Pubdate: Thu, 7 Feb 2008
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Page: B - 1
Copyright: 2008 Hearst Communications Inc.
Author: Wyatt Buchanan, Chronicle Staff Writer
Cited: Americans for Safe Access
Bookmark: (Marijuana - Medicinal)


Medical marijuana in San Francisco may be going up in smoke.

In late December, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration sent 
letters to landlords of buildings that housed medical cannabis 
dispensaries in the city, telling them they face the loss of their 
property and possibly prison if the businesses stay open.

Now, less than two months later, seven of the city's 28 dispensaries 
have closed or are on the verge of closing, according to medical 
marijuana supporters and activists. They fear more will follow.

"It's like a dagger in the heart," said Wayne Justmann, a medical 
marijuana advocate. "We're barely holding on right now."

Dispensary owners are being guarded about the closures, as they are 
fearful that speaking publicly will draw attention to their 
individual businesses and put them at greater risk.

So far, the Mason Street Dispensary in the Tenderloin district has 
closed completely. One of the city's older dispensaries, 194 Church 
St. - which last year city supervisors tried to name as a historic 
site - no longer sells marijuana but is still open for people to use 
the space to get high.

One of the best known dispensaries, the San Francisco Patients' 
Cooperative on Divisadero Street, will shut its doors at the end of 
the month after nearly 20 years, according to the Rev. Randi Webster, 
one of the cooperative's founders.

The owner of the building was "severely frightened" by the DEA 
letter, and the cooperative founders and the landlord had agreed 
years ago to part ways in the event of a situation like this, Webster said.

Activists will not disclose the locations of other dispensaries that 
have or may soon shut their doors.

San Francisco is the birthplace of the medical marijuana movement. 
The first major club opened in the city in 1994 and the number peaked 
at 43 in 2005, just before the city passed first-of-their kind 
regulations for the dispensaries.

All are supposed to possess city permits by March 1, though so far 
only one - a delivery service - has complied, according to the city's 
Department of Public Health.

The DEA sent letters to about 50 landlords in 14 Northern California 
counties, said Casey McEnry, spokeswoman for the agency.

In the letter sent to San Francisco dispensaries, DEA Special Agent 
in Charge Javier Pena wrote that the agency "has determined there is 
a marijuana dispensary operating on the property. This is a violation 
of federal law." Pena goes on to threaten landlords with the seizure 
of the property and other assets and up to 20 years in prison.

The notices are the first step in this new effort to shut down 
dispensaries, said McEnry, who described them as "courtesy letters" 
to landlords who might not know such a business exists on their 
property. Federal agents have for years been raiding dispensaries but 
had yet to go after landlords.

She said the agency has not determined its next step. "We're still 
evaluating the impact to see what kind of response we get," McEnry said.

The DEA sent similar letters to dispensaries in Southern California 
last summer and about 50 shut down, according to Kris Hermes, legal 
campaign director for Americans for Safe Access, an Oakland marijuana 
advocacy organization.

While that number is significant, Hermes said, "In no way is the DEA 
completely eliminating medical marijuana access in California."

Action by the DEA would be followed through in the courts by the U.S. 
attorney's office. In an interview with reporters last week, new U.S. 
Attorney Joseph Russoniello said he thought most people who claimed 
to be patients did not need marijuana. But he also said a lifetime of 
trying to close dispensaries would "be terribly unproductive and 
probably not an efficient use of precious federal resources."

Still, activists are putting pressure on officials to take a strong 
stand. The San Francisco Democratic Party approved a motion last 
month condemning the letters and calling on local and federal leaders 
to denounce the action.

Mayor Gavin Newsom has been the target of some of that pressure. On 
Wednesday, his spokesman Nathan Ballard said, "The mayor is concerned 
that the DEA's actions will leave patients without their 
physician-recommended medical marijuana."

But Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who wrote the city regulations, said 
he has not seen enough leadership from the mayor to protect the dispensaries.

"It's an expensive proposition for medical cannabis dispensaries to 
pay for a permit then get shut down by the DEA," Mirkarimi said, 
adding later that he has heard "nothing from the mayor" on the topic.

He said the city may need to consider dispensing marijuana itself at 
public hospitals and medical clinics. On Tuesday, Supervisor Chris 
Daly introduced a resolution condemning the DEA letters.

Whatever happens, all eyes will be watching San Francisco for clues 
to the future of the movement.

"If it goes down in San Francisco," said Webster, the activist at the 
Divisadero dispensary, "there's no holding them back in the 11 other 
states with medical cannabis."
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake