There is a reason behind that ever-present stink of marijuana from street corners, bus stops, and places unknown in San Francisco.
There is nowhere to smoke.
This is hard to believe. And, particularly in the days and weeks after 4/20, when the cloud of marijuana smoke rising from Golden Gate Park may have been visible from space, it sounds absurd.
Nobody will get arrested for sneaking a joint down an alley or even blazing one up on the courthouse steps. Most parks on most sunny days — and on quite a few foggy ones — reek of weed. Yet somehow, in 2014 in California, these are the best options for getting stoned out of the house. The most recent "cannabis event" in San Francisco, at City Hall in September, had one strict rule: no smoking (offenders risked getting a ticket).
Consider: A few years ago, there were six, maybe seven semipublic places where friends could meet over weed indoors. But over the last three years, as federal Justice Department pressure shut down cannabis dispensaries, the city's two oldest smoking lounges went with them.
Common practice when opening a new dispensary is to forbid onsite consumption — it pleases the neighbors and lets you sail through the planning process more quickly. Today, there are almost as many cigar bars in town (two) as there are establishments where a joint is permissible (four, by last count).
A private residence is the only true safe harbor for cannabis consumption. Even then, a toke on the couch in peace is not guaranteed. A joint can get you booted from public or subsidized housing, no big deal for the tech set but a very grave situation indeed for the sick, seniors, and the disabled (the types who might actually need weed as opposed to just enjoy it).
People with means, read your lease: On most standard rental agreements, "illegal drug use" violates the agreement, and could be grounds for eviction. Again, a long-shot scenario, but an inescapable fact remains: Getting high at home gets old. It's antisocial and it's lonely — and it's the norm.
Across the bay, in Oakland, April 20 was a day of mourning. Long gone are the days of Oaksterdam, when — with 12 or 15 cannabis stores, maybe more, doing such a banner business — then-Councilwoman Jean Quan swore she could get a contact high strolling up Telegraph.
Now, in "Uptown Oakland," the bright, building-size cartoon that marked Oaksterdam University has been painted over. Joining the mural in memoryland is Oaksterdam University's "student union": the nondescript Broadway storefront that had a few cheap tables and chairs, a shuffleboard table, and the freedom to roll up a joint or hit a bong with like-minded stoners.
Uptown is hot now. The rent went up, and they had to give up the lease. "It's hard to find a safe place to smoke," said Richard Lee, the bankroller of 2010's failed marijuana legalization initiative, after he broke the bad news at last month's California NORML meeting (the union had been NORML's clubhouse; a new home is TBD).
For a while now, there have been efforts to permit "cannabis cabarets" in Oakland, a fancy name for a place to sit around with weed instead of a cocktail. It could be a hard sell: In Oakland, you can't smoke at a dispensary (a rule borne out of Quan's contact high) and state liquor laws prohibit a marijuana-friendly bar. What's left? Trying to make rent off of selling munchies.
That could be why the "cabaret" effort is stalled in Oakland. But give the city credit; such talk hasn't even started here.
Not long ago, I met a former investment banker who had ditched finance in favor of an old, abandoned porno theater in North Beach. He had an idea.
In the old smut house, he'd put in a coffee bar, some televisions, a little music, a performance space, and some comfortable places to sit. He'd dispense with a liquor license and dole out medical marijuana instead. You could sit on a couch, watch the Giants, and have an Americano with your OG Kush. There was nothing like it, he'd noticed. A market inefficiency just waiting to be exploited.
A sound plan. It was felled by city zoning laws. Less than 1,000 feet away up Broadway, past a few "gentlemen's clubs," is a school. That means no marijuana allowed.
The old porno theater is still closed. The strippers are still there — as are the children, who have presumably been saved from the specter of drug abuse. (The ex-banker had his retirement account frozen after the bank found out that he wanted to enter the marijuana trade, and then went a little crazy after the SFPD raided the growhouse he'd started to make some money. I haven't talked to him in years).
And up an alley and around a corner, a few folks are hunched over, standing in a circle, furtively passing something around.
For now, that's their best option.