S.F. cracks down on the proliferation of marijuana clubs

March 29, 2005

Ann Harrison, San Francisco Bay Guardian

A boom in San Francisco marijuana dispensaries has triggered a round of high-profile recriminations that has split city hall and roiled the medical cannabis community.

Sup. Ross Mirkarimi was already quietly working with dispensary owners to develop regulations when Mayor Gavin Newsom seized the media spotlight with reactionary concerns that sent all sides jockeying for position before the hammer comes down.

The Board of Supervisors was set to approve a 45-day moratorium on new clubs March 29 (after the Bay Guardian's press time).

The night before, a police community relations forum in the South of Market district attracted almost 100 people who heard complaints from neighbors about the Mendohealing Clinic dispensary on Lafayette Street. San Francisco police captain Tim Hettrich, who heads the narcotics unit, told the crowd that medical cannabis use was a 'great lie' because people with minor afflictions were allegedly able to secure doctors' recommendations for marijuana.

Newsom kicked off the current cannabis debate after he learned that the Holistic Center dispensary was planning to open in the All-Star Hotel in the Mission District, which houses some of the formerly homeless recovering addicts participating in the mayor's signature Care Not Cash program.

The mayor told reporters he supports medical cannabis but called for restrictions on new cannabis clubs, which now require only a business license and the approval of the property owner. At last count, there were almost 40 dispensaries operating in San Francisco, with new clubs opening almost every week. Oakland's four-dispensary limit, and club regulations passed by other cities, has kicked off a gold rush among cannabis entrepreneurs who have flooded San Francisco's unregulated market.

Supervisors have been fielding complaints from neighborhood groups concerned about other dispensaries on Vallejo Street and Ocean Avenue. Sups. Mirkarimi, Michela Alioto-Pier, Aaron Peskin, Sophie Maxwell, Jake McGoldrick, Sean Elsbernd, Tom Ammiano, Fiona Ma, and Bevan Dufty have all voiced support for the moratorium.

Meanwhile, the regulations Mirkarimi has been developing are scheduled for an April 25 hearing before the board's Government Audit and Oversight Committee. But he worries that inflammatory statements by the Mayor's Office against dispensaries will help push through hastily drafted regulations that could compromise access to medical cannabis.

'They are trying to make laws in the press, whereas we want to make laws through the committee process and give people a chance to weigh in on this,' Mirkarimi told us. 'It could be a photo finish in the race for developing regulations.'

The group of nine medical cannabis dispensaries working with Mirkarimi put forward its own proposed set of regulations, drafted by Martin Olive and Nicole Strand, directors of the Vapor Room dispensary on Haight Street. The dispensary group is chaired by Wayne Justmann, who supports the moratorium. Justmann said the new dispensaries are often run by unscrupulous operators more interested in generating profits than in providing services to patients.

'People are coming in from outside San Francisco and just opening up shop without consulting their neighborhoods or community representatives, and I think greed motivates these individuals,' Justmann told us. 'Unorganized crime has moved into the dispensary business, and we need to clean the wheat from the chaff.'

Justmann hopes the dispensary group's alliance with Mirkarimi will spare those club operators if the city moves to limit dispensaries. But other dispensary operators charge that the group has excluded them from discussions and is simply trying to protect its share of the market.

'We've been here for seven years, and we didn't know anything about these meetings,' said Mike Jones, who helps run the Act Up Collective dispensary on Market Street. 'We should have some say or at least some information about what is going on.'

Some medical cannabis patients said they are also worried about being left out of the regulatory process. Several dozen patients held an emergency meeting March 24 organized by the San Francisco branch of Americans for Safe Access, which advocates for medical cannabis patients. ASA volunteer coordinator Alex Franco said the source of the regulation is less important than ensuring continued access to medical cannabis in San Francisco for every patient who needs it.

'My concern is that infighting in both city government and within the medical cannabis community will result in chaos,' Franco said. 'If this is not put in check, those who are most affected, the patients and caregivers, will suffer.'

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