By Mike Allen
La Mesa has a great reputation for popular street fairs, trendy restaurants,
and in the last few years, as a great place to score some killer bud.
It may have something to do with the number of legal dispensaries— 12 at
the latest count, with another five more in various stages of construction.
A lot of this concentration, a dispensary for every 5,000 of La Mesa’s
60,000 residents, has to do with how this East County city first approved
legal cannabis sales, and established a process of vetting and controlling
those sales that was clear and transparent.
Kerry Kusiac, La Mesa’s director of community development, which
oversees the city’s cannabis industry, says soon after California adopted
the legalization of recreational cannabis in 2016, La Mesa voters approved
the sale of medicinal cannabis. Three years later, city voters approved the
sale of recreational cannabis.
Initially, the legalizing of medicinal cannabis prompted an unexpected jump
in illegal cannabis retailing, but the city got soon got control over that
problem through a focused, aggressive enforcement program, Kusiac said.
“From about the time the first ordinance (involving medicinal marijuana) to
about 2018, there were a lot of illegal shops in La Mesa,” he said. “But
through a ramped up enforcement effort, we shut down some 30-odd
Today the rogue weed selling has been nearly eliminated, he said, and
existing legal dispensaries are pleased with the way the city is handling
“This city does a good job of limiting the bad actors,” said Pete Morales,
general manager of EMBR at 8300 Center Drive, in the city’s industrial area
where the bulk of dispensaries operate. “At the end of the day I want these
guys (city code enforcement and police) to succeed in getting rid of the
Though buying weed from illegal purveyors may be much cheaper, the fact
is you really don’t know what you’re getting from those sources, Morales
With all the checks and oversight from both the state and La Mesa,
customers can be assured of the quality and safety of the product, he said.
“What you’re paying extra for is the legitimacy of a transaction. It’s like
walking into a grocery store and picking up a gallon of milk,” he said.
“When you leave the store, you’re walking out with a receipt.”
Yeah, but how can all these legal shops make it, being so close to each
“It’s super competitive right now with the amount of dispensaries in this
area, but the demand is still pretty strong,” Morales said. To differentiate
itself from the other shops, EMBR takes pains to carry only the best
product, and employs well-trained bud tenders, he said.
“That’s the way we keep customers coming back to us,” he said. “It’s good
deals, good product, and great customer service…It’s a very basic game
While La Mesa’s higher number of legal recreational cannabis shops have
angered some residents who insist that cannabis is a gateway drug to far
more lethal and illegal drugs, Kusiac says things are actually working fairly
The city has set up a rigorous system of managing and policing the
businesses, and the result is evident in the lack of criminal activity
associated with the segment. “There hasn’t been a noticeable increase in
crime (at or near dispensaries),” he said. “In a lot of ways, they have
improved some things.”