An Inside Look at ‘A Green Alternative’ in Otay Mesa – San Diego’s First Licensed Medical Pot Shop

by on July 8, 2015 · 0 comments

in Culture, Economy, Health, Politics, San Diego

AGreenAlternativeAn Interview With CEO, Dr. David Blair

By Barbara Zaragoza / South Bay Compass

Eye On The Locals: I’m a curious person and when I see something historic happening in my community, I feel an urgent need to document and ask questions. When A Green Alternative opened in Otay Mesa on March 20, 2015 — only two blocks from a major U.S.-Mexico port of entry — I couldn’t help but find out more.

(Editor: The OB Rag covered its opening back in March.)

A Green Alternative is the first medicinal marijuana dispensary that has legally opened in the City and County of San Diego. It’s a historic moment, highly controversial and located in my neck of the wood–the South Bay. So I walked right up to the storefront security guard and asked for an interview.

As the CEO, Dr. David Blair, later told me: he asks his staff not to treat people the way they would like to be treated, but to treat people the way they would treat their mother. Sure enough, the security guard was friendly and the staff gave me Dr. Blair’s card so I could contact him. Within the week, I sat down for a long conversation with Blair after a tour of the dispensary.

Soft spoken and wearing a shirt with his company’s logo on it, Dr. David Blair says he is probably the only owner of a medical marijuana dispensary willing to speak to the press. Why?

For two reasons. The first, because he has done everything the City has asked in order to open a legitimate non-profit business. He is proud of this and wants to be transparent. Second, he considers his business to be Number One and other medial marijuana dispensaries will have to follow the standards that he and his two co-owners, Zach Lazarus and Doug Cristofo, have created.

Tight Security Is A Priority

A Green Alternative is similar to a bank when it comes to security. Because money is exchanged and medications are dispensed, Blair’s establishment needs strict security measures. The entryway to the establishment is bullet resistant and an armed guard (contracted from Omni Security) is at the front not only during opening hours, but twenty-four hours a day, seven days per week.

Blair says a female customer once noted that the dispensary looks like a Nordstroms. It is clean, well lighted with shiny hardwood floors. It looks upscale, largely thanks to Blair’s talent for interior design. His establishment also has a large security safe in the back. Blair explains that it can accommodate a dozen people who can theoretically have four hours of protection in there, if ever needed. There is also a panic button inside and police have promised they will be at the facility in less than two minutes.

“Our merchandise is last. Our patients, our staff and my life are worth more than any money,” Blair says. He also notes, “As a result of the high standards we established, the City adopted them and now everyone who follows has to follow our lead.”

A Non Profit Corporation

“My Master’s degree is in non-profit management from the University of San Diego. I ran a non-profit named Positively Speaking and Healthy Youth Advocacy Program. That was a true non-profit. This model is called a non-profit, but it’s almost like a hybrid between the two. The differential is fuzzy because with a non-profit organization, all profits go back into the business. As a non-profit, you can make a profit, but it gets rolled back into the non-profit. That’s the model we’re running it under. We’re all collecting salaries because we’re as successful as we are.”

In two years, Blair explains, the laws will allow his company to become for-profit.

Since his establishment has opened, it’s been smooth sailing. The company has already earned $615,000 in fourteen weeks. Blair notes that his seventeen employees are paid a decent wage: $12.50 an hour and his managers get $13.50. His company has also already paid $48,000 to the State of California and the City of San Diego in sales taxes.

“With our license we’re permitted to do three things. We’re permitted to grow, we’re permitted to dispense and we’re permitted to deliver. Those three things are legal.”

Currently, Blair doesn’t grow the medicinal marijuana, but that may change in the future as they continue to expand their wholesale business and possibly open new dispensaries. For now, he has a sub-licensee growing for them. They buy from their general sources that go through the same background checks he and his employees have to go through. Some of his growers are further out in SD County, the rest come from Humboldt. Blair explains that all growers must come from California because you cannot cross a border in possession of marijuana. That’s a federal crime. You cannot go to Arizona and use a recommendation from California. The only State that has reciprocity is Nevada.

AGreenAlternative1Why isn’t it Sold in Pharmacies?

“You should be able to, but it’s because the federal law trumps state, state trumps city or county and medical marijuana use is illegal according to federal law,” Blair says. No doctor is allowed to prescribe marijuana because “prescribe” rises to the level of federal authority. A recommendation is what Blair’s patients bring and a recommendation is a state run program.

The problem, according to Blair, is that marijuana is incorrectly scheduled. It’s schedule 1, in the same category as heroin. However, more and more states are making it legal and he wants to see marijuana rescheduled to 2 or 3.

Blair is optimistic that the majority of Americans want to see marijuana legalized. He explains that both the House and Senate have passed bills to de-fund the DEA from going into States with regulations in place on medical marijuana.

“I think what’s going to happen is that the President is going to reschedule if before he leaves office. Congress is already working on it.”

