ACT UP/SF loses lease, pot club to close

October 26, 2005

Zak Szymanski , Bay Area Reporter

It may please some local AIDS advocates who still harbor bitter memories of the group, but to the medical marijuana clients of ACT UP/San Francisco, news that the organization has lost its lease at 1884 Market Street is cause for concern.

The several members of ACT UP who once owned the building recently sold it, said Andrea Lindsay, a cooperative member who is listed as one of the building's previous owners. According to documents in the San Francisco Assessor's office, Lindsay, along with Michael Bellefountaine, Betty Best, Derek St. Pierre, Tate Swindell, and Todd Swindell, granted the property deed to new owners Wallace Cheung, Tad Cheung, and Susan Cheung on May 31.

The new owners – who had rented the building to ACT UP on a month-to-month basis – plan to open their own business in the space that houses one of the longest running medical pot clubs in the city. Lindsay said the landlord originally gave a November 3 move-out date, but that the group is in negotiations and may be able to extend their stay by a few months. The club and staff members from Supervisor Bevan Dufty's office are preparing clients for the transition.

"We're telling patients now so they have an opportunity to make other arrangements for their medicine," Lindsay told the Bay Area Reporter, adding that if the club can resolve some legal questions it may be able to offer delivery services to its clients after the closure.

Because San Francisco currently has a moratorium against any new pot clubs opening until proposed regulations are approved by the Board of Supervisors, ACT UP cannot simply move its dispensary to another location. The moratorium is set to expire November 15 but likely will be extended. The controversial regulations – drafted to respond to neighborhood concerns about alleged drug activity near their homes and children – seek to place limits on how and where the city's clubs can operate.

Although the matter has been extended and it is not known whether the board will pass the regulations as they are written, most likely the new rules will include oversight by the Department of Public Health. Given the history of tensions between ACT UP, DPH, and community AIDS advocates, said Lindsay, there is some question about whether the group will have trouble reopening in the future.

"The city tells us we are a model dispensary and they would love to see us open again. We were one of the first to open and we've never had any problems," said Lindsay. "But one wonders if doors aren't being opened that otherwise might because of our political history. [DPH Director] Mitch Katz is not a fan of ours, and the feeling is kind of mutual, so we don't know how that will play out."

DPH spokeswoman Eileen Shields said that once the regulations are passed and the moratorium is lifted, "ACT UP would come into the process as anyone else would."

"The health department is used to working with activists and with people who don't agree with us, whether it's ACT UP or not," said Shields. "You're only as good as how you can stand up to your greatest critics. The health department would not base its decision on ACT UP's past political actions."

ACT UP/SF got its start, like most ACT UP chapters around the country, as a confrontational activist group that rallied on behalf of early AIDS patients and fought for money for sound HIV research, treatment, and policy. In 1990, however, the city chapter split along ideological lines, with ACT UP/SF emphasizing a need for larger social change to stop the epidemic, and ACT UP/Golden Gate (later known as Survive AIDS) focusing on working within the system and in conjunction with established organizations.

Eventually, ACT UP/SF became known for agitating not just the mainstream but members of the AIDS community, pushing an "AIDS dissident" agenda that included the message that HIV was not the cause of AIDS, and that it was AIDS drugs, not the infection, that caused people to die. In 1996, one group member dumped used cat litter over the head of then-San Francisco AIDS Foundation Executive Director Pat Christen to protest that organization's promotion of AIDS drugs, and in 2000, a scuffle broke out between ACT UP members and staff at Project Inform during a public forum on the possible benefits of temporarily stopping medication.

In 2001, two men affiliated with the group were arrested and charged with stalking and making terrorist threats against city health officials and members of the media. Shortly thereafter, two prominent members of ACT UP – Ronnie Burk and David Pasquarelli – died, and in recent years ACT UP's activism has been limited to the distribution of information, according to Lindsay, with the space on Market Street used primarily for medical marijuana purposes. Those members of ACT UP who do want to remain active in HIV dissident work, she said, sometimes attend monthly meetings of "Alive and Well" at the LGBT Community Center, the group that is an offshoot of Christine Maggiore's book, What If Everything You Thought You Knew About AIDS Was Wrong? The Los Angeles Times had a lengthy article last month about the AIDS-related death of Maggiore's 3-year-old daughter Eliza earlier this year; Maggiore and her husband, Robin Scovill, told the Times that they have concerns about the coroner's findings and are sending the report to an outside reviewer.

Lindsay said that many of ACT UP's medical marijuana clients do not subscribe to the same political beliefs, nor were they ever participants in the group's political actions.

"Our clients don't all embrace our messages and a lot of people say they've never had the experience of coming in here and having it forced down their throats," said Lindsay, adding that ACT UP also promotes queer liberation, animal rights, and veganism. "We welcome debate. At our dispensary, people make their own informed health decisions, and our perspective is just one of many pieces of the puzzle."

Lindsay expressed concern over the pot club's pending closure, pointing out that the dispensary "largely caters to an LGBT population," and the visibly queer and transgender clients often don't feel comfortable going to other clubs.

Dufty told the B.A.R . that the entire board was working to come to an agreement on the regulations so that legitimate pot clubs could continue to operate.

"Safe access to medical cannabis is essential. The board is in unanimity on that," said Dufty.

 



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