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Two and half months later, in September 2006, San Francisco’s Board of Appeals gave the Green Cross one more chance to make its case, but came to the same decision as the Planning Commission. A few days later, the DEA raided eight Bay Area sites associated with the New Remedies chain, arresting 15 people. There are approximately two dozen dispensaries operating in the city, down from an estimated high of 43 in April 2005. Of those currently in business, only one, HopeNet, has received a permit from the Planning Commission that will allow it to continue to operate beyond July 2007. The rest must obtain a permit by then or face closure.
The Real Threat
During my visit to the Church Street Compassion Center, I spoke with Mykey Barbitta, a longtime volunteer there. Barbitta has blonde hair, colorfully tattooed forearms, and a wraith-like gauntness. He looks as if he’s witnessed more than a little pain and suffering over the years, but his demeanor is serene. A one-time bike messenger, he used to deliver cannabis to bed-ridden patients at an AIDS hospice. “They were dying,” he recalled. “They were so weak they couldn’t eat, couldn’t even sit up in bed. But they’d reach out and grab the pot. It was the only thing that kept them going.”
Barbitta also described the center’s status in the neighborhood. “We’ve been here forever,” he explained, “so our neighbors are used to us.” The center is part of a local merchants association. It runs ads in the neighborhood PennySaver. “The burrito place [next door], they love us,” Barbitta continued. “We send them a lot of business.”
Then he showed me a framed letter from Rep. Nancy Pelosi, her response to his invitation to visit the center. The visit never materialized—Pelosi wrote that her busy schedule would not permit it—but Barbitta is proud of the letter just the same. “Here’s the line that I really like,” he said, pointing to a sentence where Pelosi thanks him for the work he’s doing at the center. If the DEA ever raids the place, Barbitta joked, he’s got a letter from a member of Congress on his side. “If that’s not a defense in court, I don’t know what is.”
In the end, though, the feds might not be the real threat. Because of its long-standing place in the neighborhood, the Church Street Compassion Center stands a decent chance of making it through the Planning Commission review process. But for many if not most of the dispensaries, the local zoning board has become more dangerous than the DEA.
Greg Beato is a writer based in San Francisco.