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Friday, October 25, 2013

Marijuana Is Still San Francisco's Political Loser

Posted By on Fri, Oct 25, 2013 at 12:42 PM

Not easy partners
  • Not easy partners

Judging by the smell test alone, you might think that everyone in San Francisco is a marijuana lover (and a connoisseur of various strains by default).

You'd be wrong. Lest we forget in light of polls that say 58 percent of all Americans favor legal weed, there are citizens who strongly dislike the magic plant -- Marin resident Gavin Newsom springs to mind -- even as they realize it's time to legalize it. And there are plenty locals who loathe cannabis marijuana and who want nothing to do with it, medical or otherwise.

This is not lost on City Hall, where -- despite an active moneymaking industry, and a movement with real organizing power -- medical marijuana remains a toxic subject, a political "third rail" that's been a lose-lose for politicians, who are as a result leery to touch it.

Cannabis has tried to play the game: in 2010, we attended a fundraiser thrown by medical marijuana operators for a supervisorial candidate, and had a sizable hit blown in our face by a prominent politician. The event raised a few thousand dollars and the candidate lost (though not for that reason).

That was the same year marijuana legalization measure Prop. 19 lost -- and it was opposed by many within the marijuana movement. Since then, not much good has happened with weed.

The federal government has shut down about eight dispensaries in the city, and legalization -- as well as reforms to the California medical marijuana industry -- has stalled out, blocked by law enforcement's powerful lobby in Sacramento and otherwise successfully marginalized.

A short-lived city-commissioned task force on medical marijuana couldn't get much done, and subsequently was not renewed by its original sponsor, Supervisor David Campos, who is now running for higher office (held by pot's biggest proponent in Sacramento, but that's another story).

Marijuana does have organizing power, though, and it was on display Monday. About 50 activists, union representatives (one of the pot clubs is a union shop with 25 card-carrying members) dispensary operators and their attorneys packed the Board of Supervisors chambers for a committee hearing, fighting for space with about an equal number of motivated citizens agitated about dog-walking rules on federal land.

Their bogeyman for the day was an old friend: Supervisor John Avalos. Avalos represents the gentrification-proof Excelsior, where as recently as last year, a political challenge against the supervisor was mounted -- based upon medical marijuana.

Three dispensaries on the outer Mission Street corridor had permits approved on the same day in 2012, including two on the same block of 5200 Mission. They abided by all the city's zoning rules -- which leave most of the city off-limits to weed, with the Excelsior an exception -- and Avalos did not oppose them.

Convinced the neighborhood would go to Hades if legal weed was let in, leery neighbors rallied behind an Avalos challenger who used the "threat" of cannabis as a campaign platform. The electoral challenge failed -- mostly because the challenger lived in Walnut Creek -- and the dispensaries opened. But there was a lesson: weed gets people pissed-off, and can turn people against you.

Fast-forward a year. The dispensaries are open, and are doing a booming business: the Excelsior is right across the border from Daly City and San Mateo County, where there are no dispensaries. Sensing this, more move to open -- one across the street from an existing dispensary near Silver, and two more on the same block a mile away.

This time the angry neighbors -- some of them business owners who claim that street dealing has increased since the legal taxpaying pot clubs went in -- go to Avalos, who says that in the 14 years he's lived in the Excelsior, nobody from the neighborhood has ever pined for access to weed.

He acted, and wrote legislation that would prohibit in the Excelsior a new dispensary from opening up 500 feet from one already in business. That satisfied the neighbors and enraged medical cannabis supporters, who bristle at being lumped in with check-cashing stores, liquor stores, and vaguely legal gambling parlors as "nuisance uses."

Crying NIMBYism and warning of a dangerous precedent that could restrict legal weed even further in its very own birthplace, they turned out in force on Monday to oppose Avalos's legislation.

And they lost -- sort of. New pot clubs in the Excelsior within 500 feet of an existing one aren't banned, but have tougher zoning restrictions. And the restrictions would sunset as soon as our local government writes new citywide rules on medical cannabis.

That hasn't pleased the marijuana movement, who pledged to turn out again when the legislation goes up for final approval at the full Board on Nov. 5. And it hasn't pleased everyone in Avalos's district. At a town hall meeting Wednesday called to talk about a recent shooting death in broad daylight, a few anti-weed diehards used the occasion to call out Avalos for allowing any dispensaries at all.

The weed activists have a new champion at City Hall -- Board President David Chiu. Chiu, who, luck would have it, is running against Campos for Assembly, has given activists a venue to meet at City Hall.

The fact is that legal weed remains a tough sell, even with all the national support behind it and a movement to boot -- and even in San Francisco.

Reefer madness dies hard.

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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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