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Pot Clubs Worry City May Impose New Regulations

Matthew Artz
Tuesday February 03, 2004

Nearly eight years after 86 percent of Berkeley voters approved a state ballot initiative opening the door for medical marijuana, local cannabis clubs fear the city might abandon its arm’s length embrace of them for a full-on bear hug. 

“That’s the direction they’re heading in, which is fine,” said James Blair founder of the Berkeley Cannabis Buyer’s Network (CBCB). “We just don’t want them to regulate us into illegality. 

On Wednesday, Oakland City Council might do just that to some of the city’s dozen or so clubs as it debates an ordinance calling for the city to license no more than four. 

Blair’s group was Berkeley’s first—and for now, at least—its most controversial cannabis club. CBCB’s plans to move its operations from its seven-year home on Shattuck Avenue to a blighted section of Sacramento Street drew such staunch opposition from neighbors fearing further drug violence that last month the city revoked the leaseholder’s use permit to house nonprofit administrative offices as added insurance to keep the cannabis club out. 

The dispute, Blair said, is indicative of a Berkeley’s response to Proposition 215, passed by voters in 1996. “Berkeley has been a very reluctant partner,” he said. “They didn’t encourage it, they don’t want it, they wish it would go somewhere else.” 

Don Duncan, who runs one of Berkeley’s three pot clubs that dispense marijuana as pain medicine for licensed patients, had kinder words for the city, but also voiced fears of what officials might ultimately have in store for the clubs. 

“Government regulation is inevitable,” he said. “Our hope is that the clubs will be involved with the process.” 

So far Berkeley has hesitated at offering guidelines for implementing the medical marijuana law, which club officials say has led to unnecessary confusion. 

As Berkeley’s pioneer club, the CBCB went through a labyrinth of commissions before winning city council approval as the city’s lone provider. But when a moratorium on new clubs ended two years later, others followed suit by getting over-the-counter permits for miscellaneous retail. 

“I told the guy at the permit center it was for a cannabis club. He said ‘That sounds pretty miscellaneous to me,’” Duncan said. 

The city has since required all prospective club operators to announce their intentions and file for a special permit, but most other efforts to regulate the industry have fallen by the wayside. 

The city council rejected a sweeping 1999 ordinance championed by the clubs and Councilmember Kriss Worthington that would have granted rights to cannabis providers and users and zoned clubs as appropriate for retail districts. 

After years of debate, a whittled-down version of the ordinance was passed in 2001 regulating how many plants patients and clubs could grow and stockpile—but not where clubs could locate. 

“That law has been a pain in the butt,” said Dale Gieringer, California Coordinator for the National Association for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). 

The ordinance allowed patients to grow 10 plants, which is enough for residents of Humboldt County—where plants grow as tall as Christmas trees, Duncan said—but not in Berkeley, where most plants are grown in flower pots. 

Berkeley Health Director Fred Madrano said Berkeley has, until now, avoided taking a strong regulatory stance because of the legal ambiguities posed by the clubs, which by their very existence are in violation of federal law. “How do you regulate something that is illegal,” he mused. 

But the trend, club operators say, is towards increasing government intervention. 

In addition to the proposed Oakland ordinance, Hayward has implemented strict zoning limitations for its four clubs, and last year the state passed Senate Bill 420 giving counties purview to assign patient cards and organize cultivation facilities. 

In Berkeley, a slew of armed robberies two years ago at a University Avenue club drew city attention, until ultimately the city and other clubs decided to shut it down. 

Then after the robbery last December of a club on Telegraph Avenue, police determined that a patient at the club was reselling cannabis on the street and officials gave the operator a stern warning. 

“We said, ‘Look, this is not the kind of operation we want you to run here and you need to fix this stuff,’” Madrano said. 

To set new ground rules, the clubs last year proposed an ordinance declaring them appropriate for retail corridors, but the bill died when supporters realized they lacked a majority on the city council. 

Now, with CBCB’s future home dangling in the wind due to neighborhood opposition, club operators fear they could be pushed into industrial areas of the city. 

“Obviously we’re worried,” Duncan said. “We thought their move would be a routine matter. We just don’t want to see a laundry list of restrictions to push us out into the fringes where patients can’t get care.”