Marijuana Fight Envelops Fisherman's Wharf

July 02, 2006

Jesse McKinley, New York Times

The newest attraction planned for Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco's most popular tourist destination, has no sign, no advertisements and not even a scrap of sourdough. Yet everyone seems to think that the new business, the Green Cross, will be a hit, drawing customers from all over the region to sample its aromatic wares.

For some, that is exactly the problem.

The Green Cross is a cannabis club, one of scores that sell marijuana to patients with a doctor's note.
They have sprouted around California in the decade since the passage of Proposition 215, which legalized the use and sale of marijuana to those suffering from chronic pain, illness or infirmity. San Francisco, a hot spot in the AIDS epidemic, voted overwhelmingly in favor of the proposition in 1996 and has about 30 clubs, serving some 25,000 patients and caregivers.
But none of San Francisco's medical marijuana dispensaries, as they are formally known, have been located in places anywhere as popular as Fisherman's Wharf, where most people come to enjoy chowder, Ghirardelli chocolate or cable cars. Now, with the opening of the new club just weeks away, some residents and merchants are fighting to keep it out.

"The city is saturated with pot clubs," said T. Wade Randlett, the president of SF SOS, a quality-of-life group that opposes the planned club. "Fisherman's Wharf is a tourism attraction, and this is not the kind of tourism we're trying to attract."

Emboldened by a series of regulations passed last fall by the city's Board of Supervisors, some neighborhoods are resisting new marijuana dispensaries, which they say attract crime and dealers bent on reselling the drugs. In the debate over the new rules last year, several neighborhoods successfully lobbied to be exempted from having new clubs.

Other neighborhoods managed to get clubs shuttered, including a previous version of the Green Cross, which was forced out of a storefront in the city's Mission District after neighbors said they had seen a rise in drug dealing, traffic problems and petty crime, a charge the Green Cross denies.

The proposed dispensary comes at a time when medical marijuana's legal standing is murky. Last summer, the United States Supreme Court upheld federal authority to prosecute the possession and use of marijuana for medical purposes, despite voter-approved laws allowing medical marijuana in California and nearly a dozen other states.

That decision prompted California to stop issuing identification cards to patients, for fear of opening state workers up to federal charges of abetting a crime. (Patients can still be issued cards by San Francisco and other California cities.)

Clubs in San Francisco now must go through a permit process, which includes public hearings, and the proposed dispensary at Fisherman's Wharf is the first to have done so. A hundred people packed a neighborhood meeting on June 13, peppering the club's owner, Kevin Reed, with questions. Outside, fliers were handed out imploring residents to "Stop Marijuana Store!" and listing the planned club's proximity to schools and hotels.

Elizabeth Naughton Moore, 33, who lives about a block from the planned location, said she dreaded the thought of walking her 18-month-old son anywhere near it.

"Anyone with a modicum of common sense can see this is not an appropriate location," Ms. Moore said. "I understand patients need to have access to it, but I think with 30 locations, they have options."

All of this upsets Mr. Reed, a soft-spoken, sharply dressed 32-year-old who founded the first Green Cross in 2004. He said he had spent tens of thousands of dollars on security and other expenses to make the new club a model for marijuana dispensaries.

"I've changed so much and brought so much professionalism to the movement, but the public can't see that," Mr. Reed said. "I took it from the 1960's" into the 21st century.

The unopened dispensary at Fisherman's Wharf — located in a nondescript storefront tucked under a weary-looking bed-and-breakfast — has all the trappings of modern retail: high-speed Internet access, high-tech security cameras and high-end merchandise. An ounce of marijuana will sell for $300, and Mr. Reed's outlet will have a whopping 55 varieties. Framed photographs of San Francisco scenes adorn the club's black walls, and the glass-topped counters gleam under track lighting.

"I would love to offer it out of a hospital, I would love to offer it out of Walgreen's, but the truth is, they're not allowing that," said Mr. Reed, who uses marijuana to treat a back injury. "So somebody has to open a place like this and show that it can be done right."

What that includes, Mr. Reed said, is abiding by a batch of new rules. Chief among those is a stipulation that forbids clubs from opening within 1,000 feet of a school or a community center. Mr. Reed said that the tourism appeal of Fisherman's Wharf had nothing to do with his decision, but that the location met the requirements of the new rules.

"This wasn't our original location, nor was it our ideal location," Mr. Reed said, adding that he would not be selling marijuana to tourists, only to those with doctors' notes. "But it was really hard finding legal areas."

One of those legal areas happened to be at the wharf, which is zoned primarily for commercial use. But Christopher Martin, whose family owns the Cannery, a three-story retail and restaurant complex a block from the proposed club, said that the neighborhood had been trying to become more upscale and residential, and that a pot club should not figure into the plans.

"We are trying to build a more stable, more interesting community here," Mr. Martin said.

What local merchants say they fear most is the clientele's smoking in the neighborhood, congregating on sidewalks or clogging streets with double-parked cars. Mr. Reed said that his security personnel would prevent loitering and that 16 security cameras would constantly monitor the club and the area.

"Criminals that deal drugs don't want to come into a store where they are being recorded," Mr. Reed said.

The pot clubs themselves, which are usually cash businesses with ample amounts of product, are sometimes targets of crime. Four in San Francisco were robbed in 2005, and last weekend, a club downtown was robbed during the Gay Pride Parade.

And while the law was passed with seriously ill patients in mind, like those with AIDS and cancer, some critics say that now even people with commonplace aches and pains can get a doctor's recommendation.

But what both sides can agree on — in classic San Francisco fashion — is that the problem is really Oakland's fault. In 2004, Oakland, the smaller, less glamorous city across the bay, banned many of its cannabis clubs, driving some to reopen in San Francisco. Other cities in the state have also instituted bans or new restrictions.

The rising neighborhood opposition to the clubs also stands in striking juxtaposition to the personal political beliefs of many in San Francisco, a city that prides itself on a progressive attitude.

"Every single person I've ever spoke to and every meeting I've ever went to, if there was any opposition at all, the first words out of their mouth is, 'I voted for this,' " Mr. Reed said.

Mr. Martin concurred. "Both the merchants and the residents — though philosophically we don't have a problem with medicinal marijuana being available, we all voted for it — we think customers are going to be better served in another location," he said. "We just think it's the wrong time, wrong place."

Mr. Reed has assured city leaders and Mr. Martin that he would be a good neighbor, and he hopes to open in August if his permit is approved.

For their part, tourists seemed unaware, and largely unbothered, that they might soon be wandering past a cannabis club. "I think it's a pretty eclectic neighborhood anyway," said Tony Accardo, 54, a financial analyst from Dallas. "My only concern would be if it attracted clientele that might affect the neighborhood. You know, riffraff."


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