Pot Clubs in Peril

January 31, 2007

Greg Beato, Reason Online

On a sunny Saturday morning last summer, the air inside the Church Street Compassion Center was thick with the scent of sweet, skunky medicine. The place felt like a neighborhood rec center. A couple of regulars were sitting on the soft, worn couches in the corner, watching a World Cup soccer match on a big-screen TV while taking an occasional puff on a joint. A friendly dog named “Danger” roamed the premises.

Hardwood floors and wainscoting gave the place a touch of shabby elegance; its high ceiling, painted a vivid shade of yellow, provided a blast of hippy-dippy optimism.

Every 10 minutes or so, a customer would enter and drift toward the glass display case where the center keeps its wares. Inside the case were a half-dozen apothecary jars filled with different strains of marijuana, along with some ganja-fortified baked goods. A whiteboard on the wall listed prices. As the customers made their purchases, they exchanged pleasantries with the volunteer cashier—small talk about the weather and their plans for the Fourth of July.

The Center is one of the approximately two dozen outlets in San Francisco that cater to medical marijuana patients. The building that houses it is on the corner of a busy street on the outskirts of the Castro District. For more than a decade—longer than medicinal cannabis has actually been legal—the location has been a home to one dispensary or another; longtime pot activist Dennis Peron set up the state’s first one here in 1993.

Ten years after California voters approved Proposition 215 by a 56 to 44 margin, it is almost as safe and easy to obtain an ounce of Purple Haze in the city as it is to fill a prescription for Lipitor. All you need is a doctor’s referral, a state ID card issued through the local health department, and $400. Patients are not required by law to obtain the ID cards, but the state issues them on a voluntary basis through county health departments. The system helps dispensaries and law enforcement officials identify registered medical marijuana patients and caregivers. Twenty-one out of the state’s 58 counties currently issue ID cards.

In the June 2005 decision Gonzales v. Raich, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states’ rights pose no obstacle to the federal government’s power to prosecute anyone who cultivates, distributes, or possesses marijuana, medical or otherwise. Patients and caregivers feared that the brief era of widespread, worry-free access to medical marijuana was about to end. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) kicked into higher gear, conducting more than three dozen raids in California over the next year. Its efforts, however, did little to slow the growth in new dispensaries. As recently as 2002, there were fewer than 20 such businesses in California, most of them concentrated in the San Francisco Bay Area. By the summer of 2006, more than 200 of them were operating throughout the state.

Was the threat posed by Gonzales v. Raich less dire than originally imagined? Amidst the business-as-usual atmosphere at the Church Street Compassion Center, it was easy to answer “yes.” But as an old saying often misattributed to the noted hemp farmer Thomas Jefferson goes, eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. And outside the comfortable oases of the state’s dispensaries, prohibitionists were going about business as usual too. Four hundred miles south of San Francisco, the city of El Monte had just extended its ban on such facilities for another year. Twenty other California cities enforce similar bans; approximately 50 others allow dispensaries but have stopped permitting new ones to open.

In San Diego, DEA agents were choreographing a raid of 13 dispensaries that would take place a few days later, producing closures, asset seizures, and 15 arrests. And even in San Francisco, merchants and residents in the Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood were honing the arguments they would use in their effort to block a dispensary from opening in their neighborhood.

Public opinion surveys, not to mention ballot box measures, show strong public support for medical marijuana in California and nationwide. Ten states have followed California’s lead during the last decade; it was not until 2006, when a South Dakota initiative to legalize medical marijuana lost by a 52 to 48 margin, that voters rejected medical marijuana in a statewide ballot.

But as vague voting-booth gestures of compassion have evolved into a real-world distribution system, complete with retail storefronts and an expanding client base, idealism often gives way to other forces. In San Francisco, things have gotten particularly surreal. In November 2006, the city’s Board of Supervisors voted to make crimes involving the private cultivation, possession, and sale of marijuana amongst recreational adult users the “lowest law enforcement priority” for the city’s police department, thus formalizing a policy that has essentially been in effect for some time now. At the same time, it has passed laws that make it nearly impossible to open new medical marijuana dispensaries, and many of the ones that are currently operating may soon be regulated out of existence.

And if San Francisco can’t quite resolve itself to fully embrace medical marijuana, what chance is there that Fresno, California, will? Or Fort Collins, Colorado? Today, thanks to the dispensaries, medical marijuana is not only legal in California; for many patients, it’s genuinely accessible. Soon that may no longer be the case.

