Pot clinic to become a legitimate business 

Michael Welch will soon have the distinct honor of acquiring the very first permit to legally operate a medical marijuana dispensary in San Francisco.

His store, Sanctuary, at 600 O’Farrell St., is across the street from an electronics repair shop and near a Subaru auto shop and a hair salon.

The medical marijuana clinic has been in operation for three and half years — it opened in the wake of Proposition 215, a state ballot initiative passed in 1996 legalizing the use and sale of marijuana to those suffering illness, infirmity and chronic pain. Until 2005, there were no city rules governing pot clubs and their proliferation prompted public outcry.

State medical marijuana laws do not prevent federal law enforcement of the nation’s laws, however, and The City’s issuance of its first permit comes as club owners and their landlords are under the threat of being shutdown by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency.

Despite risk of federal prosecution, Welch and others say they are not staying in the underground.

"When you can see the look in somebody’s face of a 78-year-old man who has glaucoma and is blind … and then watch him medicate and to see him relax and laugh and tell jokes and be alive again — that’s why I do it," said Welch, 42.

DEA Special Agent Javier Pena said medical marijuana dispensaries in the Bay Area "are all illegal."

"Anyone who owns one of the clubs is at risk of being arrested and charged," Pena said.

Not only does Welch have to brave the federal threat, he also had to deal with an "arduous" city permit process. Welch paid the $10,000 application fee and sunk about $23,000 into his leased 270-square-foot ground-floor space to bring it up to muster under the regulations, such as lowering the counter height and widening the entryway door.

Welch is waiting for his permit bill to arrive in the mail, which will cost about $3,000, and once he pays, he will receive the permit.

City legislators adopted rules governing the marijuana dispensaries in November 2005 in response to complaints that there were too many pot sellers, and that the businesses were often clustered together, in some cases near schools, attracting drug dealers and crime.

The law required clubs to obtain city permits by June 2006, but the deadline was extended twice, after city departments were slow to act on the applications.

There are 25 pending pot club permits. On Thursday, the Public Health Department approved a permit for the Re-leaf Center to move into a new location at 1284 Mission St., according to Larry Kessler, medical marijuana club inspector for the health department.

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

By the numbers

One medical marijuana dispensary will soon become the first ever to receive a city permit to operate.

25 Number of clubs in business with pending permit applications

1 Number of permits issued for marijuana delivery service

June 2006 Original deadline for pot clubs to obtain permits

January 2009 Existing deadline for pot clubs to obtain permits

Source: Public Health Department

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