Drugs

Green Rush Fever

San Francisco's plan to regulate the explosion of medical marijuana dispensaries could become a model for other cities throughout the nation.
San Francisco, the city where the medical cannabis movement was born, is now working to develop regulations for its medical cannabis dispensaries that could become a model for other cities throughout the nation.

San Francisco city supervisors voted this week to enact a 45-day moratorium on new medical marijuana clubs that are flooding into the city. The number of San Francisco dispensaries has exploded from 10 three years ago, to an estimated 37 clubs. The San Francisco Department of Public Heath has now issued 8,000 medical marijuana ID cards, up from 2,000 in 2002.

There are approximately 125 medical cannabis dispensaries throughout California. Each is subject to local regulations. Opening a new dispensary in San Francisco now requires only a business license and approval of the landlord for a change-of-use permit. California's 1996 Compassionate Use Act (Prop. 215) allows medical marijuana patients and their caregivers to possess and cultivate cannabis if the patient has a doctor's recommendation to use marijuana. But Prop. 215 and a subsequent state senate bill SB420 set up no explicit guidelines for commercial dispensaries, where most San Francisco patients obtain their cannabis.

Federal authorities do not recognize state medical marijuana laws and continue to arrest marijuana cultivators and distributors. This week, agents from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration seized 500 marijuana plants from a San Francisco warehouse, but it was not clear whether the growers were supplying dispensaries. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule any day on the case of Ashcroft v. Raich, which will determine whether the federal government has the authority to prosecute medical cannabis patients and growers operating under state law.

Some activists fear that if the court rules in favor of the federal government, dispensaries will be targeted for a crackdown by federal authorities. But the immediate pressure to regulate San Francisco's dispensaries is coming from neighborhood groups and Mayor Gavin Newsom, who called for tighter regulations after learning that a dispensary was planning to open on the ground floor of a city-funded welfare hotel.

The effort to regulate San Francisco's dispensaries is being led by City Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who has been meeting with dispensary owners, neighborhood representatives, patients and activists to develop a set of dispensary guidelines. Mirkarimi said the moratorium, which can be extended up to 22 months, will not limit patients' access to medical cannabis and gives the city and its residents breathing room to set some rules. "We don't want to trigger the intervention of the federal or state government," Mirkarimi said.

During a public hearing on the moratorium, Mirkarimi noted that the nearby city of Oakland had moved to limit the number of dispensaries there from nine to four without extensive public input.

"I would like us to undertake a very deliberative process set by a number of hearings where good people can weigh in on the development of new laws," said Mirkarimi. "The 45-day moratorium does not penalize existing clubs."

Some activists feel that the moratorium will hurt competition and reduce services to patients. Steph Sherer, director of Americans for Safe Access, which advocates for medical cannabis patients, says over 28 cities and towns around the state have already passed moratoriums, some of which have prevented any dispensaries from opening in their community.

"It's different in San Francisco where there is access to medical cannabis, but moratoriums in places like Pasadena where there aren't any dispensaries end up being bad for patients," said Sherer. "The city of San Francisco is a leader on this issue and we don't want to see moratoriums all over the state."

In an effort to make sure everyone's views are heard, Mirkarimi has scheduled an April 25 hearing before the Board of Supervisor's Government Audit and Oversight Committee to discuss proposed regulations including new zoning rules. A group of San Francisco dispensary owners have developed their own proposed guidelines. These include provisions requiring dispensaries to provide a place for patients to smoke cannabis on site, offer cannabis at reduced prices to needy patients, discourage resale of medical cannabis, and abstain from "excessive profits," meaning cannabis prices must not be substantially higher than fair market value.

"We have a rare opportunity to really set a standard for the rest of the state and the rest of the country for years to come," said Martin Olive, co-director of the Vapor Room dispensary in San Francisco, which drafted the proposed guidelines. "I have faith in the city and I think that everyone had honest intention and integrity and there is a genuine consensus that we are working for the same goals. There were too many years where the city was not doing anything and everyone was just in limbo, and now the city is taking an interest and forcing everyone to focus and unify their voices."

Mike Aldrich, co-founder of CHAMP, one of the first San Francisco dispensaries, says he wants every patient issued a city ID card to join a proposed San Francisco Cannabis Cooperative. Patient cooperatives, which are permitted to grow medical cannabis under state law, could then decide whether to license dispensaries and perhaps set up an ombudsman committee to deal with complaints, said Aldrich.

The regulatory process in San Francisco is tackling neighborhood issues that other communities with dispensaries may confront. At a neighborhood meeting earlier this week, residents who live near the Mendohealing Clinic dispensary in the city's South of Market district complained that the facility attracted loiterers, increased illegal parking and led to harassment of pedestrians. Other neighbors raised concerns about the proximity of dispensaries to schools and religious centers where children might be present.

"We have made mistakes, we are looking for guidance from the city," said dispensary operator Alan Novey. He said the dispensary installed more security guards, but people gathered at the door because the club gave away free cannabis to indigent patients. "We want to move; we realize that the location should be fair to the neighborhood," Novey said.

The city's shift towards moratorium and regulations has been supported by many patients and dispensary operators. In a community where internal discussions have often been adversarial, San Francisco dispensary operator Randi Webster says this newfound unity demonstrates that the medical marijuana community has grown up and is seeking to legitimize what they have already legalized.

"We have to be accountable and as with any responsibility, there is a corresponding right," said Webster. "The patients have a right to be heard now and the patients need to have protection and validation and services in this city. We are working with the city, not waiting for it to be decided by the city."

San Francisco's cannabis policies will continue to be in the spotlight this week as members of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) gather in the city for a national conference. According to Dale Gieringer, director of California NORML, San Francisco's dispensary moratorium is just part of a process toward regulation and taxation of recreational cannabis sales to adults, which Oakland voters supported in an initiative last year. "There is widespread recognition in the Bay Area that this is the way to go for the economy, the government and the community, and we can deal with neighborhood complaints as they arise," said Gieringer.
Ann Harrison is a freelance reporter working in the Bay Area.