Invasion of the Pot People

In general, the California public seems to favor an approach to medical marijuana that combines Communism with imminent death: If tiny groups of very ill patients are out there tilling the soil in cancer-stricken solidarity, then medical marijuana is acceptable. The dispensaries, alas, consumerize cannabis. They offer ease and reliability, and compassion isn’t always their only motivation. Some are set up as for-profit businesses and generate major revenues. The ones that adopt the tactics of, say, Wal-Mart or Pfizer—accepting credit card payments, running ads in newspapers, expanding their product ranges, and generally aiming to please their customers—are naturally the ones that attract the most suspicion.

Of all the links in the medical marijuana supply chain, the dispensaries offer law enforcement officials the most attractive target. Proposition 215 allowed doctors to recommend marijuana to their patients; it also gave patients and their caregivers the right to cultivate and possess it. But neither Proposition 215 nor a follow-up bill—SB 420, enacted in 2003—mentions dispensaries.

The latter does acknowledge that patients and primary caregivers can “collectively or cooperatively” cultivate marijuana for medical purposes. It also states that primary caregivers can receive “reasonable compensation” for “actual expenses” and “services provided.” While such language acknowledges a commercial component to the caregiver-patient relationship, neither Proposition 215 nor SB 420 suggest that a single person or entity might serve as the “primary caregiver” for hundreds or even thousands of patients, or that their relationship might consist solely of occasional, unscheduled cannabis purchases. Instead, Proposition 215 defines a primary caregiver as an “individual” who “consistently assume[s] responsibility for the housing, health, or safety” of another person.

To shore up their status as collectives or co-ops, some dispensaries require clients to pay annual membership fees. Others set themselves up as non-profit businesses. But providers that offer retail sales to members—as opposed to collectives where patients cultivate communal gardens—do not enjoy any protection under the primary caregiver provision. Instead, they operate at the whims and mercies of local law enforcement agencies and the DEA.

Dispensaries may not be explicitly mandated, but they are practical. Patients have the right to cultivate their own pot plants, but in a world where even making a salad from scratch has become a lost art, how many people are likely to choose that option? We don’t, after all, expect people to cultivate their own aspirin. Nor do we allow nature’s growing cycles to dictate patients’ treatment. “It takes three months to harvest marijuana,” says Steph Sherer, executive director of the medical cannabis advocacy group Americans for Safe Access. “Let’s say you’re diagnosed with cancer. Do we tell patients they need to wait three months before they start their chemotherapy treatments?”

Proposition 215 encouraged “the federal and state governments to implement a plan to provide for the safe and affordable distribution of marijuana to all,” but no such plan has materialized. Instead, California has outsourced the risk of providing safe and affordable distribution of marijuana to the private sector.

Some of those private dispensers are making a lot of money, and that, in turn, raises suspicions. In 2005 the manager of New Remedies, a California-wide chain of dispensaries, told On the Record that his operation’s weekly payroll was $170,000, with after-tax profit margins hovering between 5 percent and 15 percent. A DEA investigation later showed the chain had made 60 cash deposits totaling approximately $2.3 million to a single bank during one eight-month period last year.

The suspicions about the retail nature of dispensaries are amplified by the debate over the proper scope of medical cannabis. “We have no problem whatsoever with people that need it for glaucoma, people that need it for AIDS, the ability to eat,” says Capt. Tim Hettrich, chief of San Francisco’s narcotics unit. “The problem is with the law. It’s too broad. I was talking with a woman one night, and she says, ‘I got medical marijuana for my menstrual cramps.’ A doctor prescribed that for her. So I said, ‘Well, what do you use it, three or four days a month?’ And she said, ‘Oh, no, I use it every day.’ That’s the problem.”

The language of Proposition 215 is indeed expansive. It states that medical marijuana is appropriate for “the treatment of cancer, anorexia, AIDS, chronic pain, spasticity, glaucoma, arthritis, migraine, or any other illness for which marijuana provides relief.” County health departments keep no records on what reasons patients give for seeking medical marijuana ID cards, but in December 2005, the DEA confiscated patient records during a raid in San Diego. According to The San Diego Union-Tribune, the records showed that only “2 percent of patients reported having AIDS, glaucoma, or cancer.” The rest were seeking treatment for “muscle spasms, insomnia, back and neck pain, headaches and other less-serious ailments.”

Medi-Cann, a statewide network of nine medical clinics that offer evaluations for individuals hoping to obtain a doctor’s referral for medical marijuana, sees around 500 patients a week. “Overwhelmingly, they’re seeking relief from pain,” says Medi-Cann’s founder, Dr. Jean Talleyrand. “Pain for many different reasons. People who’ve had multiple fractures. People with arthritis.”

Dr. Talleyrand says his desire to practice medicine in a more holistic manner inspired him to create Medi-Cann. “I did my training in San Francisco, so I kind of have a little bit more progressive, alternative look at health,” he explains. “As I developed what I wanted to do, a lot of it was alternative healing—acupuncture, botanical medicine. Marijuana is botanical medicine, and when you start thinking of it that way, you redefine what it’s good for. A lot of plants and herbs are good for a lot of different things. And because they tend to be more benign than pharmaceuticals, they tend to have less side effects too.”

“I take medical marijuana for severe chronic pain from a neck injury,” says Sherer. Before founding Americans for Safe Access, the 30-year-old Sherer worked as an activist and organizer on campaigns involving globalization, social justice, and various other progressive causes. Then she suffered a neck injury that left her in chronic pain and her career path shifted. “About a year and a half into my injury, my kidneys started failing because of side effects from my pain medications and Ibuprofen. It’s not an uncommon thing—about 1 in 200 people’s kidneys shut down when they have to take 3200 milligrams of Ibuprofen a day. I was not a marijuana user—I thought that medical marijuana was for people who were dying. Luckily I lived in California and had a doctor who said that maybe I should try it.”

No doubt there are people who exploit Proposition 215’s expansive language, seeking out medical marijuana simply for relief from a boring job or a dull Saturday night. “So what?” says Wayne Justmann, a 61-year-old medical marijuana advocate who volunteers at the Church Street Compassion Center. Justmann has been HIV positive for 18 years and has also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder; he was the first person in San Francisco to obtain a medical marijuana ID card. In his case, he says, cannabis has proven more effective than drugs like Klonopin or Percocet, and he doesn’t believe other people’s behavior should inhibit his access to it. “People will abuse any type of system,” he says. “It’s human nature. Do we close down the Internet because some people abuse it?”

Dispensary Panic

Maybe we would if the Web made it harder to find a parking space. In March 2005, thanks to a brief article in the San Francisco Chronicle, the rapid proliferation of dispensaries changed instantly from a barely noticed phenomenon to a citywide crisis. Until that point, the city had done nothing to regulate dispensaries. Many had opened without even bothering to apply for a standard business license.

Their impact was so glaring that city officials appeared to be blinded by them: They had no idea so many existed. The Chronicle broke the news that there were 37 of them. One was being run by an ex-con and former crack addict. Another attracted “a stream of young and streetwise-looking customers showing up to buy or sample the goods.” Follow-up articles included complaints about parking and traffic, excessive noise, patients who didn’t look visibly ill, and customers selling and sharing purchases outside the dispensaries.

A day after the first article appeared, Gavin Newsom, San Francisco’s 39-year-old Democratic mayor, called for a moratorium on new clubs and substantial regulation for the existing ones. “I believe in the core of my cores that medicinal marijuana is appropriate and right,” the moderate Democrat with strong ties to the local business community told the Chronicle, voicing a refrain that has played like a chorus during the last two years. “That being said, I also think there needs to be some common sense and grounding as it relates to the proliferation of these clubs in San Francisco.”

For more than a decade, the story of medical marijuana in San Francisco had been a positive one, a classic tale of only-in-San-Francisco rebellion, with empowered sick people taking on an indifferent, unenlightened federal government. But then the dispensaries became the public face of medical marijuana. And the dispensaries—an “underworld that sells pot with few rules,” according to one Chronicle editorial—were trouble. Very quickly, a litany of their sins became commonplace. They offered gang members an easy source of marijuana to resell on the streets. They made it harder for police to make ordinary pot-related arrests. They were irresistible targets for robbery because of all the cash they kept on hand. They were a gateway drug to loitering, double parking, and playing loud music. They smelled. And of course, they were “a real magnet to kids.”

