It's hard to understand the federal government's plan on marijuana. First, President Barack Obama helped encouraged a boom in cultivation and in dispensing when he said states were in charge and he wasn't going to get involved. Then his Justice Department shut down hundreds of dispensaries across the state -- including nine in San Francisco, a third of the city's total -- in a crackdown that began Oct. 7, 2011.
Over the summer, the feds took aim at the biggest fish, Oakland's Harborside Health Center (who will meet the feds in court Dec. 13). Then something funny happened: The crackdown stopped. Cannabis dispensaries opened up in San Francisco without issue. One just opened in downtown, steps from Market Street. The feds did nothing. So now, one of the nine shut down by federal pressure has simply unlocked the door, flicked on the lights, and opened for business again. Is the crackdown over, or with small amounts of marijuana legalized for all adults in Colorado and Washington, do the feds simply have better things to do?
United States Attorney for Northern California Melinda Haag has yet to conduct a single raid of a medical marijuana dispensary or arrest a medical marijuana provider or patient (though Oaksterdam University, the Oakland cannabis college, was raided in April). She shut down more of the local medical marijuana industry than George W. Bush's attorneys ever did using a simple method: a letter sent via registered mail. The letters said the dispensaries were too close to schools, to rec centers, to other places children congregated. The dispensaries needed to go, the letters warned landlords, otherwise stiff prison sentences and property forfeitures were possible.
The summer was bad for medical cannabis in San Francisco. Two of the city's longest-operating and most-active dispensaries, Vapor Room in the Lower Haight and HopeNet in SOMA, both shut down. There was talk of fighting the feds in court before it was decided it was smarter to close the storefronts and go delivery-only (the slim pickings of which are a very good way to go out of business forever). When Haag took aim at Harborside, the biggest dispensary in the country, things really looked grim.
And then it stopped. No more letters, no more closures. So a few weeks ago, Al Shawa, dispensary operator of Shambhala Healing Center, at 2441 Mission St., decided to re-open his doors.
The decision was mainly fiscal, Shawa said during an interview on Wednesday. He was broke. His employees were broke. He had invested it all in the dispensary. Maybe the crackdown was all political. After all, Attorney General Eric Holder, who had warned California in 2010 that the Controlled Substances Act would be "vigorously enforced" if the state legalized marijuana, stayed silent as both Washington and Colorado did exactly that.
"I don't want to fight anyone," Shawa says. "I don't want to be a hero. I just did this to feed my family, to help my employees feed their families."
Of course, it's the landlords, not the dispensaries, who were threatened. An attorney for property owner Ebrahim Poura of Beverly Hills refused to comment to SF Weekly.
What's more, the feds seemed to lose their appetite for this. Down the street from Shambhala, a group of merchants mailed Haag a letter, asking her to step in and shut down a dispensary that had just received a permit but hadn't yet opened. There appeared to be no response. That dispensary, the Morado Collective, is preparing to open. And no effort, as far as anyone knows -- many dispensaries have gone into press silence since the crackdown -- has been made to shut down the remaining dispensaries in San Francisco. There are now about 20 in operation, including delivery-only services, down from the high-water mark of nearly 30.
Is the war over? Nobody is exactly sure. Press officers for Haag have steadily refused to comment on the crackdown. But for good or ill, Shambhala is back.