When asked if he would like to see not just marijuana decriminalized, he says: “I’m a libertarian when it comes to this issue. I think all drugs should be legal and instead of arresting and throwing them in jail, they should grab ’em and put them in, help them psychiatrically. Sociologically. They need help. They don’t need barriers, they need help.”

Who is Eligible for the Recommendations?

“People who are over 18. However, we have a further restriction. If they are in high school, they will not get their medication from us. They’ll have to go somewhere else. Their parents can come in as a caregiver because they can get a caregiver certificate and they’re welcome, but we’re not selling to children in high school because the likelihood of distribution is too high. Secondary distribution.”

However, parents can get a caregiver certificate and pick the medication up themselves. Blair explains, “When you see toddlers having seizures and they can take a tincture of Charlotte’s Web and they have one [seizure] a month, instead of 30-40 a day. That to me is as close to a miracle as we’re ever going to see.”

Blair explains, “We have tincture, we have pills. We are heavy in CBD line, purposefully. Because we’re not here to get you stoned, we’re here to get you medicated, and there’s a big difference.”

Dr. David Blair’s Story

Born in Inglewood, Blair’s parents divorced when he was 6 months old and they moved back to Chicago, where they were from. In 1976 he graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in Communication Studies, Theater Tech and Interior Design. He immediately began working as an interior designer for several high end stores in the Chicago area.

Blair always had an affinity for California and he didn’t want to grow old in Chicago, so at the age of twenty-six, he moved out to Newport Beach. His mother joined him and they decided to go into the business of manufacturing and distributing freshly squeezed juice.

In January 1982, they established A Fresh Connection. Within two years, he had developed a trade license agreement with Sunkist Growers to supply the Universal Studio Tours and, at the time, what was called The Fabulous Forum. He sold them 8-ounce containers of orange juice as well as his own recipe of natural sweetened lemonade. Business boomed, he landed numerous prestigious contracts–and then Blair burned out working endless hours.

In 1984 he sold the business, doubled his money and went back into interior design. He did a stint in Pasadena, worked for a few furniture places and then bought an ocean view home in Laguna Nigel with his partner. After 5 1/2 years, they broke up and Blair moved to the Hillcrest area of San Diego. Two years later, he bought a house in Kensington, met his life partner, Doug Cristofo and opened a retail store in Hillcrest called Blair House, which sold decorative accessories.

During these same years, he received his Master’s from USD in non-profit management. In 2002 he was the first student ever to go from the Master’s Program into the Doctoral Program. In the Doctoral program, he focused on general management and leadership.

Once he received his doctorate, he began teaching at National University in Educational Administration. By 2008 he was teaching at San Diego State University and during his tenure there, he taught 41 sections of Ethical Decision Making in Business.

His Partners

Blair’s life and business partner, Doug Cristofo, worked for 21 years as a Manager of Convention Services and Event Planning for Rafael’s Party Rentals. He also helped run Blair House. However, when the economy tanked, Blair House closed. Thereafter, Blair and Cristofo opened a medical evaluation clinic in a doctor’s office of Kearny Mesa. People would come in to get their written recommendations for medical marijuana. Blair would do the patient’s vitals, get their medical records, scan it to the physician so he could review it and determine whether or not the individual was a candidate for medical marijuana. He had a doctor on Skype who was California licensed in good standing and lived in Arizona. Cristofo did the deliveries.

“We had over 300 patients and he [Cristofo] was out on the road the first year practically 10-11 hours per day delivering.”

At that same time, Zach Lazarus was a sales manager at Perry Ford of National City. Blair and Cristofo bought six cars from him, and in this way they came to know one another and eventually created A Green Alternative together. They are now the three board members of the corporation.

The Permit Process

It took Blair and his co-owners a full year to get the permit and somewhere in the ballpark of $2-300,000. The permit itself cost $8,900, but in order to get the permit, he needed to have a signed lease agreement with a landlord, or else they would need to own the building. Blair leased the space and had to pay rent while waiting for all the appropriate permits and permissions, a process which took an entire year.

“I’ll tell you how it happened. Our attorney, Lance Rogers, had a group of six of us applicants. He said, “We don’t know how this is going to work because the City doesn’t either yet. This was in the beginning. They were writing on the fly. In fact, they re-created form number 199 several times and that backed up people who had already completed their 199 form and it was approved. Suddenly, they had to re-do it.

“But we were so far along in the process, we didn’t have any of the Draconian measures that have been put into place since. We had a keeper sitting in line, I think we were number 3 or 4 in line, the morning of the application process commencing… So, we got there at five in the morning, as did the others of our group with Lance Rogers. We took the place of our place keepers. They were sent home. They cost us each 1,500 bucks. And then they said, the line in order doesn’t matter, and we’re going to be bringing people, not in line, but to developmental services across the street and down a parking garage. So it became a mad rush to get to that DSD door first and one of the applicants was probably #20, he was way up in front. My partner heard his name and when the police came my partner spoke up: “This guy doesn’t belong here. He’s out of line and he’s creating a problem for all of us.”

