Pubdate: Thu, 07 Apr 2016
Source: SF Weekly (CA)
Column: Chem Tales
Copyright: 2016 Village Voice Media
Author: Chris Roberts


If you needed more proof that boom times are here again for the 
medical cannabis industry - and here to stay - look no further than 
15th Street in the Mission District.

When Barack Obama was first elected in 2008, the California marijuana 
industry exploded. The president said medical marijuana would be left 
alone; people interpreted that to mean it was open season on weed. 
The Justice Department, which issued a memo in 2009 stating that 
"limited federal resources" shouldn't be used to bust cancer patients 
growing a handful of pot plants, as they were under Bush, only seemed 
to egg them on.

After the state flirted with legalization and then decided against it 
at the ballot in November 2010, that same Justice Department started 
sending letters to select medical cannabis dispensaries' landlords. 
They weren't friendly: the clubs were too close to schools, the 
letters said. Shut it down, or be prosecuted and have your building seized.

At the time, nobody quite knew what to do. Some cannabis dispensary 
operators wanted to fight. After all, they were just following state 
law - they kept saying, over and over again - and nobody ever proved 
they weren't. But how? Weed was federally illegal, and no elected 
officials in San Francisco would take a stand on their behalf. 
(Watching mayors and city councils in Oakland and Berkeley speak out 
and call on Obama to lay off only made it sting harder.)

I remember standing in a downtown law office one fall morning, 
listening to a marijuana lawyer pontificate about states' rights, the 
fallacy of the drug war, and Obama's broken promises, while his 
clients - who would a few months later voluntarily close rather than 
risk prison - stood silently off to one side. Approached for 
questions, they managed only tight-lipped smiles and platitudes. They 
had double jeopardy: they owned their building, as well as the marijuana store.

A year later, about one-third of the city's medical marijuana 
storefronts would close - not a lot, you might argue, but Uncle Sam 
was shuttering more local-law-abiding businesses than at any time 
since (the other) Prohibition. It would get worse: Four years ago, in 
April 2012, federal agents raided Oakland-based Oaksterdam 
University's offices and grow houses, as well as a private home. (The 
only person ever charged with a crime was one of the protesters who 
showed up, busted for shoving an agent.)

Now, in 2016, weed is a winner. All the presidential candidates are 
varying shades of down. There's talk that Obama will remove cannabis 
from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act on his way out of 
office, officially reclassifying it as suitable for medical use and 
scientific study.

And after watching newcomers as well as the lucky survivors rake in 
some of the reported $2.7 billion Californians spent on marijuana in 
2015, some of the dispensaries that the federal government closed 
almost five years ago are coming back.

Only one San Francisco dispensary - Shambhala Healing Center, near 
the New Mission Theater - had the gall to fight the feds in court. 
Rather than seize the property - a nuclear option that was probably 
always a bluff - the feds eventually took a cash settlement from the 
dispensary's landlord, which, a judge ruled, meant the weed sellers 
could stay. Another dispensary further down the road on Mission, shut 
down after only a few months in business, quietly reopened under a 
new name and new operators. The feds, if they noticed, did nothing.

To make its return to business last month, Medithrive - at Mission 
Street near 15th - had to play the waiting game. (Disclosure: 
Medithrive is an SF Weekly advertiser.)

Medithrive shut down its storefront but kept a delivery service 
going. This was smart - it meant its city-issued licensed to sell 
cannabis was still "active," in bureaucratese. (Other shuttered clubs 
trying to come back have been told by the city their old permits are 
no longer good.) They also had the good fortune of owning their 
building, meaning their old space was still available (and not rented 
to someone else at double or triple 2011 rates).

Last fall, after the state passed medical marijuana regulations - and 
after a U.S. District judge ruled recent budget moves by Congress 
meant the Justice Department was barred from taking further action 
against a marijuana business obeying state law - the green light was 
on for good.

Misha Breyburg, one of Medithrive's operators, was one of the people 
standing quietly in the law office that day. "I think I told you 
then, 'We're in this for the long haul,'" he told me recently. "I 
always believed it was a temporary setback... I really did believe we 
were on the right side of history."

It's hard to argue with that. San Francisco's marijuana industry is 
bigger every year. The city just added another dispensary in 
Dogpatch, and a dispensary in the Castro District is moving up the 
street to a new location almost double in size.

Obama's war on weed was always a half-assed affair, like keying your 
neighbor's car when you knew he was asleep.

At the time, then-U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag said the dispensaries 
were shut down because they were close to schools - and that she 
received many complaints from concerned citizens who wanted the clubs 
shut down. (A FOIA request filed by SF Weekly for these complaints 
turned up nothing.)

All the crackdown did was delay the inevitable. Makes you wonder why 
they ever bothered.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom