Medical pot club at Fisherman's Wharf tests new city law

July 11, 2006

Jordan Robertson, Associated Press

Fisherman's Wharf is packed with itinerants and iconography, from cable cars to postcard views of Alcatraz and the scent of sourdough.

And now the fragrance of fresh marijuana?

City planners are considering whether to issue a permit for a medical marijuana dispensary in the heart of the city's tourist hub, despite outrage from neighbors and businesses. The Planning Commission is scheduled to vote Thursday, and some have vowed to appeal any permit the city grants.

"The wharf is San Francisco's Disneyland," said Rodney Fong, president of the Fisherman's Wharf Merchants Association. "About half the people who come are with kids, and the things they are looking for are family attractions - sea lions, dining. So a marijuana dispensary doesn't really match the market we have."

The Green Cross is the first cannabis club to seek a permit under strict guidelines the city adopted in November to curb street crime around its roughly 30 dispensaries and prevent sales to non-patients.

This left-leaning city quickly became a hub for cannabis clubs after voters in 1996 made California the first state to legalize medicinal marijuana. But the Fisherman's Wharf fight highlights difficulties in the 11 states that allow medical marijuana as they seek to regulate the drug without banishing patients to dark alleys and rough neighborhoods.

"What we're seeing ... is a 'Reefer Madness' frenzy that makes people act irrationally, and condemns dispensaries and dispensary operators," said Kris Hermes, legal campaign director for Americans for Safe Access, an Oakland-based pro-medical marijuana advocacy group. "And it ultimately prevents them from coming to the aid of patients."

The city made the Green Cross close its previous location in the Mission District in March after neighbors complained about rising traffic and crime, which owner Kevin Reed said were unfounded.

The new law requires the owners of dispensaries to submit to criminal and employment background checks. They must pay for a permit and business license, and are forbidden from operating within 500 feet of schools. That buffer zone grows to 1,000 feet if pot-smoking is allowed on the property, as it is at most San Francisco dispensaries.

Before the new rules, the clubs were largely unregulated, and according to some accounts, non-patients could freely acquire marijuana.

Medical marijuana advocates cheered the legislation as a victory for law-abiding owners. But some now say they could doom the very clubs they were designed to protect.

Fisherman's Wharf is one of the few areas of the city where new pot clubs are still allowed, and Reed, 32, said he was forced into the location after being rejected by dozens of other landlords.

"Nobody wants this in their backyard," Reed said. "They're fighting for their beliefs and their family values. But if they continue fighting on the path they're fighting now, they'll put us all out of business."

The club's proposed new location is a bustling pedestrian zone across from two major hotels and near restaurants and shops.

The storefront is already built out - minus the marijuana. It is all sleek sophistication, from the black walls and piped-in jazz to the swarm of security cameras.

Patients who present a government-issued medical marijuana card and a doctor's note will be presented with a selection of 55 different marijuana strains displayed in a glass counter studded with hundreds of tiny neon green lights. Prices are roughly $300 an ounce.

Pot-smoking would not be allowed on the premises, and security guards would patrol the area, Reed said.

"The criminal element that breaks the rules just doesn't want to come into a store like mine," Reed said. "I've done everything by the book."

Mayor Gavin Newsom said he planned to visit the site of the proposed dispensary, and that the input of neighbors would weigh heavily in the decision whether to issue a permit.

He said Reed has been responsible and should not be punished for flaws in the new rules, calling it an "unintended consequence" that the club wound up at the wharf.

"The intent of the legislation was to generate less controversy, not more," Newsom said. "We may not like what he is doing, but he is playing by the rules we set up."

The Planning Commission is scheduled to vote Thursday on whether to issue a permit, but even if planners approve, the club would still need to clear police and health department inspections before opening, Newsom said.

Some neighbors and businesses have vowed to appeal any permit the city grants.

"It would be like putting a cannabis club at Faneuil Hall in Boston or South Street Seaport in New York," said Michael Neril, 30, an investment banker who lives a few doors down from the proposed club.

He supports medical marijuana but worries the new club will bring more crime.

"It would be a disaster for the area," he said. "It's probably the worst location to put it in."

Reed has earned some supporters in the neighborhood, and said he has personally contacted hundreds of residents. He won over managers of Pergamino Coffee and Tea, a crowded cafe around the corner, with a private tour of the property.

"They're going to have it well controlled," said manager Glendene "Peaches" Montague. "They'll make sure there's no riffraff hanging around on the corners, so that's the main thing.

"It's not like he's opening up a drug haven," she said. "It's well-monitored, well-secured, and obviously he's done this before. But only time will tell."



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