It is really easy to buy weed in Chula Vista.
All you need is cash, a valid ID, and a copy of the San Diego Reader – an alternative weekly newspaper where unlicensed pot shops advertise discounts and customer loyalty programs.
There are currently nine unlicensed marijuana dispensaries in Chula Vista. All but one of them are in the southwestern part of the city, along Third Avenue and Broadway.
Chula Vista has been engaged in an endless game of whack-a-mole for years. As soon as the city shuts down one dispensary, another opens. Since 2014, the city has closed more than 35 unlicensed stores.
“We’ve had operators open up at locations where either the same or a different operator was previously shut down,” said Deputy City Attorney Megan McClurg. “We’ve also had operators open up, we’ve shut them down, and then the operator just relocates to another address, sometimes just down the street.”
Although illegal pot shops are nothing new to Chula Vista, McClurg has noticed an increase since the state legalized recreational marijuana in November 2016.
“There has definitely not been a decrease since November 2016,” she said. “In fact, we are seeing increasingly defiant, unlawful operators who are motivated to operate in violation of the law for as long as possible.”
Previously, operators would voluntarily shut down once the city notified them. But now the city sees more operators and landlords who appear to know the entire operation is illegal, she added.
Chula Vista currently has a ban on marijuana. The City Council approved a set of regulations in March and residents will vote on a cannabis tax in November. If the tax is approved, the city will issue permits as early as the first quarter of 2019.
But until then, every store selling marijuana in Chula Vista is operating illegally.
Despite being illegal, all of Chula Vista’s dispensaries are listed on Weedmaps, a website that lists the address and hours of cannabis storefronts. At least three dispensaries advertise on the San Diego Reader and two hire sign spinners to attract more customers.
All of them are busy.
More than a dozen customers walked into the Chula Vista Fire House on Main Street during a 10-minute span on Wednesday afternoon. One of the customers was dropped off by an Uber driver who waited outside while the customer bought drugs.
Employees at the store – and every other dispensary visited by the San Diego Union-Tribune – declined to comment.
“No one is going to want to talk to you,” said an employee at the Chula Vista Collective, one of two Third Avenue dispensaries that hire sign spinners.
Chula Vista’s dispensaries are all fairly similar.
The usual layout is a small room with a glass counter where a security guard checks your ID. First-time customers usually get a 10 percent discount.
Once given the go-ahead, customers walk into a larger showroom, usually with wooden floors, white walls, glass display cases, and hip-hop playing in the background.
Inside the display cases are pre-rolled joints, edibles, grams of various types of marijuana buds, pipes, and bongs. Some stores have coolers filled with cannabis-infused drinks and ice cream.
Behind the display cases are the bud-tenders, usually two or three young women who help customers find the right kind of product. Some of the stores have a sign telling customers not to harass their employees.
They sell bongs for $50, grams for $10, and a wide variety of produces like cheese-flavored chips called Wheetos, cannabis-infused soda called “legal,” and a marijuana-infused michelada mix.
Some of the stores are open 24/7 and hire enough staff – including private security guards – to keep those hours.
Unlicensed cannabis retailers also pay for advertising. The full-page ad on the San Diego Reader for Chula Vista Exotica boasts the store’s “non-Profit” status, “Lab-tested flowers,” and three security guards.
The Reader declined to comment when asked about profiting from illegal pot shops.
Several challenges prevent Chula Vista from shutting down illegal dispensaries quickly.
Operators hide their identities and have enough money to fend off closure efforts. Complicit landlords receive above-market rates and city resources in code enforcement, the police department, and the city attorney’s office are stretched thin, McClurg said.
Still, Chula Vista wants to be more aggressive.
The first step is raising civil fines. Current fines are $2,500 per day. If voters approve the cannabis tax in November, fines will be $10,000 per day. Chula Vista plans to use some of the cannabis tax revenues to beef up the city’s enforcement resources.
The city hopes added resources will help. But they don’t expect to get rid of all illegal pot shops.
“We do not expect that problem simply to ‘go away because we’ve started licensing ‘legal’ businesses,” City Attorney Glen Googins wrote in an email. “This is not what has occurred in other jurisdictions (including San Diego).”
The city is also looking to hire a criminal prosecutor to speed up the closure process.
Criminal prosecution tends to be a quicker enforcement tool than civil enforcement, partly because of constitutional rights to a speedy trial in the criminal process. Additionally, criminal prosecution opens up the possibility of obtaining search warrants that allow seizures.
Chula Vista included the position in their city budget and staff hope to find funding for the position by the end of the year.
Until then, anyone 21 and older in Chula Vista can walk into an unlicensed dispensary and get a 10 percent discount for being a first-time shopper.
©2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Visit The San Diego Union-Tribune at www.sandiegouniontribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.