Tuesday, October 14, 2008

S.F. leads way on user-friendly med pot clubs

C.W. Nevius, Chronicle Columnist
Monday, October 13, 2008

(10-13) 19:34 PDT -- Three years ago, agents from the federal Drug
Enforcement Agency broke down the door of a South of Market medical pot club
and raided the premises. It looked like the first skirmish between federal
agents and the city, which passed liberal pot laws in 1996.

Instead, the city took the crackdown as a wake-up call.

Quietly, with little fanfare, San Francisco is on the way to becoming a
model for medical marijuana clubs done the right way. Exploitive,
profit-hungry drug clubs are being forced out and community-based,
patient-friendly ones are becoming the norm. Neighbors have shut down
dispensaries in school zones and patient services have been increased.

Beginning in 2005, when Mayor Gavin Newsom worried aloud about "a path that
would allow for a club on every street corner," the city has made a series
of small steps that have improved a situation that was nearly out of
control. A moratorium on new clubs was enacted and Supervisors Ross
Mirkarimi and Michela Alioto-Pier pushed for restrictive legislation. Among
other things, all pot clubs were required to get an operating permit from
the Planning Commission. Neighborhood input, proximity to schools, and
criminal and employment background checks were all included in the
consideration for a permit.

Since then, almost half of the clubs have closed.

And here's an indication of just how well the regulations have worked. When
state Attorney General Jerry Brown proposed strict state guidelines for
marijuana dispensaries in August, and Newsom's office drafted similar
regulations a month later, advocates responded immediately - they said they
were wholeheartedly in favor.

"We went through 10 years of an unregulated cannabis environment," said
Kevin Reed, president of Green Cross dispensary, which delivers medical
marijuana to patients. "Now they are going to try something completely
different, and to see it run correctly is a wonderful thing."

Nothing speaks to the spirit of cooperation like the recent fuss kicked up
about a proposal by Newsom to require clubs to record the names and
addresses of patients. That requirement is stricter than Brown's proposal
that the clubs keep some sort of general "membership records. "

Pot advocates are concerned about patients' confidentiality rights and fear
it may be a step toward bringing criminal charges against pot users.

But the mayor's office promises to continue working with the responsible
club owners and that any other suspicions about their intentions are just
paranoid fantasy.

"We understand the concern," said Newsom spokesman Nathan Ballard. "And we
are happy to work with them on that. If there's a way to protect patient
confidentiality, we'd be interested in making the changes so that could be

That's the spirit of cooperation that has generally typified the pot club
issue in the last three to four years. The concern about confidentiality
demonstrates that that there is still a certain amount of suspicion between
marijuana advocates and the city, but in general they've been on the same
page. When it became clear that some unscrupulous dealers were in to make a
quick buck, legitimate pot club operators spoke up against them.

"This was never meant to be a money-making scheme," said the Rev. Randi
Webster, the former executive director of the San Francisco Patients
Cooperative. "A lot of those places were just money, money, money."

Shona Gochenaur, executive director of Axis of Love pot advocacy group, said
in the last two years fly-by-night dealers have moved from city to city as
officials strengthen the regulations.

"They knew they were only staying here until the gray areas were defined,"
she said. "They made as much money as they could, but now that we are
setting guidelines they are moving on."

Reed said that three to four years ago the city had 42 clubs. Now it is down
to 25 and he thinks more will close soon in part because of how hard it is
to get a final operating permit. Dispensaries have until January to meet
requirements to get a permit, which requires, among other things, that the
clubs get separate approval from a number of city agencies and do background
checks of employees.

"What is happening now will actually weed out a lot of the (clubs),"
Gochenaur said. "What we are saying is that excessive profit is not OK. Not
having direct patient services is not OK. These people are going to say
'this is not my entrepreneurial dream' and they are not going to want to do

This is not only interesting because of how it is playing out in the city,
but there are also national ramifications. Gochenaur says as many as 12
states are keeping an eye on how things play out in pot clubs California,
and San Francisco is leading the way in the state.

She thinks they will look to the city as a model of how to regulate the
clubs. God knows, the city has made plenty of mistakes along the way. At one
point a pot club was housed in the ground floor of a Care Not Cash hotel
that housed many recovering addicts. Those are the kind of missteps that had
to be corrected.

But Gochenaur thinks we're almost there.

"We've come a long, huge way from 2005 when neighbors were lining the halls
of City Hall to say they were concerned," she said.

There are still some neighborhood complaints, but today local pot clubs are
surprisingly dull and uncontroversial places. If you had predicted that
three years ago, critics would have likely had just one question.

What have you been smoking?

C.W. Nevius' column runs Tuesday, Thursday and Saturdays. E-mail him at



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