The politics of pot

October 25, 2005

Steven T. Jones and Ann Harrison, San Francisco Bay Guardian

EVERYBODY IN SAN Francisco supports medical marijuana, but nobody wants to live next to a pot club. That's the simple – if overgeneralized – political truth now plaguing Sup. Ross Mirkarimi and others at City Hall who want to regulate the quasi-legal dispensaries that were proliferating in the city before a moratorium went into effect earlier this year. Mirkarimi spent six months developing legislation to regulate pot clubs, which was considered by the Board of Supervisors Oct. 18, heavily amended, and continued to Oct. 25.

That hearing was later postponed after a representative for some club owners filed a challenge under the California Environmental Quality Act that requires a 45-day comment period.

"It's the ultimate NIMBY issue," Sup. Sean Elsbernd told us, noting that he supports medical marijuana but thinks the three dozen dispensaries now operating are too many.

In some supervisorial districts, the main concern about medical marijuana is how the city can facilitate its distribution, but in more conservative districts, that isn't the case. "What I have banging on my door is neighborhood concerns," Elsberd said.

On the other end of the spectrum is Sup. Chris Daly, whose district (which includes downtown and SoMa) houses almost half of the clubs, a concentration that could increase if Mirkarimi's legislation retains all the geographic restrictions it was introduced with.

"I think he went in the wrong direction with the zoning stuff," said Daly, who argues the city should limit its role to giving the clubs legal protection. "It was Ross trying to placate the mayor."

Elsbernd and Daly – along with Sups. Michela Alioto-Pier and Sophie Maxwell – were the unlikely partners who shot this historic legislation full of holes during the Oct. 18 hearing, making a full dozen different motions to delay or weaken legislation that Mirkarimi has spent six months crafting.

It was a frustrating situation for the freshman legislator, but one that didn't completely surprise Mirkarimi, who opened the debate by warning that many of the interested parties "are trying to sabotage this altogether."

And that's exactly where Daly is at this point, telling us he wants a "total rewrite," and, "What I'd like to see is for us to go back to the drawing board. What happened Tuesday was an example of what shouldn't happen during the legislative process."

Yet part of the chaos from that hearing was injected by Daly, who, unhappy with the restrictions on dispensaries that were the product of compromises with Mayor Gavin Newsom and some supervisors, won a 7-4 vote to make much of his district off limits to dispensaries, angering some club owners who would be closed down by the amendment.

"I don't understand why he shut eight clubs down," said Cathy Smith, proprietor of the HopeNet medical cannabis dispensary, which would close if Daly's proposed zoning carve-out went into effect. She and members of Americans for Safe Access (ASA) flooded Daly's office with angry phone calls over the next few days, and Daly is now considering rescinding his motion.

The conflict highlights the convoluted politics at play, swirling together honest neighborhood concerns, a backlash against the proliferation of pot dispensaries in the city, posturing politicians, existing clubs trying to maintain market share, new clubs trying to break in, and the needs and desires of those who use marijuana.

"You have to reconcile all these different interests, which is what I'm trying to do," Mirkarimi said. "What I find weird and awkward is the representatives on behalf of certain club owners want no regulations, so the city is hands-off."

After the vote on closing off Daly's district, Smith said she was hurt to see fellow medical cannabis activist Wayne Justmann and others in his row applauding. "I thought we were in this together," Smith said, pointing at Justmann.

But Justmann and his allies said they were simply happy to see Daly short-circuiting Mirkarimi's legislation, which they viewed as a threat to the dispensaries. Justmann told us, "We need to send it back. There wasn't a lot of communication going forward no matter what Mirkarimi will claim. We are trying to grandfather in existing facilities and not legislate any facilities out of existence."

Yet ASA legal campaign director Kris Hermes still hopes Mirkarimi's legislation can be salvaged, telling us, "While ASA believes that regulations are not a prerequisite for effective dispensary operation, there is some benefit to having this city back their operations if ever the federal government came in and interfered with this activity."

At the Oct. 18 hearing, Elsbernd tried and failed to create a "de facto cap" on the number of clubs by allowing just a six-month window for them to apply for permits. But Mirkarimi is opposed to such a cap – and the zoning fight could drag on for months.

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