Vote in fall on pot club for Albany
August 24, 2006
Chip Johnson, San Francisco ChronicleFederal authorities dead set against the spread of medical marijuana dispensaries in California may soon have another leak in the dike.
In November, Albany residents will vote on an advisory measure over whether to allow a pot club in the small East Bay city of 14,000 residents on Berkeley's northern edge.
Unlike some of its neighbors in the university town, Albany residents are known as a well-behaved collection of families, with few problems other than occasional high school shenanigans and over-imbibing customers at bars along San Pablo Avenue.
The city prides itself on well-maintained streets, good schools and city services and holds an annual festival along Solano Avenue, its main thoroughfare, which brings out the whole town. It's one of those Bay Area cities whose politics wouldn't disqualify it for inclusion on the list of All-American cities.
Albany is also a liberal California city. And if the 1996 statewide vote on Proposition 215, which allows the use of marijuana for medical problems, provides any insight into the upcoming vote, it's going to be a landslide.
A decade ago, Albany voters approved Prop. 215 by nearly 4 to 1. After a two-year moratorium on marijuana dispensaries while city leaders studied the issue, the Albany City Council voted unanimously to let voters decide whether to let a pot club open its doors in town.
Judy Lieberman, the assistant city administrator, said city officials had been approached at least once during that period by pot club operators who wanted to open a facility.
If there is strong objection to the measure, it's not evident in the business community.
Dana Milner, a contractor who serves as Chamber of Commerce president, said he had no objection -- and strongly endorsed the city's plan and the state law.
"As a resident, I think it's a great idea. It's a healing substance, and there is not much negative health risk associated with it," said Milner, 56, who uses marijuana for medicinal purposes.
"It should have been legalized years ago, but this is a case where the feds aren't doing their job so the people (of California) have to take it into their own hands to make it legal and available," he said.
Milner doesn't think much of federal objections to the state law, and he doesn't think much of federal prosecutions of alleged pot growers and alleged suppliers of pot clubs in San Francisco and Oakland, among other cities.
"I'm a responsible member of this community, and I think it's the right thing to do," he said.
Richard Lee, owner of the Bulldog Coffee Shop, one of four marijuana dispensaries approved in Oakland, says despite the federal raids on 20 dispensaries in San Diego County last month, more cities are reviewing their policies toward the dispensaries.
Those raids were carried out after a San Diego County supervisor filed suit to block pot club operations. Pleasanton, another Bay Area city that had placed a moratorium on pot clubs, has begun looking at establishing regulations to allow a club to operate within the city limits, Lee said.
Eight counties and 25 cities in the state have passed some form of regulations or policies allowing the dispensaries to operate, Lee said. Across the state, more than 300 clubs have been established, he said.
Despite what by all accounts appears to be overwhelming support for the measure by California voters, federal authorities continue to pursue prosecutions against people in the industry.
In the San Diego raids, 15 club owners were arrested and charged with possession for distribution and others on simple possession charges, and federal prosecutors said the raids were a "warning" to other operators -- their day was coming.
I don't doubt that the feds plan on continuing their pursuit of pot clubs and high-profile participants like Ed Rosenthal, a well-known author and grower from Oakland who is still the target of federal prosecution.
Rosenthal said Thursday that he is currently the subject of a grand jury convened to hear federal prosecutors' latest claims -- that he is a drug kingpin eligible for prosecution under federal racketeering charges.
Even when the feds nabbed Rosenthal, a federal judge essentially nullified the conviction. Rosenthal was convicted of cultivation charges in U.S. District Court in June 2003, but the judge, who said Rosenthal believed he was acting legally, sentenced him to a single day in jail, an overwhelming victory for medical marijuana supporters.
When everyday, middle-class citizens like Milner and his neighbors, and communities in even so-called red states like Montana, approve the use of marijuana for medical purposes -- it seems like it's the federal government that is out of touch with the people.
Chip Johnson's column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.