Political fight looms over pot clubs
June 29, 2005
Charlie Goodyear, San Francisco Chronicle
A San Francisco supervisor said Wednesday he wanted a sharp cut in the number of pot clubs operating in the city -- signaling a deep political divide as City Hall prepares to take up new legislation to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries.
Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, who earlier this month called on the city attorney to enforce a moratorium on new pot clubs, suggested there should be no more than eight such establishments operating in San Francisco, far below the 40 or so clubs open now.
'I do think it should be capped,' Elsbernd said Wednesday.'Oakland has four. We have twice the population, so we should have twice the number of pot clubs. I'm certainly willing to consider what the right number is. But right now we have almost as many pot clubs in this town as we do Starbucks. We have more pot clubs than the number of McDonald's and Burger Kings combined. I think we need to be realistic.'
The Board of Supervisors will consider in the coming weeks legislation proposed by Supervisors Ross Mirkarimi and Gerardo Sandoval that would require background checks, licensing, permit fees and restrictions on when, where and how medical marijuana can be dispersed in the city -- but without calling for a limit on the number of outlets.
Currently, there are more than 40 pot clubs that have cropped up in San Francisco since passage of a 1996 state measure permitting marijuana use for medical purposes -- with 7,000 registered medical marijuana patients in the city. But police say the system is widely abused, with drug dealers and gang members buying at the clubs and putting more pot on the streets than ever before.
Elsbernd's comments suggest that -- despite Mayor Gavin Newsom and all 11 members of the Board of Supervisors professing support for medical marijuana -- a political fight is looming over how far the city should go in limiting pot clubs.
Pointing up just how controversial the issue has become, a San Francisco resident who says she's a medical marijuana backer Tuesday obtained a temporary restraining order from a San Francisco Superior Court judge forcing the closure of a pot club on Howard Street that neighbors considered to be a nuisance. Last week, federal authorities raided three clubs accused of participating in a money laundering scheme.
Under the 60 pages of regulation proposed by Mirkarimi on Tuesday, clubs owners would be required to pay a nonrefundable license application fee of $7,396 to the Health Department. The fee is based on the cost to the city of processing applications.
The San Francisco Police Department, Fire Department and Department of Building Inspection would be required to perform background checks on any club owner.
Mirkarimi's legislation also would require a pot club to operate as a cooperative without generating 'excessive profits.' The club could dispense only California-grown product, of which no more than a pound would be allowed per patient or caregiver unless otherwise specified by a doctor.
'This is an organic approach to serve as a model to other cities in the U.S.,' Mirkarimi said of his proposed ordinance. 'It's comprehensive, and it is very sensitive to the needs of the neighborhoods.' The supervisor said pot club owners would be required under his proposal to sign a document attesting that the club would not be operated for profit.
Mirkarimi said his legislation would cut down on the number of owners who 'may not be in this for the right reasons' while ultimately establishing a network of law-abiding clubs to adequately serve the needs of San Francisco patients.
Caren Woodson, campaign director for the medical marijuana group Americans for Safe Access, said she was pleased with most of the provisions of Mirkarimi's legislation. But a requirement that clubs where marijuana is smoked be located no less than 1,000 feet from a school or neighborhood center has prompted concern about limiting access for patients.
'We think a 500-foot restriction in San Francisco, given the urban environment, is plenty,' Woodson said. 'The thousand-foot restriction would put these clubs into locations that are not accessible to indigent or immobile patients.'
Asked about any plan to cap the number of clubs, Woodson said, 'Certainly there are more patients now than there were two years ago. We think the market will correct itself,' providing the right number of clubs to serve all those who need medical marijuana in the city.
Under Mirkarimi's proposed legislation, existing clubs could apply for a permit from the Health Department only if they can prove they were open before the April moratorium. Clubs also would need to obtain an annual business license at a cost of $2,182 and could not operate in any residential areas.
Sandoval, who represents the Ingleside District, home to two of the pot clubs raided by federal authorities in connection with suspected money laundering activity, introduced an ordinance Tuesday that would require a conditional-use permit from the city Planning Commission explicitly authorizing the operation of a medical marijuana club. Conditional-use permits typically restrict the location and business hours of operation of commercial enterprises.
And unlike Mirkarimi's legislation, Sandoval's would prohibit clubs from operating within 1,000 feet of each other.
Meanwhile, neighborhood skirmishes over the cannabis dispensaries continue. On Tuesday, San Francisco Judge Ronald Quidachay issued a temporary restraining order against a pot club at 935 Howard St. and cited the club's lack of an operating permit.
'I really didn't want to go to court to get them to stop,' said plaintiff Laura Weil in a statement released by her attorney. 'I support the legal and proper use of medicinal marijuana because I believe it helps certain patients, but the city needs to enforce the permit process. The proprietors did not adequately research their location, and moved into a residential neighborhood with a high density of children.
'This showed poor judgment -- and had they gone through the conditional-use process, they likely would have been denied. They also moved into a neighborhood already saturated with dispensaries, with eight in a six-block radius from 935 Howard.'
Regulating marijuana clubs
Provisions of new legislation proposed for regulating pot clubs in San Francisco:
-- As proposed by Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, clubs would need to obtain a permit from the Health Department, could not operate within 1,000 feet of a school if marijuana is smoked on the premises, and would be subject to inspections by city officials twice a year. Repeated violations of the ordinance could draw a fine as high as $5,000 or lead to the revocation of an operating permit.
-- As introduced by Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval, clubs would need to acquire a permit from the Planning Department and could not operate within 1,000 feet of another marijuana dispensary.