Pubdate: Wed, 29 Oct 2014
Source: SF Weekly (CA)
Copyright: 2014 Village Voice Media
Author: Chris Roberts

America's Oldest Dispensary Has So Far Survived a Federal Justice 
Department Attack. Marijuana Veterans in S.F. Weren't So Lucky


With its organic nurseries and converted auto body shops selling 
artisanal barbecue, Berkeley's San Pablo Avenue hardly resembles a war zone.

But step into a clean and well-lit former mechanic's space, where a 
bubbling fountain placed just inside the door offers a hint of peace, 
and you're on the front lines of the war on drugs.

This is Berkeley Patients Group. By virtue of turning 15 years old 
this Friday, the dispensary is now laying claim to the title of 
California's oldest medical cannabis dispensary, which also makes it 
the longest-running legal dealer of marijuana in the United States.

That's 15 years in a competitive, semi-legal industry fraught with 
risk. The last three years have been the hardest, as the federal 
Justice Department has been working to put BPG out of business.

It's a passive kind of conflict. BPG used to inhabit a bigger, space 
age-style auto showroom a few blocks away. There, it sold more than 
$16 million worth of marijuana in 2009, according to documents dug up 
by California Watch. Then the Justice Department's statewide 
crackdown on marijuana businesses began.

Melinda Haag, the local United States Attorney and a Berkeley 
resident herself, tried to shut BPG down in 2012 with a forfeiture 
action. That succeeded only in chasing the dispensary down the 
street. Happy to play whack-a-mole, the government is now laying 
claim to the current location with a drug-related asset seizure.

That's locked up in court right now, on indefinite hold while BPG's 
savvy attorney trades pretrial motions with Haag's prosecutor (the 
government is currently trying to access BPG's tax records; a judge 
rejected that request earlier this month). BPG has reason to stay and 
fight. All the seers say California is on its way to legalizing 
marijuana in 2016 (when the right billionaires will be generous 
enough to fund a ballot initiative). Having a successful marijuana 
operation in place beforehand is a wise business move.

And BPG has been buoyed by the local power structure. In addition to 
vocal support from the mayor and the local congresswoman, legal help 
from the city attorney has been offered. It doesn't hurt that the 
dispensary is one of Berkeley's bigger taxpayers.

As brisk business continues as if nothing were amiss, there is talk 
that the government is looking for an exit strategy, a way to cede 
the field gracefully. The feds might actually lose this war of attrition.

 From his home not far away in the Berkeley hills, Charley Pappas 
sees this and seethes.

Not long ago, Pappas was one of the Tenderloin's most beloved drug 
dealers. From the seat of his wheelchair (he was shot in a robbery 40 
years ago which left him a quadriplegic), Pappas, his partner, and 
about 15 employees sold some of San Francisco's best marijuana from a 
small Geary Street basement storefront.

By all accounts, they were model citizens. The crack and heroin 
dealers were less visible, the block a little cleaner, and aside from 
at least one daytime rip-and-run of the product, the 900 block of 
Geary was a bit safer with city-licensed cannabis dispensary Divinity 
Tree in business.

That's all over now. The difference between Pappas and BPG is that he 
did as he was told. And, as he's finding out, he had the bad luck of 
doing business in San Francisco.

When the feds came down on him three years ago saying that the pot 
shop was too close to one of the Tenderloin's playgrounds and had to 
go, he shut down. Roughly one-third of the city's pot clubs went with him.

(One other city pot club, Shambhala Healing Center, is also fighting 
the feds. That club also hired BPG's lawyer, who stopped taking 
Pappas's phone calls about two years ago. "I wasn't paying him, I 
guess," he says.)

Now Pappas is trying to reopen. Divinity Tree is the only pot shop 
closed during the crackdown to make a serious effort to return, and 
the city isn't helping.

Instead, the city is making it harder.

A permit to sell marijuana in San Francisco in 2014 is akin to 
getting a license to print money. Unknown to Pappas, his permit also 
had an expiration date.

Marijuana shops closed down for whatever reason (in his case, some 
extreme, extenuating circumstances) must be re-opened within 18 
months. Otherwise, they're considered "abandoned," city zoning bureaucrats say.

That came as a shock. Until that point, "We were never told that we 
had to re-open in 18 months," he says.

This means restarting the permitting process all over again. That can 
take years, after a suitable location and willing landlord is found.

Pappas has support from his local supervisor, Jane Kim. Otherwise, 
he's had no help from City Hall, he says.

He's hoping for "some sign of support from the city." Or ideally, 
"I'd still like to have the permit," he says. "I think we deserve it."

He'll go before a city appeal board early next year to beg for his 
dispensary license back. By then, he'll have been closed for more 
than three years.

Maybe it would have been smarter to call the government's bluff. In 
some places, that's been good for business.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom