At San Francisco's Wharf, a Fight for Medical Marijuana Ensues

July 25, 2006 — -- San Francisco has more cannibus clubs -- the dispensaries of marijuana for the medical treatment of the nasty side effects of chemotherapy, glaucoma or AIDS -- than any other city in the nation.

Yet, that doesn't mean cannabis clubs make welcome neighbors, even in bluest of the blue San Francisco, a city that prides itself on being tolerant of almost every lifestyle. A ballot proposition in 2002 that called for the Board of Supervisors to explore the possibility of establishing a program whereby the city would grow its own medical marijuana and distribute it was supported by 62 percent of voters.

But the reality of the program is apparently harsher than the notion. However accepting San Francisco may consider itself to be, the city may also be showing standard-issue NIMBYism.

The Green Cross is one of about 40 cannabis clubs in San Francisco. It is owned and operated by Kevin Reed, who explains that there are differences among the 55 different types of marijuana his store offers.

"'Indica' would be used more for the body pain, somebody that had extreme body pain or insomnia. It would help people sleep. It is what most people identify when they think of marijuana is," explained to Nightline. "'Sativa' is the more euphoric high. It is what most people use for depression."

But the controversy in San Francisco isn't about what Reed is selling, but where he wants to do it.

Touristy Fisherman's Wharf is known for families of tourists, cable cars, and seafood. But many business owners and neighbors there do not want marijuana users added to that mix -- even if they have prescriptions to buy it.

San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom sees their point. "I'm not sure that's the message we want to send folks. 'Get your crab and maybe your clam chowder and sourdough bread, and maybe walk next door and see a medical marijuana club.'"

But the mayor himself is in part responsible for the eruption of this controversy.

Last summer the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that stricter federal drug laws overrule more permissive ones passed by the states, like the medial marijuana provision passed by California.

Since then, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency has arrested some cannabis club owners. Those arrests led Newsom to draft news rules and regulations for his city's cannabis clubs, so as to fend off future DEA busts.

"In the past there was no process," Newsom explains. "You could just open up. All of a sudden you're a neighbor and you look next door and all of a sudden there's a medical marijuana club and you had no input, and no ability to have any feedback."

Newsom adds: "I believe very strongly in medical marijuana. So does the rest of the state of California. And I would argue the majority of Americans. But it's got to be done right."

When the clubs first opened, neighbors were complaining that they attracted too much traffic, crime and customers who didn't seem to have any actual ailments. Some of those customers smoked marijuana right outside the store, or resold it.

So, now the Bay Area cannabis clubs have restricted locations. They are no longer allowed to be within 1,000 feet of a school or community center. They are barred from certain residential neighborhoods. And every club has to go through a registration process, with a $10,000 application fee.

"We felt we needed to put in some common sense restrictions. Because if it is being abused -- if we're flaunting ourselves in an arrogant way -- if we're jumping up and down and saying, 'We don't care about the federal government's feelings,' clearly we're inviting ourselves to put the whole program at risk," the mayor says.

The Green Cross is the first cannabis club to go through the city's new regulation process. And because of the restrictions, it had to move from its semi-residential location, and find a new place to do business. Joe Elford, the attorney for Green Cross's owner says the Fisherman's Wharf location was one of the few options his client had.

"You end up with only very small slivers of the city even being available for cannabis dispensaries to operate," Elford says. "And that's why Mr. Reed (the owner) in large part, chose this location.".

But many of Fisherman's Wharf's residents are not happy about that decision. Ryan Chamberlain is a neighborhood activist and he has made it his mission to keep the Green Cross cannabis club out of Fisherman's Wharf.

"It's not so much the marijuana. If a patient was discreetly walking in and out of a location, if that were like a dental office, not a big deal. What we're worried about is the things that seem to surround those clubs," Chamberlain says. "What we're worried about is an increase in people camping out in those parks smoking marijuana."

And the new regulations that Mayor Newsom instituted offer neighborhood planning boards the power of the veto.

Ten years ago, 56 percent of Californian voters supported Proposition 215, legalizing medical use of marijuana. But just try to find a Californian today who wants a marijuana store in his neighborhood.

The result is that even though Green Cross met the city's rules and regulations, its fate was still left up to the neighborhood planning commission, which earlier this month held a hearing on the issue.

A parade of professionals, business owners, a park ranger and a policeman all came before the commission to say essentially the same thing: medical marijuana, yes, but not in my backyard.

"We feel that it is an inappropriate location for this site to be a cannabis house," one neighbor told the commission.

Yet some neighbors in support of the cannabis clubs countered those arguments.

Neighbor Maria Molloy said, "I thought we already voted on this? ... I'm not sure how these conservative neighbors got the impression that they could override the city's vote. But I urge you to please hear the voice of our progressive city."

One of Green Cross' medical marijuana customers, Michael Aldrich raised another issue for the commission: "Please remember that in every one of these neighborhoods there are patients like myself who need to have a dispensary reasonably nearby."

But when the planning commission voted, the result was 4 to 2, against Green Cross.

"That's classic,'" complains Mayor Newsom. "I mean, everybody wants to treat drug addicts, heroin addicts, they want to provide them methadone, but just don't open the methadone clinic near me. Everyone says, 'I want more supportive housing and affordable housing for the poor and working families, but just don't open it near me. Homeless shelters, but not near me. ... It's no different with medical marijuana clubs."

The board vote was a crushing blow to Green Cross owner, Kevin Reed, who is also a medical marijuana user.

"I'm in daily pain," he says. "My back is always in a very constant pain."

Reed says he prefers medical marijuana as a treatment for his chronic pain because he worries about the side effects of more traditional pain killers. "I've seen the effects of people getting prescribed drugs, pills. I've seen so many people throughout my life get addicted to these pills. I just don't want to be that person."

Reed's attorney plans to appeal the commission's decision. "Hopefully they will do the right thing and give Mr. Reed the opportunity to open his club," Elford says.

If he fails, Elford worries that the law that allows cannabis clubs in San Francisco will be meaningless. "If you can't even open it up in one of these small slivers, then where can you open it up? ... That's the problem. It appears you can no longer open it up anywhere in the city of San Francisco."

The mayor is not backing down in his support of legal medicinal marijuana.

While he worries that these "not in my backyard" activists could eliminate all medical marijuana clubs, he says, "We're going to fight against that temptation. I believe so fundamentally, so strongly in medical marijuana. We believe that it also needs to be done appropriately. So it's a balance. And it's a work in progress, like anything else."

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