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'Amazing Race' begins for marijuana dispensaries

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Hundreds of would-be medical marijuana purveyors lined up Thursday in front of San Diego City Hall to apply for conditional-use permits to operate drug dispensaries in the city, under a recently adopted plan to authorize and strictly regulate sales of the drug.

The earliest applicant, college student Michael Banki, had been waiting in line since Sunday to file his paperwork, which involved a dozen separate documents as well as an $8,750 filing fee. Most of the others spent at least one night camping out until the doors opened at 6:30 a.m. Thursday; application reviews started half an hour later.

Under a slow process marred by several glitches — including some applicants being sent home to retrieve documents they didn't realize they needed — only about 45 applications had been filed by noon. At press time, the final tally was unclear, but more applications are expected to be filed Friday and possibly early next week.

Most of the applicants are doomed to disappointment because it is estimated after the two-round application process that no more than 36 permits will be issued — and maybe as few as 20. That compares to an estimated 60 to 80 unauthorized dispensaries thought to be operating in the city, but at a growing risk of being shut down by the police or hauled into court by the city attorney.

For those who are accepted, the permitting process is projected to cost about $100,000 and last up to a year. Nevertheless, several applicants seemed elated once their paperwork was filed, with hopes of getting in on the ground floor of a potential growth industry.

"Anytime the city begins a new process, there's going to be some confusion, frustration and chaos, but by the end of the day they felt they were good to go," said attorney Kimberly Simms, a marijuana law specialist who represents two of the applicants.

Simms compared it to the first day of "The Amazing Race," the CBS reality TV show where contestants must complete a series of outlandish tasks as they race around the world.

Among other things, scuffles broke out among some applicants when City Hall security officers shifted the line about 5 a.m., sparking some pushing and shoving among people who felt that others had cut in line.

One of Simms' clients, who had been waiting since about 2 p.m. Wednesday, managed to finish by 8:30 a.m. Thursday. The other, who had been waiting the same length of time, had to go home to retrieve a document, but was still able to submit the application when he returned.

"It was a long day for everybody," Simms said.

Under a plan adopted by the City Council earlier this year, a maximum of four dispensaries can locate in each of the nine council districts. But other requirements, including rules on how close the dispensaries can be to churches, schools, parks, residential areas and other dispensaries, could mean that one or two districts will get no dispensaries and several others will get fewer than four.

In the meantime, Mayor Kevin Faulconer and City Attorney Jan Goldsmith are cracking down on facilities operating without permits. Faulconer said the city has recently sent code-compliance notices to 57 dispensaries.


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