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City scrutinizing twice-robbed marijuana club

By Hank Sims Daily Planet staff
Thursday December 27, 2001

City officials are keeping a close eye on a local medical marijuana club that has been robbed at gunpoint twice during the last two months. 

The most recent incident occurred Dec. 13, at about 6 p.m., when armed robbers allegedly entered Berkeley Medical Herbs located at 1672 University Ave. and stole an undisclosed amount of marijuana and cash.  

A friend of club owner Ken Estes told police that the robbers carried automatic, Uzi-like weapons. 

Just two months earlier, the club was robbed at about the same time of day. In that incident, the robbers made off with a significant amount of cash and marijuana and escaped in a car owned by one of the club’s employees. 

The Berkeley Police Department said it would not release additional information on the latest robbery while the investigation is pending. 

Meanwhile, Councilmember Linda Maio, representatives of the Berkeley Police Department and staff from the city manager’s office have met with Estes, and have been attempting to formulate a response if problems at the beleaguered club continue. 

Arrietta Chakos, the city manager’s chief of staff, said in response to a City Council request, her office is watching the club and preparing a report on security at all the medical marijuana clubs in Berkeley. 

“We want to make sure that we keep an eye on this,” she said. “Our main concern is to maintain public safety.” 

Maio said her office has been spearheading attempts to place safety concerns about the club closer to the top of the city’s agenda. “This being the second time this has happened, we have to get a lot serious a lot faster,” she said. 

Maio said she had held a neighborhood meeting on crime in her district shortly after the first robbery occurred. The meeting had been scheduled many months in advance of the robbery and was meant to address home burglaries and street stick-ups, but she found that many of the people who attended were very concerned about the robbery at the club. 

“This is clearly not what we desire at all,” she said. “It’s unhealthy for everyone. It’s not good for the neighborhood, and it’s not good for the people that go there.” 

While the club is not technically in Maio’s district – it’s in Councilmember Dona Spring’s jurisdiction – it does lie directly across University Avenue from it. 

Maio said that she had gone by the club after the community meeting to see what was happening there. At one point she said she saw several “young-looking” people hanging around outside and on another occasion she saw a couple of large men with baggy jackets standing in front of the club facing University Avenue. She surmised that these men were part of the security operations put in place after the first robbery. 

Dorrit Geshuri, executive director of the Alliance of Berkeley Patients, defended Berkeley Medical Herbs and Estes last week, and said that the city bears some responsibility for the latest robbery there.  

According to Geshuri, the BPD had told the club to remove the “security” in front of the club on the day before most recent robbery. 

“If they had asked the club to remove security, they should have increased the police presence in that neighborhood,” she said. 

BPD Chief Dash Butler said last week that the department had suggested that the club hire a professional security service, rather than the apparently ad-hoc duo the club had employed. 

Geshuri said, though, that in the wake of the most recent robbery, Estes has planned to take additional steps to deter criminals. He will install a metal gate on the front door, so that people who wish to enter will have to be buzzed in, she said. 

He also told Geshun that he will install closed-circuit security cameras throughout the building and around its perimeter, and will change the business hours of operation so that it is only open when it is light outside. 

“We felt like this club has had a lot of problems, but we feel like it is addressable,” she said. “What we’re focusing on is making sure this doesn’t happen again.” 

Maio said that if problems at the club continue, the city could consider taking the matter before the Zoning Adjustments Board, which could declare it a public nuisance. 

“There’s a certain amount of reluctance to go in that direction, because the BPD is looking at more of a law enforcement issue,” she said. 

But the problem facing the city, said Maio, is how to take action against a problematic club without unfairly penalizing other clubs. 

“My aim is to enable people who need medical marijuana to get it, but not to take advantage of our compassion,” she said. “This is the only club we’re having problems with right now.”