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Monday, March 19, 2012

Medical Marijuana Crackdown Explained: Feds Are Saving the Children

Posted By on Mon, Mar 19, 2012 at 7:45 AM

click to enlarge Is it safe? - CITYVOICES.ORG

Melinda Haag finally gave us a reason. The United States Attorney for Northern California broke her media near-silence last week week, granting an extensive, exclusive interview to KQED in which Haag sought to explain the Justice Department's crackdown on medical marijuana.

The reasons why the DOJ has already shut down five licensed, taxpaying San Francisco medical cannabis dispensaries, and moved to shut down at least four more on Feb. 21, are simple: Pot clubs cause crime, and pot clubs threaten kids.

"Many" people across the state have complained to Haag about this, she told California Watch's Michael Montgomery. "When a dispensary comes to my attention that is close to a school, a park, a playground or children, that's a line I've decided to draw," she said.

Yet this explanation rings a bit hollow in the Bay Area, where concerned citizens like the mayor of Berkeley "lamented" the shutdown of dispensaries in that city. Haag has also picked neighborhoods such as the Tenderloin -- where strip clubs, liquor stores, and porn shops remain open near clubs shuttered by Haag -- to wage her war on the state's marijuana industry.

In the East Bay, Haag, a Berkeley resident herself, is shutting down Berkeley Patients Group, a large dispensary operating in an old car dealership on San Pablo Avenue. "There have been no complaints [about BPG]," said Mayor Tom Bates. "We get compliments from neighbors."

"There were no instances of violence, they were excellent neighbors, they had good security, they contributed to the economy and helped local nonprofits by making contributions," Bates said. "The voters of this city voted unanimously that they wanted to have four dispensaries in Berkeley and that was it. We grandfathered them in. But evidently we get trumped by the federal government."

Bates's protests are not falling on deaf ears -- and are in fact making their way to Haag. "I hear them," Haag said, "but I have a hard time making that distinction [between good and bad dispensaries]. I've already drawn a line."

"When a dispensary comes to my attention that is close to a school, a park, a playground or children, that's a line I've decided to draw."

"There is a belief, backed by facts, that marijuana operations are often times the victims of criminal activity," she added. "Armed robberies at dispensaries, armed robberies at grow operations, and people who are nearby are at risk [to wit: school children] as a result of that."

Haag described a dispensary in Santa Cruz that operated near a preschool, which generated numerous citizen complaints from neighbors. There's a high school somewhere in her district, she added, that suffered an explosion in marijuana use following the opening of a nearby dispensary.

We asked Haag spokesman Jack Gillund to specify these dispensaries, as well as to share the citizen complaints. "We have no comment," Gillund wrote in an e-mail.

Haag is correct in saying that crime has happened around pot dispensaries: A man was robbed of a pound and some cash out front of Divinity Tree in 2011, and several years ago, a man was murdered outside of Mr. Nice Guy on Valencia Street. Both dispensaries were shut down by Justice Department letters from Haag.

But the theory that "pot clubs equal crime" has been exploded by San Francisco's Planning Commission; several members have been staunchly anti-pot, and would surely have used such an excuse to deny permits had it been available.

"No one, including the police department, has ever brought before this commission any factual evidence of that statement [that crime and blight accompany dispensaries]," Planning Commissioner Ron Miguel said. "It has not been proven."

"We have not had direct testimony of law enforcement that they believe there is an increase in crime in areas because there is medical marijuana dispensaries," added Planning Commissioner Michael Antonini, who with one exception has consistently voted against permitting new dispensaries (and did so March 1, when he made the statement).

So the feds won't name the schools, won't name the complainants, and won't provide the statistics used to justify the crackdown. But trust them: The problems are real.

On the ground in San Francisco, the crackdowns led to some head-scratching situations: Two of the clubs closed by Haag were in the Tenderloin, where medical pot surely ranks somewhere below open-air heroin- and crack-dealing, open-air heroin- and crack use, and prostitution as threats to children.

"The Divinity Tree is two blocks away and around the corner from the [Tenderloin Children's] playground," the reason why that dispensary was closed, said David Goldman, a member of San Francisco's chapter of Americans for Safe Access. "In the intervening space are several massage parlors, bars, and liquor stores.  Across the street from the playground stands an adult theater with a marquee blatantly advertising an 'erotic circus.'"

"All of this makes nonsense of Haag's and the DOJ's pretense to be protecting children," Goldman said.

Follow us on Twitter @TheSnitchSF, and @SFWeekly and follow Chris Roberts at at @cbloggy

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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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