Pubdate: Thu, 24 Dec 2015
Source: SF Weekly (CA)
Column: Chem Tales
Copyright: 2015 Village Voice Media
Author: Chris Roberts


San Francisco is the city that does not know how to deal with cannabis.

The city has 22 permitted medical marijuana dispensaries, spread 
unevenly throughout town, although mostly in SoMa and the Mission.

They are not the most popular spots in some neighborhoods. The large 
black and brown men working security and the constant traffic of 
customers rattle leery homeowners, who then squawk to City Hall about 
crime, blight, and an "unsavory element." (The first two, at least, 
are not supported by data; the third is purely subjective).

This situation is at least partially the city's fault. By attempting 
to discourage the marijuana industry's constant and inevitable growth 
- - by every telling, cannabis sales have done nothing but steadily 
grow for the past few years - Mayor Ed Lee and other forces in city 
government have done nothing but create long lines at existing pot 
clubs and encourage monopolies. And they've quite possibly enriched 
those lucky enough to currently have a permit to sell weed.

And it could get worse. On Dec. 17, the Planning Commission voted 
down a proposed Fisherman's Wharf dispensary, even though it met all 
of the city's zoning requirements and Planning staff had recommended 
it for approval. At least one commissioner voiced support for 
slapping a moratorium on all future dispensaries until the city "has 
a plan in action." That would be bad news for the dozen or more 
proposed dispensaries who filed applications to open within the last 
six weeks - but great news for the 22 already in business, who will 
be guaranteed more customers.

For years, medical marijuana has been a political third rail in San 
Francisco. The city has done very little on the issue since 2005, 
when then-Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi authored the city's Medical 
Cannabis Act. That law opened up only a small part of the city to 
dispensaries (the so-called "Green Zone"). Since then, with no 
exceptions, all cannabis-related laws have closed off additional 
areas of the city to legal marijuana storefronts. Thus, the 
most-common neighborhood complaints about weed clubs - they create 
too much traffic, they're too busy, they're too close to one another 
- - are a direct result of the city's refusal to regulate cannabis 
sensibly and comprehensibly.

In 2016, with legalization a real possibility, the city may finally 
take a different tack. Under legislation authored by Supervisor Scott 
Wiener, the city has set up and seated a "legalization task force."

A collection of cannabis industry owners, workers, lawyers, and city 
and school district officials, the task force's mission is to grapple 
with the possibility of legal, recreational cannabis - if 
legalization is approved by California voters this fall.

"It's a good start," said Erich Pearson, the founder of SPARC in 
South of Market, one of the city's largest and best-known 
dispensaries, and a task force member. "There's an immediate need to 
create access for everyday people."

In San Francisco, the city's bigger dispensaries sell about $12 
million to $15 million worth of marijuana every year, according to 
industry sources and documents shared with investors. With 22 
dispensaries in San Francisco, legal cannabis sales in San Francisco 
could exceed $100 million a year.

But what about the black market? How many more illicit sales are 
there - be they on street corners, bedrooms, or via renegade 
deliveries? No hard data on this exists, but looking at the rapid 
expansion of sales in states that legalized cannabis for adults 21 
and over, it could be two to three times as much. (To think that 
these people are not buying marijuana right now is naive; they're 
either patronizing the black market or patronizing their medical 
marijuana recommendation-holding friends.)

Existing cannabis businessmen like Pearson are directly aided by 
restrictive zoning and by anti-cannabis policy-makers - but even he 
believes that more dispensaries, not fewer, is what the city needs.

"We're going to have a lot more cannabis users," Pearson told me 
recently. "We're going to need to spread it out."

That may happen - if the legalization task force has an opportunity 
to confront medical marijuana, not just suggest rules for a potential 
legal future. Whether the Lee administration will entertain this 
notion, or if it will listen to the task force at all - a past 
Medical Cannabis Task Force's annual report went ignored - is 
unclear. Wiener did not respond to requests for comment on that point.

If it is ignored, there's one easy place for marijuana to go: east.

In Oakland, available real estate is both cheaper and more abundant 
(for now). And in Oakland, city leaders are talking about expanding 
the number of cannabis dispensary permits and generally making things 
easier for one of California's few sustained growth industries. 
(Because, after tech and real estate, what else is there?)

"Oakland," one industry insider told me recently, "is going to be the 
cannabis capital of Northern California." If it is, it wouldn't be 
the first time San Francisco let something good escape across the 
Bay. Meanwhile, the harder the city pushes back on cannabis, the 
better it will be for those already in business - including the black market.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom