Closure deadline passes for Oakland pot clubs

June 01, 2004

, The Argus

OAKLAND -- Medical marijuana patients who packed into the Dragonfly Holistic Solutions dispensary on Telegraph Avenue Tuesday seemed unaware the business had been told by the city to shut down.

'If you enjoy feeling pain-free, this is the place to be,' said Sullivan Wallace of Oakland, who says he has a cannabis prescription to fight chronic pain and anxiety.

Seven existing dispensaries and one proposed club had applied for the four business permits available. After a series of hearings and several delays, the clubs were notified Friday afternoon whether they made the cut or not.

Those that received licenses will have to pay a $20,000 annual fee. Those that did not were supposed to close Tuesday.

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Dragonfly did not make it, but owner Ken Estes said he will continue to operate in defiance of city rules until he is arrested. He planned a protest outside the dispensary Tuesday morning, but the only signs of one emerged when the doors to the club opened 15 minutes late.

'There is some kind of discrimination going on behind the scenes,' Estes said. 'Or else the city is out of touch with the patients, because we are the preferred club. When we opened, we forced prices down and brought in higher quality (than the other clubs).'

Other club owners, including some who were issued permits, criticized the city's process as arbitrary and complained three days was not enough notice for them or the employees on their payrolls.

Still, no one except Estes continued business as usual. One dispensary owner contended there are clubs that did not even apply for a city permit and may try to operate under the radar.

'There are some who chose not to pay $300 and sign a confession,' said Richard Lee, owner of the Bulldog Cafe, who received a permit for his cafe on Broadway but not for his small SR71 Cafe on 17th Street, according to the city manager's office.

'This thing is getting too big for them to say there can only be four clubs. There are too many people who appreciate getting marijuana in a civilized way,' said Lee, one of the backers of an initiative now collecting signatures for the November ballot that would all but decriminalize adult use of marijuana in Oakland.

Sparky Rose, operator of Compassionate Access on Telegraph -- which also was approved -- said he serves 7,000 patients and is expecting more. He plans to soon move to a larger location nearby.

'It was difficult to gauge what was important to the city when we were presenting ourselves. There wasn't a lot of transparency in the process,' Rose said, adding that everyone was asked for the same information. 'They should have extended the deadline, because a lot of clubs have a lot of employees and a holiday weekend isn't much notice.'

The city inspected the clubs for code violations, checked for any complaints against them, and asked for information ranging from number of patients to products to prices.

In the end, according to a letter from the city's Administrative Hearing Officer Larry Carroll to Estes, the city seemed to put more stock on who had operated the longest. The three clubs issued permits in the 'uptown' area had operated between two and five years, though the fourth club on West Grand is a relative newcomer.

The Lemon Drop Coffeeshop on Telegraph is one of the more established clubs in the area, nicknamed 'Oaksterdam,' but it did not receive a permit. Owner Mark Belote said the well-stocked coffee shop will continue to sell its mochas and pastries, gelatos and cakes, but stop pot sales.

'I want to do everything legally. I've always been honest with them, so we'll see what happens,' he said. 'I have an eight-year lease here, so the cafe will stay open.'

Karry Carr of The Green Door dispensary on Webster Street said he fully expected to get a permit. The building met all code requirements and there were no complaints against the club. It opened last October with the blessing of the city, even stating it was a cannabis dispensary on its business license. The city renewed its license in February.

The Green Door is now seeking an injunction to stay open until it can get a court hearing. Its owners contend the application process was fraudulent.

Under the new rules, denial of permits cannot be appealed, Carroll said. The final determination was made by City Administrator Deborah Edgerly, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

As for those that continue to operate in violation, Carroll said, 'the city is considering its options.'

Carroll said he will send final warning letters and may give them a short grace period. However, he noted, 'all of those operating without permits are outside of the city's low policing priority with regards to medical marijuana, so the police could take action.'

The city will review the new rules in six months. Jeff Jones, director of the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative -- which issues identification cards but does not dispense -- said he has been advising clubs to follow the rules.

'The city is our friend, and we are in this together. They are doing what they feel they need to do,' Jones said. 'I think the best practice is to close down quietly, and we'll spend the next six months lobbying to increase the limit.'



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