Blair makes a “whooshing” sound to tell me that guy was gone from the line after that.

“Then we raced up the elevator and raced up to turn in our check for $8,900 and change, that’s the application fee.”

Compare that to the $35 Blair says it cost him for a license to open Blair House in Hillcrest.

The permit process took 9 months, but then it was also appealed, so it took about a year. All through the process, he needed to pay city officials for their work as well as attorney fees that all added up to around $2-300,000.

His Dispensary Is Number One

“I’ll explain why we are number one. While others may have fought the city all the way through, we didn’t. We didn’t. The city would say, ‘You need X.’ We would return a document that would say ‘X times two. Y times two. O times two is what we’re suggesting.’ They were like, ‘No one else is like this.’”

He worked diligently with the San Diego Development Services Department (DSD) and on his third submission, the documents came back with a congratulations. There were no comments or changes required. They were ready to move forward.

“Why? Because I befriended these people. They are not my enemy, they are my friends and I don’t want to do something that would trip them up. So before we take an action that might be questionable, like advertising, I want to know what we can advertise in and what we can’t. So rather than doing it and getting my hand slapped–as my mother would have said to do it a hundred years ago– but this is too important. Oh no.” Blair said. “We don’t touch those things until we hear back from the city. Why ruin a reputation when we’re stellar right now?”

As a consequence of waiting, paying and complying, Blair says that A Green Alternative has established new baselines for the city. The City has adopted their standards, so for example, now everyone who follows them has to have the same bullet proofing. The City wanted a guard while they were open. Blair said, “That’s not good enough. Someone can climb over that roof and just drill through. Uh-uh. We’re gonna have a guard 24/7. And then we raised it one level more. We’re going to have an armed guard 24/7.”

Another reason Blair says his company is number one: not only is he a doctor, “having taught 41 ethics classes, saying I know the difference between right and wrong and we will not cut ethical corners to make a sale.” But Blair explains that “when you have an armed guard present, the entire neighborhood is safer. Because that guard is not just there for us, even though we’re paying for it. If he sees there’s a crime going on in another place, he’s gonna step in, whether he calls 911 and pulls a pistol, I don’t know. But they’re all safer because of us.”

It’s Personal

“The whole idea is to give back to the community. Why did I become a professor? To serve others.”

Blair explains that he started giving back already in 1996 when he created the non-profit organizationPositively Speaking. He trained about 150 HIV infected or affected speakers and then had an MOU with the school districts throughout the County to speak to youth about AIDS. “We reached more than 50,000 youth while I was at the helm of the business.”

He put his heart and soul in that organization for six years. In fact, for Blair medicinal marijuana is personal. In 1985, during the height of the AIDS epidemic, Blair decided to take the newly invented test to see if he was positive. He was scared to death. He thought, “It can’t happen to me. A nice Jewish boy? It did happen to me.”

During those days, Blair explained, “I was a lead singer in the LA Gay Men’s Chorus. First tenor. I always had leads. They performed probably six years later in the Performing Arts Center in Orange County. I brought my partner at the time. He was listening to the music. I was counting the names in the In Memoriam list. During the intermission, I had counted 128 names of guys that I knew who had died. Then, living in Orange County, I had two friends die on the same day.”

By 1995, upon the recommendation of his physician, Blair started to use medicinal marijuana. However, there were no places in Orange County, so he had to trek up to Los Angeles. Blair says medicinal marijuana slows the progression of HIV.

Why Open In The South Bay?

“Doug, my partner, and Zach all live in the South Bay and we felt the South Bay was being neglected. We figure we’re going to get people South of the 8, or at least South of the 54 or the 94. They don’t have to go North anymore. They can stay South in a very nice safe clean place.”

Once the new Port of Entry in Otay Mesa East opens in 2017, Blair believes that ill patients in Tijuana will also benefit from A Green Alternative‘s dispensary. They will need to have a valid ID that shows their residency in California and they’ll need to get their recommendation within California. The laws, however, will still mean that those who live in Tijuana can bring their medicinal marijuana into Mexico, but they cannot bring it across into the United States.

Addressing the problem of illegal marijuana coming from Mexico into the United States, Blair explained, “What is happening, because there is such a growth market in this industry, the Mexican cartels are getting out of marijuana. It was crap anyway. Full of stem seeds and everything else you wouldn’t want. It was just crap. So instead, they’re growing poppies. They’re changing with the demands.”

A Strain Named For SD City Official

As business continues to boom, Blair is the partner who gives the interviews. Media coverage has been heavy and Playboy plans to interview him as well.

Blair believes in his product and believes history is on his side. He credits his currently success mostly on his ability to develop good relationships with people. He developed many relationships with City officials along the way and even named a strain of marijuana after one of the most helpful SD city officials. Blair said she was happy to have the strain named after her.

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