti, who had operated Exclusive Alternatives Inc. at 8514 Commerce Ave.
The defendants in the Mount Hope criminal case are Mehdi Tahmouresie, Alexander Scott Johnson and Sadegh Vazeri, who had operated All-Star Meds at 4227 Market St.
The Pacific Beach dispensary, Limitless Care Collective at 1737 Garnet Ave., has continued to operate despite being ordered to shut down in August 2015. On May 10, police entered the shop with a warrant and seized marijuana, firearms, buyer lists and other records.
City officials urge medical marijuana patients to use only the city's legal dispensaries.
Zach Lazarus, chief operating officer of the city's first legal dispensary, in Otay Mesa, said that although he doesn't want anyone denied access to medical marijuana, it's important for the city to shut down illegal shops that violate zoning and don't comply with safety standards.
He said Goldsmith's latest efforts are encouraging, especially considering how difficult it can be to shut down illegal shops.
"Jan Goldsmith has done a wonderful job based on the tools he's been given," Lazarus said.
Eight of the 14 approved dispensaries have opened.
They are located at 3703 Camino del Rio South, 2335 Roll Drive in Otay Mesa, 3452 Hancock St. in the Midway District, 658 E. San Ysidro Blvd., 2405 Harbor Drive in Barrio Logan, 7128 Miramar Road in Mira Mesa, 5125 Convoy St. in Kearny Mesa and 10671 Roselle St. in Torrey Pines/Sorrento Valley.
The six that haven't opened include two in Kearny Mesa and one each in eastern Pacific Beach, Linda Vista, Stockton and the Midway District.
Garrick writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune