Weeding out pot clubs

May 09, 2005

Ann Harrison, San Francisco Bay Guardian

San Francisco planners have targeted five medical marijuana dispensaries they say may have opened after the 45-day moratorium on new clubs was approved.

Two dispensaries have challenged the allegation, citing a lack of clear guidelines about what regulatory steps these quasi-legal businesses should have taken before setting up shop. City officials say dispensaries perceived as bad neighbors will be singled out first for enforcement action, and one flagged dispensary has called for the city to help it mediate a neighborhood dispute.

This first move to weed out dispensaries comes as political leaders and representatives from the medical marijuana community are trying to hash out new guidelines for the dispensaries, a difficult task likely to require at least one extension of the moratorium, which is set to end May 12. The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote May 10 (after the Bay Guardian's press time) to extend it another 60 days, and the measure is expected to pass.

Charles Pappas, a medical cannabis patient who runs the Health and Wellness Alternatives dispensary at 935 Howard St., is hoping he can work out a dispute with neighbor Laura Weil, who represents a group of residents opposed to his dispensary.

Pappas supports the moratorium but disputes Weil's claim that he opened after the cutoff date. Last week Pappas's landlord received one of the five letters sent by the Planning Department to dispensary operators and property owners asking them to submit a notarized affidavit saying they opened before the moratorium.

The Ketama Collective dispensary, at 14 Valencia St., also received a letter, and counters that it too opened before the moratorium, an assertion city officials are challenging. 'If you get your business license a month before you open your doors or sign your lease, that does not qualify as the day you opened,' Sonja Kos, the planning enforcement official who signed the letters, said.

The City Attorney's Office will evaluate the validity of the replies and will take action against dispensaries found to be in violation. 'We are doing everything we can to shut them down,' city planner Dan Sider said of confirmed post-moratorium dispensaries. 'Clearly, they are not authorized.'

Weil said Pappas also failed to get a conditional-use permit and be subjected to a public hearing, both of which are required for most businesses in the area. But that is a hazy realm for most of the dispensaries that flooded into San Francisco and were faced with what they said were mixed messages from the Planning Department on permitting requirements.

Sider says all but two of the city's 40-some dispensaries lack permits and are technically illegal. Some 20 dispensaries have attempted to get permits in recent weeks, but the moratorium has halted the issuing of permits to cannabis clubs.

Sider says the clubs cannot be grandfathered in. It remains to be seen whether dispensaries are allowed to reapply for their permits, and under what conditions. Kos pointed out that 'the canabis club owners are not being singled out. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of businesses in San Francisco that do not have proper permits.'

The current brouhaha over regulating the pot clubs became a high-profile fight after Mayor Gavin Newsom took issue with the opening of a club below the All-Star Hotel, which the city contracts to house formerly homeless addicts under the mayor's signature Care Not Cash program.

The owner of that dispensary now claims he was treated unfairly by the city. Pat Knoop, operator of the Holistic Center, thought he was playing by the rules when he opened the dispensary below the hotel, on the ground floor between a donut shop and an appliance store.

But after Newsom alleged that the dispensary was on city-controlled property, Knoop said his landlord was pressured to break his lease three days before the dispensary opened. Now he believes the city should grandfather him in and issue him a permit to open a new dispensary.

'Not one person even came to talk to us,' said Knoop, who claims he sank $30,000 of borrowed funds into the project. 'We really thought we were going to have a model facility for the city, but I suspect the mayor didn't want to lose federal funding for Care Not Cash.'

The mayor was not available to comment, and the Planning Department disputes Knoop's claim that he was in full compliance. But the closure of the Holistic Center fueled the current push for clear dispensary regulations, and the moratorium on dispensaries was passed by city supervisors March 29.

Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, who is spearheading the regulation effort, said the problems faced by Knoop and Pappas demonstrate why clear regulations are needed.

'It has been confusing, and I am not surprised that people get caught in traps in the absence of information,' Mirkarimi said. 'That is why we need to regulate and regulate smartly.'

Mirkarimi said he's contacted Pappas and some of his neighbors to help resolve the conflict. He said Pappas appears to have performed due diligence on the moratorium requirements, and he's asked the Planning Department to unravel the dispensary's outstanding compliance issues. He wants to set up a citizen task force and/or appeals board to mediate neighborhood disputes.

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