There are few places Michael Welch can go and feel welcome; there are even fewer places where he can go and survive.
The South Carolina native is a former Marine. He is also a 45-year-old gay man with AIDS who uses medical marijuana to alleviate the side effects of his antiretrovirals. This puts San Francisco at the top of a very short list of possible habitats.
Welch also operates Sanctuary, a medical cannabis collective on O'Farrell Street in the Tenderloin. At 220 square feet -- including its ADA-compliant bathroom, and the wall on which a letter of support from Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi is framed -- Sanctuary is possibly the city's smallest dispensary.
It was the first storefront medical marijuana collective to receive an operating permit from the city of San Francisco -- and on Friday, Sanctuary became the fourth dispensary to receive an ultimatum to shut down or face consequences from United States Attorney for Northern California Melinda Haag, whose offices on Golden Gate Avenue are a few blocks away.
Legal weed and eight good-paying jobs appear to be the least of the Tenderloin's concerns. However, the Tenderloin Children's Playground is a few blocks away, Haag wrote in her letter dated the day before Thanksgiving, and ergo Sanctuary -- which had not generated a complaint since it opened seven years ago and was in full compliance of local law -- must close.
A spokesman for Haag, Jack Gillund, offered no comment other than to point out how close it is to the Tenderloin Children's Playground. The office has been largely silent on the issue, in contrast to the other three Department of Justice offices in California.
The shutdown would leave the Tenderloin -- which, according to the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, has one of the highest concentrations of HIV/AIDS patients in the city -- without a medical cannabis collective. This means the marijuana street dealers -- who have been largely gone for the past half-decade -- will return, according to Welch. "We pay our taxes. The cartel doesn't pay taxes," he told SF Weekly. "And what is it worth?"
Divinity Tree, the Tenderloin's other dispensary, shut down on Nov. 11. Medithrive, in the Mission District, closed one day later. Mr. Nice Guy, on Valencia Street, is reportedly delivery-only, but its storefront is gone.
All were fully compliant with San Francisco law, according to records on file at the Department of Public Health. Sanctuary passed its latest inspection in June, and was deemed compliant with San Francisco law on Aug. 11, according to records.
Both Welch and property owner Mike Sarikakis are absorbing the news and figuring out what to do, but the example provided by the other dispensaries is not encouraging. Neither was the court opinion issued Monday, in which a federal judge said that Congress has declared marijuana a dangerous illegal drug with no medicinal value, making state law worthless.
Welch has done what he could so far, phoning the White House on Monday and Tuesday, and placing a call to Pelosi, in which he asked why President Barack Obama broke his promise not to use federal resources to put people such as him out of business and on the street.
This issue also comes at a very bad time for Welch, who last year suffered a blood clot in his aorta, and will undergo surgery Friday to repair an intestinal issue. "I have medical bills, and $600 in my bank account," he said Tuesday evening at the dispensary. "I can either stay here and become homeless, or go somewhere else and die."
Asked if the federal government would be given pause at the spectacle of putting a Marine Corps veteran in such a situation, Welch, for the first time in a recent interview became emotional; his bright eyes were moist, and his quiet, level monotone showed a hint of an edge.
"They don't care -- they have no compassion for anyone," he said.
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