What are some of the actual numbers behind such generalizations? According to the San Francisco Police Department, four dispensaries were robbed in 2005; during the first half of 2006, two such robberies were committed. The police department doesn’t release statistics about how many marijuana-related arrests it makes each year, so it’s impossible to determine how much impact ID cards have had on its ability to make such arrests. But in California as a whole, the number of state prison inmates serving time for marijuana-related charges rose 11 percent in 2005. The state’s annual Campaign Against Marijuana Planting achieved record results in 2005: More than 1.1 million plants found in national forests, in parks, and on private land were confiscated and destroyed.

The 2003–2004 California Student Survey, a biennial “snapshot of students’ risky and health-related behaviors,” shows that among ninth-graders, marijuana use has dropped almost 50 percent since Proposition 215 was passed in 1996. Monitoring The Future, an annual survey funded by the federal government, asks eighth-graders, 10th-graders, and 12th-graders how available marijuana is. “They’ve been doing this survey since 1975,” says Bruce Mirken, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project. “When you ask high school seniors if marijuana is easy to get, about 85 percent say yes. And that number has not changed—it’s varied between 82.5 percent to 91 percent.” (The 91 percent mark was recorded in 1997. Ever since then, the number has been dropping.)

Crime rates have been dropping in San Francisco during the last 10 years, not rising. Street sales of marijuana have not moved to neighborhoods where they never existed before. The parking, traffic, and noise issues that have arisen at some dispensary locations are hardly unique to the distribution of medical marijuana.

Nonetheless, the DEA has capitalized on the new wariness that dispensaries provoke. In March 2006, more than 70 agents raided the facilities of an Oakland-based company called Beyond Bomb. Beyond Bomb was manufacturing marijuana candies, sodas, and baked goods with packaging that parodied that of popular snack food brands. Its product line included Pot-Tarts, Toka-Cola, and KeefKats; it distributed these and other treats to dispensaries throughout the state.

“Even though there may be claims that these weren’t meant for kids, the packaging may suggest otherwise,” DEA agent Casey McEnry told the San Francisco Chronicle. In fact, the packaging includes information about the THC content of each product. According to Steph Sherer, the DEA removed stickers that read “For Medical Use Only” from the products it seized before photographing them for publicity purposes. The DEA has not claimed these products were being sold anywhere except dispensaries that only qualified patients could enter. When I asked McEnry if there were any cases where a child did in fact mistake a Beyond Bomb knockoff for the genuine article, she replied, “The DEA doesn’t keep user statistics.”

Apparently, none of this mitigates what could happen some day, maybe, thanks to these infernal treats that sort of look like popular snack foods. “What so many people don’t realize,” DEA agent Javier Pena exclaimed in a press release issued after the raid, “is that innocent children may somehow get their hands on these products and think they are just normal candy or soft drinks—thus, making this action not only illegal, but potentially tragic.”

Kenneth Affolter, the leader of the Beyond Bomb operation, was indicted by a grand jury in March 2006 on manufacturing, distribution, and conspiracy charges. Facing a possible sentence of life imprisonment and a $4 million fine, Affolter eventually reached an agreement with prosecutors and pled guilty to a single count of conspiring to manufacture and distribute marijuana. His sentence was five years in federal prison. He may be the only man in America serving time largely for making bad stoner puns.

Saving Joseph Conrad Square

Nine months after the Chronicle’s initial report on the clubs prompted promises of regulation from Mayor Newsom, the city’s Board of Supervisors delivered. On December 30, 2005, San Francisco introduced the Medical Cannabis Act, an 84-page set of mandatory guidelines for medical cannabis dispensaries. Under the new rules, patients could buy no more than one ounce of marijuana per visit. (The old limit was eight ounces.) New dispensaries could not be located within 1,000 feet of any school or recreation center, nor could they set up shop in residential districts, industrial districts, or the city’s South of Market neighborhood. All dispensaries, new and old, would have to obtain a permit to operate, and the approval process would include a discretionary review open to the public.

In July 2006, Kevin Reed, who had previously operated a dispensary in the city’s Noe Valley neighborhood, became the first person to try to obtain a permit for a dispensary under the new rules. Reed’s dispensary, the Green Cross, had been shut down in June 2005 after city officials, at the behest of a group of well-connected area residents, suspended Reed’s change-of-use permit on the grounds that his establishment was “hazardous, noxious, or offensive.” (Ironically, Reed had been one of the few dispensary operators to seek out a general business permit before the city created its regulations for dispensary-specific permits.)

The 32-year-old Reed had once managed a Hollywood Video store; when he opened the Green Cross, he wanted to create a dispensary that was as stylish and customer-friendly as any retail environment. A neon green cross hung over the original location’s front door. The interior featured deep- red walls and plasma TV screens. Young, attractive women known as “budtenders” served the customers. Located next to an Irish pub, the venue opened without much notice in the fall of 2004. Eventually, its wide selection and competitive prices made it increasingly popular, and at its peak it was serving as many as 300 people a day.

Neighbors in the affluent, largely residential neighborhood began complaining about parking problems and marijuana odors. When a rash of burglaries occurred during the spring of 2005, residents blamed them on the Green Cross’s clientele, many of whom were, in the words of one angry email sent to Reed, “male, under 30, non-white” and characterized by a “skater punk/home boy/gang-banger aesthetic.”

Police never actually tied the burglaries to the Green Cross, and at a community meeting in June 2005 the local police captain reported that crime rates in the neighborhood had actually declined since the enterprise opened. In addition, Reed had made repeated attempts to placate his critics. He banned smoking in the dispensary and invested $50,000 in a security camera system and other building upgrades. He hired security guards to make sure his customers weren’t double parking or loitering in the neighborhood.

Some neighborhood residents continued to press city officials to take action against his business, however, and in September 2005 the San Francisco Board of Appeals offered Reed a compromise of sorts. It wouldn’t revoke his permit, but he would have to find a new location for his dispensary within six months.

Unfortunately, the new restrictions imposed by San Francisco’s Medical Cannabis Act made that virtually impossible—there are so many new conditions regarding potential locations that the great majority of the city has become off-limits to dispensaries. And even in those rare areas where they are permitted, you still have to find a willing landlord. The six months Reed had to find a new location for his business came and went, and in March 2006, the Green Cross shut its doors. A few months later, however, a landlord with a family member who used medical marijuana contacted Reed and offered to rent him space in a building on the outskirts of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood.

Fisherman’s Wharf is the city’s major tourist area, home to cable cars, seafood restaurants, and gift shops. Much of the neighborhood is so schlocky that the addition of a Hooters was considered a classy upgrade. The landlord was offering Reed the ground-floor space in a three-story building that also housed a bed-and-breakfast inn. The street on which it is located is several blocks away from the heart of the wharf; it’s across the street from a Holiday Inn and a tiny triangular park known as Joseph Conrad Square. Reed wasn’t crazy about the location, but since he believed it met all the requirements of San Francisco’s new regulations regarding cannabis dispensaries, he signed a lease and began the process of obtaining a permit.

In May 2006, in an effort to introduce himself to the neighborhood, Reed put together a six-page pamphlet about his plans for the Green Cross and mailed it to local residents and merchants. Unfortunately, his talk of “zero-tolerance for illegal parking” and a “state-of-the-art security and surveillance system that includes more than a dozen infrared, high-definition cameras…that are recording activity around the dispensary 24 hours a day” only incited alarm.

As part of the permit process, a public hearing about the Green Cross was scheduled to take place in the Planning Commission’s chambers in July 2006. On the day of the hearing, dozens of neighborhood merchants and residents showed up at City Hall, all decorated with red stickers on their chests that featured slogans like “Character counts” and “Daddy, what’s that smell?”

Chris Martin is the unofficial leader of the opposition effort. Forty years ago, his father transformed a large brick building that had once housed the world’s largest fruit-canning factory into a complex of shops, restaurants, and office space known as the Cannery. Martin is now the Cannery’s managing partner, and the complex is on the side of Joseph Conrad Square opposite the Green Cross’s proposed location. When I asked him why the dispensary would not make a suitable neighbor, he replied, “It’s kind of a dysfunctional block already. The two cafés on it are having fistfights trying to take customers from each other.”

For the last two years, Martin has been trying to make the Cannery and its surrounding neighborhood more appealing to local residents rather than just tourists. “We’re trying to make Fisherman’s Wharf more authentic and reflective of its commercial fishing roots,” he said. “That block should be pedestrian-friendly and compatible with the residents of this community. It’s not a moral issue. It’s a land use issue.”

