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Friday, June 17, 2011

Have S.F. Medical Marijuana Dispensaries Reached Critical Mass?

Posted By on Fri, Jun 17, 2011 at 3:00 PM

Is there such thing as too much pot?
  • Is there such thing as too much pot?

On Monday, the Apothecarium will finally open its doors, making it San Francisco's 26th medical cannabis dispensary. Far from having as many pot clubs as Starbucks, vast swaths of San Francisco are, thanks to restrictive zoning laws, devoid of dispensaries or any reminder that this is the birthplace of America's medical marijuana movement.

Yet 26 is still too many for city planning leaders and some law-abiding residents, who complain of "saturation" and "proliferation" in certain areas -- primarily in SOMA and the Mission. Planners have asked the Board of Supervisors to revamp the city's medical marijuana laws, which to date make San Francisco the only major California city without a city-imposed gross-receipts tax on dispensaries, and without a cap on dispensaries allowed within city limits.

If 26 is too many for residents and planning leaders, it could be too many for some dispensary operators as well.

San Francisco is an island connected to the mainland by two bridges

(three, if you count the Peninsula). So every time a new pot

club opens, the dispensaries compete for a

slimmer slice of the same pie, says Catherine Smith, who has run HopeNet

on Ninth Street for a decade.

"If you oversaturate, we're

all going to go out of business -- and what good is that?" she tells SF

Weekly. "It's just going to drive the smallest, most compassionate

places out of business, and only the superstores -- the ones with

millionaires behind them -- are going to keep going."

So has San Francisco hit critical mass for its pot clubs?

It would behoove land-use wonks and medical cannabis advocates to remember that the Green Zone, where restrictions allow dispensaries to open, renders 90 to 95 percent of the city off-limits. (See a map of the locations where you can open a dispensary here [pdf].) Do dispensaries "proliferate" in the remaining sliver of allowed areas? Well, duh -- where else will they be?

These days, those who get their dispensaries through the permit stage must pay rent while their file sits on a planner's desk for months -- and through any appeals. That means an owner needs at least $250,000 to $300,000 "to even think about starting the process," a lawyer told us.

That money flows to private pockets, not city coffers. Dispensaries pay an annual $8,500 dispensary fee. Monthly commercial rent, especially for a business that must get significant upgrades to pass inspection, can exceed $10,000. Perhaps something could be done where the city, not landlords, cash in whenever a pot club opens up.

Yet none of the above has stopped an unprecedented "surge" of new dispensaries. Surge, if you want to call it that -- in the Bush years, dispensaries were closing, not opening; The Apothecarium will be the fourth, with Mission Street's SPARC, Mission District's Shambhala Healing Center, and downtown's Igzactly 420 to open in the past year or so. Is four an avalanche? Probably not, but it's certainly a trend.

Not every dispensary owner shares Smith's vision. "Patients benefit in a market where competition is fierce; prices remain stable or fall, quality is increased, and patient services are plentiful," says Kevin Reed, CEO of the delivery service the Green Cross, which is trying to open a dispensary in the Excelsior. "But caps kill competition. That may be good for the [dispensaries], but will be bad for patients.

"I realize the city has a history of capping everything, from box stores to bars, but until federal law changes, I think the goal of the city should be to foster an environment that enhances benefits for patients," he adds.  

For now, no supervisors are touching the issue, at least not when contacted by SF Weekly. An aide for Carmen Chu -- who, of all her colleagues, has had the most experience with blocking dispensaries -- said she would have no comment until after budget season wraps up in about a month.

Calls to Ross Mirkarimi, who wrote the 2005 Medical Cannabis Act, went unanswered, as did texts and e-mails seeking comment. It's likely that the recent turn-to-cop for Mirkarimi, the presumptive favorite to succeed Sheriff Michael Hennessey, explains his reluctance to touch the issue.  Likewise, David Campos, Mirkarimi's competitor for pot-friendliest pol and the sponsor of legislation that created the Medical Cannabis Task Force, would say only that the issue of saturation "needs to be addressed."

"I do think it should be the kind of thing where we have a uniform approach citywide ... but at the same time, one size doesn't necessarily fit all," Campos says. "Some communities will be okay with it and others won't."

Speaking of the Task Force, the city's medical marijuana advisory body is scheduled to deliver to the Board of Supervisors later this summer its annual repor and a list of recommended legislative fixes. Not included, according to a few members familiar with a draft, are the issues of saturation and proliferation.

What does gall the Task Force is the "uneven and unfair" citywide distribution. Patients at Ocean Beach are an hour away by Muni to the nearest dispensary. If you live in Bayview, you need to cross McLaren Park to get to Ocean Avenue or take the T-Third to SOMA.

"Patients need to have safe access in their community," says Stephanie Tucker, a consultant with Haight Street dispensary Vapor Room and a spokeswoman for the Task Force. "We won't have a clustering problem if people are allowed to open in North Beach, in the Sunset, in Bayview, in the Marina."

View Medical Cannabis Dispensary Map in a larger map

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About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.


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