It’s a little nondescript building along busy East Vista Way, the sort of bland structure passersby might not even notice.
But authorities did notice the place, calling it the last known medical marijuana dispensary operating in Vista.
On Friday morning, sheriff’s deputies raided the storefront of Laughing Leaf, capping several weeks of similar takedowns at other allegedly illegal medical cannabis shops throughout the city.
Authorities said this is the first time since 2011 that there are no known storefronts operating in Vista city limits.
One of the other dispensaries raided since March was in a trailer tucked behind a home near an elementary school. Another was in a building on Thibodo Road that once housed a sheriff’s substation.
The raids come even as Vista officials — and voters, come November — grapple with whether to legalize storefronts offering medical weed. Vista forbids marijuana businesses, including medical marijuana dispensaries. Storefronts operating in the city are doing so in violation of city ordinances.
For the last few years, Vista has spent roughly $500,000 to $600,000 a year to go after the shops, according to Vista City Manager Patrick Johnson.
The aggressive crackdown has included bringing criminal misdemeanor charges against landlords and leaseholders — not for violations of drug laws, but of city ordinances such as operating without a permit.
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“People think that for some reason, Vista is going to be seen as an easy place to set up shop. I am hoping that this gives them the answer, the pushback that we are not going to be easily targeted,” Councilwoman Amanda Rigby said Friday as she and Johnson stood outside the raided shop.
The San Diego Union-Tribune was not immediately able to reach the dispensary’s owners or attorney.
In the face of the battle, it will be up to voters in November to weigh in on as many as three ballot measures regarding whether to allow marijuana businesses in the city.
In recent years, public attitudes about marijuana have shifted toward acceptance. A city-funded poll of 400 Vista voters last year found that more than half backed the idea of allowing dispensaries. And well more than half of the city’s voters also backed Proposition 64, the 2016 ballot measure that legalized marijuana for recreational use.
Last year, a group with ties to medical marijuana dispensaries gathered enough signatures to qualify a ballot measure calling for at least one medical marijuana dispensary for every 10,000 residents in Vista. That amounts to at least 11 storefronts.
All would be medical marijuana dispensaries. Recreational sales would not be allowed. Opponents fear the initiative would be too lax.
With that issue landing on the November ballot, some council members are considering throwing a counterpunch: drafting the city’s own measure for voters to also consider. Council members are toying with a ballot proposal that would allow for two medical marijuana storefronts with no on-site consumption and a host of restrictions, including no packaging that appeals to children.
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The city is also thinking of adding a separate ballot measure specifically outlining tax on marijuana sales and more.
And aside from all that, there is yet another bid by a different outside group to put another marijuana-related item on the ballot. It would allow for recreational sales at storefronts.
Sgt. Jason Scroggins runs the team that tackles what he said are “quality of life” issues in Vista, including busting the storefront operations.
“And I wholeheartedly believe this is a quality of life issue,” he said of illegal dispensaries Friday.
For deputies, targeting pot shops has long been a whack-a-mole game. Some dispensaries have been known to reopen the next day after a raid.
Given the amount of money the shops are suspected to bring in, Scroggins said, raids “are like a bee sting” to dispensaries.
It’s not clear, but maybe something has shifted.
In March, Vista deputies raided six shops. Last month, they hit two. So far, none have popped back in the same spot, Scroggins said.
“I think because of our proactivity and enforcement actions that some of the upstarts have just decided that Vista is not the place for them, and they go elsewhere,” Scroggins said.
By Friday afternoon, the East Vista Way storefront was listed on weedmaps.com as “closed.”
Inside the shop, Scroggins said, the deputies busted open two large safes, suspected to hold product and cash. The banging could be heard from outside.
They brought out boxes of products, including pot-laced gummy candies. In all, they seized upwards of 450 pounds of marijuana and marijuana products, as well as cash. No arrests were made.
As deputies worked inside the shop, two people — each at least 50 years old — separately approached the storefront, only to be turned away by deputies informing them that the business in closed.
© 2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Visit The San Diego Union-Tribune at www.sandiegouniontribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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