San Diego County

Joint Operation Targeting Illegal Pot Shops Sees Success in East San Diego County: DA

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan said that since 2019, enforcement efforts have resulted in the prosecution of 70 people

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Recent countywide efforts to crack down on illegal marijuana dispensaries have resulted in nearly all such illicit operations being shut down in East County, officials said Thursday.

In a joint announcement, law enforcement, prosecutors and county leaders touted enforcement targeting unlicensed dispensaries, with particular success in the unincorporated areas of East County.

On Thursday, officials said multi-agency efforts started three years ago regarding illegal operations in South Bay, and later with the formation of the sheriff's Marijuana Enforcement Team, which focuses on the county's unlicensed dispensaries.

NBC 7's Dave Summers gives us a look inside the illegal dispensary.

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan said that since 2019, enforcement efforts have resulted in the prosecution of 70 people. So far, 19 have pleaded guilty to felony offenses such as operating drug buildings and possession of narcotics and firearms, while 13 others have pleaded guilty to misdemeanors for aiding and abetting the illegal operations.

Stephan said illegal dispensaries bring the additional concerns of associated crimes such as murders, attempted murders and assaults, including the 2020 shooting death of security guard Kenneth Love II, who was killed at an unlicensed dispensary in Spring Valley.

"This is a win-win for communities plagued by these unregulated shops and businesses that allow youth access and fosters a wild west atmosphere where armed robberies, extortion, and homicides have occurred," said Acting Sheriff Kelly Martinez, who was credited with creating the Marijuana Enforcement Team.

Officials said the continued operations of the Marijuana Enforcement Team was supported by a proposal brought forward by County Supervisor Joel Anderson -- whose district encompasses a large portion of East County -- to bolster enforcement against illegal marijuana shops in unincorporated areas.

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the proposal to fully fund the team last year.

In states where marijuana is legal, dispensaries have to use cash or debit cards. They're unable to accept credit cards or other forms of payment due to their product, cannabis, still being illegal under federal law. But the SAFE Banking Act, if it passes the Senate, would allow marijuana businesses to do more banking on the books and create a safer industry.

Anderson said that upon being sworn in as a county supervisor, the proliferation of illegal East County pot shops was an immediate concern brought up by residents in his district.

"These illegal drug storefronts would pop up near our schools and churches, which made East County residents feel unsafe in their own neighborhoods," Anderson said.

Last year, the Board of Supervisors passed a set of policies that will provide for legal cannabis retail, cultivation and manufacturing in unincorporated county areas.

"We will not allow illegal cannabis shops to operate in our communities," Board Chair Nathan Fletcher said. "The county and law enforcement have a strategy to shut down unlicensed shops and our aggressive action is showing real and tangible progress."

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