When the Planning Commission was finally ready to consider the matter, however, Aaron Starr, a caseworker for the city’s Planning Department, told the six commissioners that the proposed location met all planning code requirements and that the department believed it should receive a permit. Another Planning Department employee, Zoning Administrator Lawrence Badiner, assessed the general situation facing the city’s dispensaries. The majority of them had planning code violations of one sort or another, he explained, and by August 2007 all of them would either have to comply with city code or face closure. “They’re all going to have to go through review processes like this one, and they’re probably all going to be controversial,” he explained. “A good number of them may just close down.”

In other words, this wasn’t just a matter of one more dispensary opening in the city. It was a test case. Under the new rules of San Francisco’s Medical Cannabis Act, was it actually possible for new clubs to open? Were some, perhaps most, of the established clubs in danger of being shut down as well?

When those who opposed the dispensary got their chance to speak, they each used the two minutes they were allotted to describe how a pot club would destroy life in the neighborhood as they had known it for decades. Parking on that block was already a huge problem, they explained. How could children laugh and play in Joseph Conrad Square when people were purchasing marijuana behind closed doors a couple hundred feet away? Why would any community-friendly business require so many surveillance cameras and security measures? And what about the numerous institutions within 1,000 feet of the Green Cross’s proposed location that qualified as “recreation centers”? The well-being and safety of the patrons of the Crab Openers Association Hall and the Norwegian Seamen’s Church, among others, they insisted, would be jeopardized by the intermittent presence of sickly potheads.

And perhaps most important, what would the tourists think? A medical cannabis dispensary might fit into a city like, say, Omaha, with its long tradition of hippies, beatniks, and countercultural rebellion. But San Francisco? When tourists think of Baghdad by the Bay, they think of the things Fisherman’s Wharf embodies—tacky T-shirts, overpriced crab served in dingy outdoor restaurants—not marijuana.

Ultimately, the Planning Commission agreed, denying Reed’s bid for a permit by a 4-2 vote. The next morning, the block where he was hoping to set up shop was already looking better. Parking was plentiful around the neighborhood. In Joseph Conrad Square, things were so quiet and peaceful that four figures slept on the tiny park’s benches. They were either drug-free children or homeless men; it was hard to tell, because they were swaddled in grimy blankets. The tourists, meanwhile, had a chance to enjoy the authentic San Francisco character of a bar called the Dirty Martini without the distraction of a nondescript cannabis dispensary. The neighborhood’s Norwegian seamen felt a little bit safer.

Two and half months later, in September 2006, San Francisco’s Board of Appeals gave the Green Cross one more chance to make its case, but came to the same decision as the Planning Commission. A few days later, the DEA raided eight Bay Area sites associated with the New Remedies chain, arresting 15 people. There are approximately two dozen dispensaries operating in the city, down from an estimated high of 43 in April 2005. Of those currently in business, only one, HopeNet, has received a permit from the Planning Commission that will allow it to continue to operate beyond July 2007. The rest must obtain a permit by then or face closure.

The Real Threat

During my visit to the Church Street Compassion Center, I spoke with Mykey Barbitta, a longtime volunteer there. Barbitta has blonde hair, colorfully tattooed forearms, and a wraith-like gauntness. He looks as if he’s witnessed more than a little pain and suffering over the years, but his demeanor is serene. A one-time bike messenger, he used to deliver cannabis to bed-ridden patients at an AIDS hospice. “They were dying,” he recalled. “They were so weak they couldn’t eat, couldn’t even sit up in bed. But they’d reach out and grab the pot. It was the only thing that kept them going.”

Barbitta also described the center’s status in the neighborhood. “We’ve been here forever,” he explained, “so our neighbors are used to us.” The center is part of a local merchants association. It runs ads in the neighborhood PennySaver. “The burrito place [next door], they love us,” Barbitta continued. “We send them a lot of business.”

Then he showed me a framed letter from Rep. Nancy Pelosi, her response to his invitation to visit the center. The visit never materialized—Pelosi wrote that her busy schedule would not permit it—but Barbitta is proud of the letter just the same. “Here’s the line that I really like,” he said, pointing to a sentence where Pelosi thanks him for the work he’s doing at the center. If the DEA ever raids the place, Barbitta joked, he’s got a letter from a member of Congress on his side. “If that’s not a defense in court, I don’t know what is.”

In the end, though, the feds might not be the real threat. Because of its long-standing place in the neighborhood, the Church Street Compassion Center stands a decent chance of making it through the Planning Commission review process. But for many if not most of the dispensaries, the local zoning board has become more dangerous than the DEA.

Greg Beato is a writer based in San Francisco.



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