Pubdate: Thu, 23 Apr 2015
Source: SF Weekly (CA)
Copyright: 2015 Village Voice Media
Author: Chris Roberts

Marijuana's Hardest Sell - the Chinese


Want to escape the booming neighborhoods of San Francisco? Head west, 
where the rows of single-family Mediterranean-style or boxy Doelger 
homes that make up the Sunset District are virtually unchanged since 
their construction in the mid-20th century, giving the avenues a 
timeless feel. There are no towering construction cranes putting up 
condos, and 21st-century conveniences fail you: My Sidecar ride 
request to be taken to the Sunset was rejected three times before I 
settled in for a $40 cab ride.

There is also little sign of California's multibillion dollar 
cannabis industry. The city's west side is entirely bereft of legal 
marijuana. Despite a quirk in the planning code that makes the 
Taraval Street commercial corridor one of a select few places in San 
Francisco where marijuana can be sold legally, there are no cannabis 
dispensaries here. The nearest marijuana stores are on Geary 
Boulevard in the Inner Richmond and on Ocean Avenue near City College.

Peter Wong would like to keep it that way. A friendly, heavyset man, 
Wong is in many ways a prototypical Sunset resident. He grew up in 
Hong Kong but has lived here for decades in a predominantly 
Cantonese-speaking community. He owns a home not far from Ming's 
Diner, the Hong Kong-style restaurant on Taraval Street where I meet 
him, his wife, and a close family friend for lunch.

They are kind people. Wong's wife repeatedly reaches across the table 
to fill my tea cup the second it is drained. They are also adamantly 
opposed to the would-be newcomers to their neighborhood: as many as 
three pot clubs.

In 2010, Wong was one of the locals who fought to keep a proposed 
medical marijuana dispensary out of the Sunset. Despite strength in 
numbers - Wong says several thousand other residents signed on to a 
petition opposing the dispensary - and support from the district's 
supervisor at the time, Carmen Chu, the fight was neither easy nor pretty.

Community meetings in which the cannabis sellers tried to explain 
themselves would regularly dissolve into shouting matches; after epic 
City Hall hearings - one that kept Wong, his neighbors, and the 
city's Planning Commission at Civic Center until 3 a.m. - the 
dispensary that had been proposed for a nearby chiropractor's office 
was denied a permit ... thanks to a typo in the city planning code.

Now, with legalization looming on the horizon and the cannabis 
industry itching to expand, the fight is back - only bigger.

Once considered at critical mass with 27 licensed cannabis 
dispensaries, San Francisco is now apparently unable to meet the 
demand for legal weed stores.

Successful cannabis merchants are itching to open up second locations 
in the city's outlying neighborhoods, areas positioned near freeways 
with easy access to San Mateo County, the large, affluent suburban 
area that has no dispensaries. That includes the Sunset, which means 
Wong and the community are gearing up for another anti-cannabis 
development fight.

There is irony in this: Medical cannabis is Chinese in nature. What 
legendary botanist Linnaeus dubbed Cannabis sativa in the 1700s 
already had a name: da ma, one of the 50 fundamental herbs of 
traditional Chinese medicine.

However, it appears that a 2,000-year record of acceptable if 
unconventional (by the standards of Western medicine) herbal medicine 
is nothing in light of more recent history. To understand the Wongs 
and other Sunset District residents of Chinese descent who say they 
have a deep aversion to cannabis, you must go back less than 200 years.

In the early 1800s, the international drug trade looked like this: 
Hopelessly addicted to Chinese tea, Britain was running out of cash 
with which to buy it, until traders hit upon the idea of swapping 
narcotic opium harvested from nearby imperial India for the precious 
tea. Alarmed by the toll opium abuse was wreaking on his country, the 
Qing emperor ordered the opium trade abolished. The British objected, 
with cannon balls; the resulting conflict ended with the British 
taking ownership of a rocky island near Canton with a deep harbor - 
now known as Hong Kong.

Put another way, Hong Kong owes its existence to the drug trade.

Along with the usual reasons for opposition to cannabis dispensaries, 
including the perception that they bring crime, Wong and other 
Chinese residents of the Sunset have another concern: the "pot 
dispensary" evokes a long, unhappy history of outsiders imposing a 
set of unfavorable conditions in which illegal drugs are at the center.

"My culture," Wong said, "is against it."

After lunch, Wong and I step outside. Across the street is an auto 
body shop. This is where a father-and-son team, contractors with 
Irish surnames (another Sunset trope), want to open a large cannabis 
dispensary with a grow room. Up the block, the dispensary team that 
was defeated in 2010 has refiled its application. A few blocks away 
on Noriega Street, a Castro District pot club, The Apothecarium, has 
applied to open a second location.

A few years ago, when covering Wong's first fight to keep 
dispensaries out of his neighborhood, I dismissed the area's 
anti-dispensary struggle as factually unfounded drug-war paranoia 
that relied heavily on cross-cultural misinformation.

My view neglected a few facts. The city's Chinese are hardly alone in 
disliking pot. Longtime dispensary The Green Cross was run out of its 
original location near Mission Dolores by the mostly white Fair Oaks 
neighbors. And in San Francisco, local attitudes hold sway.

"The bottom line is, this fight is no different than a fight against 
a McDonald's or a Starbucks," Wong told me. "District 4 [the Sunset] 
has the right to say, 'We don't want this.'"

When it was time for me to head back downtown, I hopped an L-Taraval 
Muni train. A few blocks from the cannabis conflict zone, my train 
rumbled past a bar called the Dragon Lounge. A sign outside boasts of 
the beauty of its bartenders and the high quality of its cocktails.

Cannabis still wants in. But for now, the Sunset has picked its poison.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom