Pot Clubs in Peril

Are San Francisco zoning boards a bigger threat to medical marijuana than the DEA?

On a sunny Saturday morning last summer, the air inside the Church Street Compassion Center was thick with the scent of sweet, skunky medicine. The place felt like a neighborhood rec center. A couple of regulars were sitting on the soft, worn couches in the corner, watching a World Cup soccer match on a big-screen TV while taking an occasional puff on a joint. A friendly dog named “Danger” roamed the premises. Hardwood floors and wainscoting gave the place a touch of shabby elegance; its high ceiling, painted a vivid shade of yellow, provided a blast of hippy-dippy optimism.


Every 10 minutes or so, a customer would enter and drift toward the glass display case where the center keeps its wares. Inside the case were a half-dozen apothecary jars filled with different strains of marijuana, along with some ganja-fortified baked goods. A whiteboard on the wall listed prices. As the customers made their purchases, they exchanged pleasantries with the volunteer cashier—small talk about the weather and their plans for the Fourth of July.


The Center is one of the approximately two dozen outlets in San Francisco that cater to medical marijuana patients. The building that houses it is on the corner of a busy street on the outskirts of the Castro District. For more than a decade—longer than medicinal cannabis has actually been legal—the location has been a home to one dispensary or another; longtime pot activist Dennis Peron set up the state’s first one here in 1993.


Ten years after California voters approved Proposition 215 by a 56 to 44 margin, it is almost as safe and easy to obtain an ounce of Purple Haze in the city as it is to fill a prescription for Lipitor. All you need is a doctor’s referral, a state ID card issued through the local health department, and $400. Patients are not required by law to obtain the ID cards, but the state issues them on a voluntary basis through county health departments. The system helps dispensaries and law enforcement officials identify registered medical marijuana patients and caregivers. Twenty-one out of the state’s 58 counties currently issue ID cards.


In the June 2005 decision Gonzales v. Raich, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states’ rights pose no obstacle to the federal government’s power to prosecute anyone who cultivates, distributes, or possesses marijuana, medical or otherwise. Patients and caregivers feared that the brief era of widespread, worry-free access to medical marijuana was about to end. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) kicked into higher gear, conducting more than three dozen raids in California over the next year. Its efforts, however, did little to slow the growth in new dispensaries. As recently as 2002, there were fewer than 20 such businesses in California, most of them concentrated in the San Francisco Bay Area. By the summer of 2006, more than 200 of them were operating throughout the state.


Was the threat posed by Gonzales v. Raich less dire than originally imagined? Amidst the business-as-usual atmosphere at the Church Street Compassion Center, it was easy to answer “yes.” But as an old saying often misattributed to the noted hemp farmer Thomas Jefferson goes, eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. And outside the comfortable oases of the state’s dispensaries, prohibitionists were going about business as usual too. Four hundred miles south of San Francisco, the city of El Monte had just extended its ban on such facilities for another year. Twenty other California cities enforce similar bans; approximately 50 others allow dispensaries but have stopped permitting new ones to open.


In San Diego, DEA agents were choreographing a raid of 13 dispensaries that would take place a few days later, producing closures, asset seizures, and 15 arrests. And even in San Francisco, merchants and residents in the Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood were honing the arguments they would use in their effort to block a dispensary from opening in their neighborhood.


Public opinion surveys, not to mention ballot box measures, show strong public support for medical marijuana in California and nationwide. Ten states have followed California’s lead during the last decade; it was not until 2006, when a South Dakota initiative to legalize medical marijuana lost by a 52 to 48 margin, that voters rejected medical marijuana in a statewide ballot.

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