Pubdate: Sun, 16 Nov 2003
Source: Sacramento Bee (CA)
Copyright: 2003 The Sacramento Bee
Author: Herbert A. Sample


Ken Estes, owner of 420 Cafe, a medical marijuana dispensary in Oakland, 
says his co-op has "brought in 20,000 people into this neighborhood that 
might have not visited downtown Oakland because of its stigmatization of 
being a dangerous place."

Neighbors Leery Of Shops Meant To Assist The Ailing

OAKLAND -- If you didn't know what they really were, you might figure the 
two cafes a short walk from City Hall here were just that -- small, 
unassuming, eclectically decorated shops offering cups of java, muffins, 
juices and fruit.

But if you were in the know and flashed the right identification card, you 
could walk into private back rooms and buy marijuana for medicinal 
purposes, and perhaps even smoke it.

Externally innocuous as they may be, the two cafes are a part of a 
proliferating industry in a section of downtown informally dubbed 
"Oaksterdam" -- a blending of this city's name with that of Amsterdam, the 
capital of the Netherlands, where cannabis cafes are legal and common.

Nearby are at least five other outlets that sell medicinal marijuana 
without the pretense of a cafe exterior -- but only, insist the owners of 
the facilities, to patients with city-sanctioned ID cards.

But the businesses are generating anger and concern among neighbors and 
also at City Hall down the street, where Mayor Jerry Brown and City Council 
members are debating how to restrict their number and operations.

The marijuana shops, however, are crying foul, citing capitalistic 
principles more often heard among conservative economists than distributors 
of what the federal government still considers an illegal drug.

"We are against the city making limits on (the number of) dispensaries when 
the market isn't," said Kenny Mostern, a spokesman with the Uptown 
Merchants Association, an informal group of cafe and dispensary owners. "We 
have people engaged in legal commerce."

The first dispensary to appear was the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' 
Cooperative, established shortly after voters in 1996 approved Proposition 
215, which legalized the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes statewide.

The co-op remains the sole facility approved by the city to verify doctors' 
recommendations that their patients use marijuana to relieve symptoms of 
illnesses, and to dispense it. The co-op also issued identification cards 
for use there or at other dispensaries.

However, federal law bars the use, possession or distribution of marijuana. 
The U.S. Justice Department sued and briefly closed the co-op in 1998, 
though it later reopened sans the dispensary.

While the co-op awaits a ruling on its appeals of a judge's order closing 
the dispensary, it continues to issue ID cards. Executive director Jeff 
Jones said the co-op has issued 20,000 cards since opening, of which about 
half are still valid.

Not long after the co-op stopped selling cannabis, new dispensaries began 
popping up nearby, though they have no express city endorsement. Seven 
operate now, mostly on Telegraph Avenue and Broadway. Two of them, the Bull 
Dog and Lemon Drop cafes, offer coffee, snacks and a bohemian decor.

The others, such as Compassionate Caregivers, SR71, Oakland Patients and 
the 420 Cafe, offer little or nothing but medicinal weed, and employ 
bouncers at the front door to fend off anyone without an ID card.

Ken Estes, the owner of 420 Cafe who is building an organic snack shop in 
the front of his dispensary, sees a positive side to the concentration of 
medicinal marijuana businesses in an area that had long been depressed.

"At a time when the economy is hurting, Oakland, with all its ills, has an 
area that is vibrant," said Estes, 45, who was left a quadriplegic 27 years 
ago following a motorcycle accident. "Let's continue in that direction."

Jones said his co-op has "brought in 20,000 people into this neighborhood 
that might have not visited downtown Oakland because of its stigmatization 
of being a dangerous place."

Though some dispensary owners and staff are wary and even hostile to 
visitors, Estes, now partially recovered but still using a wheelchair, 
happily escorted two guests to his back room where ID cards are checked and 
clerks sitting behind Plexiglas shields sell weed in plastic bags.

A sign announced available varieties of cannabis, such as Purple Skunk, 
Sour Diesel and Silver Haze. Different strains offer different therapeutic 
qualities, explained Estes, who uses cannabis to lessen pain.

Estes, who once operated a dispensary in Berkeley, dislikes the moniker 
"Oaksterdam," saying it connotes recreational use. Nancy Nadel, whose City 
Council district includes the dispensaries, won't even utter the term for 
the same reason. Mostern said some owners are sympathetic.

"No one, no one, no one is being allowed to purchase cannabis or into the 
smoking rooms unless they are medical cannabis users," Mostern said.

But clearly, other owners see "Oaksterdam" as an advertising tool. The Bull 
Dog cafe uses it prominently on its flier.

Some of the most vocal critics of the dispensaries are their neighbors, 
such as the Sexual Minority Alliance of Alameda County, which has offered 
support programs for young gay men and lesbians since 1998.

Roosevelt Mosby Jr., the group's executive director, said he and clients 
have been solicited to buy weed from patrons of the dispensaries, two of 
which operate on either side of the alliance's offices. His teenage 
clients, he added, are particularly vulnerable to addictive behavior.

"We're going to have to move," said an angry Mosby, who contended that city 
officials had until recently failed to heed his complaints dating back a 
year. "This is a dangerous place for young people to be."

Mosby cited an invasion-style robbery at a next-door dispensary a week ago 
in which four men, one of them armed, tied up a bouncer and fled with 
marijuana and cash.

A U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration official said agents are aware of 
"Oaksterdam" but insisted they are not condoning the dispensaries even if 
no public action has been taken against them.

"We have priorities. Methamphetamines are our No. 1 issue," said Richard 
Meyer, a DEA spokesman. But the cannabis shops, he added, "should not be 
surprised one day if we knock on their door with a search warrant."

Meanwhile, City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente and a handful of 
colleagues are considering a proposal set for debate next month that would 
allow only three dispensaries in the city. De La Fuente has been strongly 
critical of the clubs, saying some are selling marijuana to people with no 
medical need.

Nadel and others are waiting to review options for restricting the current 
dispensaries, such as requiring that IDs be closely checked and that 
smoking rooms use strong air filtering systems.

"I absolutely can't tolerate smoke going to people who don't want or need 
medical cannabis," said Nadel, whose late husband bought marijuana 
illegally a decade ago to deal with pancreatic cancer. "There are some that 
are real dispensaries and there are some that are really bad actors."

Even Jones acknowledged that some dispensaries are operating 
inappropriately. "I'm constantly concerned that somebody, a bad actor in 
our neighborhood, is going to cause the whole bunch ... to get marred," he 

But the possibility of a city effort to curtail the businesses, or even a 
knock on the door by federal agents, generates few strong worries from Estes.

"I'm a patient above everything else in this world now," he said. "And so I 
have peace of mind that I am doing the right thing."
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MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens