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City Kills Nonprofit Center Move, Cites Cannabis Clinic Concerns

By Matthew Artz
Tuesday January 13, 2004

Just two days after approving a use permit, city planners booted a nonprofit from its office space in one of Berkeley’s most drug-blighted neighborhoods, revoking their permit amid allegations the group’s chief planned to bring a cannabis club to the site. 

City Planner Mark Rhodes said he decided to revoke the Transfer of Use Permit for 2880 Sacramento St. after city officials caught wind that besides providing office space for various nonprofits, the applicant also intended to relocate the Cannabis Buyer’s Network from its home on Shattuck Avenue. 

“Even if it’s just a twinkle in their eye, they need to disclose that when they apply for a permit,” Rhodes said.  

The Berkeley Community Resource Network took over the permit to house office and administrative space previously held by a Building Opportunity for Self Sufficiency (BOSS) psychology clinic. But even before the paperwork was completed Wednesday, word spread through South Berkeley that BCRN head James Church envisioned the building as the future home for the marijuana distribution cooperative he helps run. 

At a Friday meeting of top city brass, Rhodes said he had collected enough evidence from city officials who interact with cannabis clubs and from “conversations with community folks” to revoke the permit. 

His decision infuriated Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who called it another example where “The Planning Department does something illegal.” 

“The city revoked their permit based solely on rumors,” Worthington said. “You can’t punish someone because you think they might do something.” 

In an interview last week, Church insisted that the cannabis club had outgrown its home at Long Haul, a collective of nonprofits across from La Pena, but had not settled on a future home, and added that if they opted for the Sacramento Street site they would first seek city permission and neighborhood approval. 

Rhodes insisted the mere intention to relocate the pot club to Sacramento Street was grounds to revoke the permit. A city ordinance approved by Council in 2001, he said, requires a permit applicant to disclose if he intends to dispense marijuana at the site. He said he expects to meet with Church later this week, and said if Church assures him he has no plans to include the cannabis club, he would reinstate the permit. 

“‘We’re not sure’ isn’t going to be a good enough answer,” Rhodes said. “Either it is or it isn’t.” 

The building in question sits at Sacramento and Russell Streets, one block from the scene of a daylight shoot-out last summer and in the heart of a neighborhood with a tawdry reputation for drugs. 

“It’s one of the areas where we get many complaints of drug dealing,” said Berkeley Police spokesperson Kevin Schofield. The BPD offered no public comment about the controversy, but city sources said top police officials opposed the move, fearing it would lead to more drug crimes in the neighborhood. 

Last year, Berkeley cannabis advocates closed down a pot distribution cooperative on University Avenue and California Street after a string of armed robberies, said Hillary McQuie of the Berkeley-based Cannabis Action Network. And on Christmas Eve, Schofield said, an armed robber stole marijuana and cash from a pot club on Telegraph. 

Most Sacramento Street neighbors interviewed feared that bringing a pot club into the mix would make a bad situation intolerable. 

“That would be the end of South Berkeley,” said Sam Herbert. “To put that in a neighborhood so blighted with drugs is like dropping a lighted match on a pile of gasoline soaked rags.” 

But neighbors of the Cannabis Buyer’s Network—one of three pot clubs in Berkeley licensed to sell marijuana to patients with a doctor’s perscription—said they haven’t had any problems with the club. 

Church said his group provides security escorts for patients, so they aren’t targets when they leave the office, and that he can’t recall a robbery in their seven years of existence. 

Fallout from the city’s action was felt hardest by a prostitute advocacy organization. Robin Few, director of the Sex Workers Outreach Project USA, said she had just finished moving supplies into the group’s first office at the site when Church alerted her Saturday night that the city had revoked the permit. 

“This is pretty devastating for us,” Few said. “We’re so appalled that Berkeley has taken the right-wing stance to attack a healing center.” 

Few said Church had told her he planned to move the cannabis club to the site, but, “that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon.” A needle exchange was also in the works, she said. 

The controversy over the cannabis club highlights Berkeley’s haphazard effort to implement Proposition 215, a state ballot measure that in 1996 legalized medical marijuana.  

Rhodes said the first clubs that sprang up after the law passed—including the club on Shattuck—won their permits by claiming to sell T-shirts, mugs or other items. By the time the city realized their true intentions, he said, they were already established, so the city passed the 2001 ordinance to regulate future moves. 

Worthington criticized city policy for not giving clear guidelines where pot clubs are permitted. In 1999 he proposed legislation providing zoning directives for clubs, but said then-City Manager James Keane rebuffed the plan. 

“The club wants to go through the proper channels, but the city isn’t clear what the proper channels are,” Worthington said. 

If the club is ultimately permitted into the Sacramento Street office, it will need to win a new permit and likely face a public hearing. Though most neighbors were leery, a few thought the club could make a contribution. 

“It’s ridiculous to hear some of the community outrage,” said Rev. Mark Wilson of McGee Avenue Baptist Church. “We’re talking about an organization that’s trying to help people, not about a group dealing drugs. Folks in wealthy communities can get it whenever they want, but they’re not going to give you that information at Alta Bates, so you have to bring it to the people.”