Medical pot clubs under a cloud as federal crackdown, court decisions loom 

Among the Tenderloin’s problems — brothels masquerading as massage parlors, open-air dealing of heroin, oxycodone, crack cocaine and other hard drugs — medical marijuana seemed low on the list of law enforcement priorities.

Yet it was a nondescript storefront in the 600 block of O’Farrell Street that drew the attention of Melinda Haag, the U.S. attorney for Northern California.

Click on the photo to the right to see a map of the medicinal marijuana cooperatives in San Francisco.

In November, Haag wrote a letter to the landlord of Sanctuary warning of property forfeiture and a long jail term unless the dispensary was evicted. The medical marijuana club had operated at 669 O’Farrell St. with a city license and without complaint or issue since 2005, the Department of Public Health said.

Sanctuary passed annual inspections that stated the collective complied with San Francisco law, which is slightly stricter than the state medical marijuana law. But because marijuana remains illegal under federal law, state-legal dispensaries such as Sanctuary — along with four other storefront dispensaries in the Mission, Upper Market and Tenderloin neighborhoods — have closed.

The U.S. Justice Department’s crackdown on collectives that appear to be in compliance with state and local laws has reminded The City’s 21 remaining dispensaries exactly how precarious their positions are.

“In less than six months, this could all be gone,” said Stephanie Tucker, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco Medical Cannabis Task Force. “The medical cannabis movement is in danger.”

Haag’s office offered “no comment” on its enforcement actions, according to an email from spokesman Jack Gillund.
California became the first state in the country to legalize medical marijuana when Proposition 215 was approved by voters in 1996. In 2005, San Francisco became the first city in the state to offer its own local regulations and permitting system when the Board of Supervisors passed the Medical Cannabis Act.

Each San Francisco dispensary closed by Haag’s office passed annual inspections determining they were in compliance with city law, according to Public Health. Two have since resumed business as delivery-only services, and also have filed lawsuits in federal court asking the government to step in and reverse the closures.
And a state court decision is weighing on minds in the medical marijuana movement.

Local laws permitting medical marijuana violate federal law, according to a state appellate court decision in a lawsuit out of Southern California. That decision — Pack v. the city of Long Beach — led San Francisco and other cities to delay or suspend their local ordinances. However, the California Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal of the case.

In turn, San Francisco resumed permitting new medical cannabis dispensaries Monday after a two-month pause.
Medical marijuana advocates have asked influential local elected leaders — including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, former San Francisco mayor — to use their political clout to prevent further federal interference.

But to date, neither Pelosi nor Newsom — or even Mayor Ed Lee — appears interested in taking up the issue.

Lee’s first public statement on the issue was to say he had no position.

“Because this is medical marijuana, I’ll take my lead from our experts, which is the Department of Public Health,” Lee said. “That’s where I’ll get all my information, and until I get that, I’ll be very reluctant to say anything publicly.”

Allies scarce in City Hall, state Capitol

Medical marijuana does not appear to have a dedicated advocate at City Hall, and local leaders on the state level seem to want to punt the issue.

The City’s 2005 Medical Cannabis Act was written by former Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who is now sheriff. And while eight of the 11 supervisors signed on to a resolution last fall decrying the U.S. Justice Department shuttering of licensed, taxpaying medical cannabis dispensaries, it’s unclear what further actions the board can — or is willing — to take.

Mayor Ed Lee’s predecessor, Gavin Newsom, was publicly supportive of medical marijuana as mayor — and recently, as lieutenant governor, he spoke in support of reformed drug laws at a conference in Los Angeles.

Yet other state politicians with Bay Area ties have avoided the subject of cannabis.

Gov. Jerry Brown, who as an Oakland-based state attorney general authored a set of medical marijuana guidelines for dispensaries and others to follow, has not commented on the dismantling of the industry.

Rather than issuing updated guidelines as expected — a draft version of new guidelines was leaked to the media last summer — Attorney General Kamala Harris, a former San Francisco district attorney, sent a letter in December to Legislature leaders asking them for “clarity” on medical marijuana laws.

“There is no further clarity that the state can provide,” Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, said in a statement. “Proposition 215 is the law in California and has been for the last 15 years.”

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About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has worked as a reporter in San Francisco since 2008, with an emphasis on city governance and politics, The City’s neighborhoods, race, poverty and the drug war.
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