City Council Urges Compromise Between Cannabis Clinic, West Berkeley Neighbors

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday February 11, 2010 - 09:43:00 AM

The Berkeley City Council did not take any action in a closed-session discussion Monday regarding a cannabis clinic’s proposal to move into the former Scharffen Berger chocolate factory.  

Wareham Development, a West Berkeley developer, has threatened litigation if Berkeley Patients Group, a medical marijuana dispensary, moves from its 2747 San Pablo Ave. location into the Scharffen Berger building on Heinz Street. The City Council did not take sides at the session, but simply urged both parties to arrive at a compromise.  

Wareham, which has offices spread across West Berkeley, said the marijuana clinic would drive business away.   

Ecole Bilingue, a private French-American school located close to the old factory, also objected to the proposal, claiming that it would violate state and federal laws. The school’s board members said that the fact that Measure JJ, a city ordinance passed by Berkeley voters in 2008, prohibits medical marijuana dispensaries within 1,000 feet of a public school but does not apply to private schools or preschools was an oversight.  

But City Attorney Zach Cowan disagreed. Cowan said that the measure was intended to make it easier for medical marijuana dispensaries to open in the city’s commercial zones and to avoid the often lengthy public hearing process.  

Cowan said after the closed-session hearing that, contrary to reports in other media, the council did not vote to approve anything.  

“It’s not up to the City Council to approve or not approve anything,” he said. “The ordinance calls for a zoning certificate. The council cannot change that. They could have directed staff in a number of ways to address the problem, but they didn’t.”  

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates appeared before the public following the one-hour meeting and asked attorneys for both parties to talk to one another.  

Both sides spoke during the public comment period preceding the closed session, with Wareham partner Chris Barglow calling the clinic’s proposed 20,000-square-foot facility the “Walmart of Pot.”  

Becky Dekeuster, a community liaison for Berkeley Patients Group, said that although they would be taking over the entire building, the dispensary would only occupy a very small part of it. Most of the space, she said, would be used for laboratory testing, in keeping with biotech and other industrial uses in West Berkeley.  

“We were really encouraged when the mayor came out and asked both parties to talk to each other,” Dekeuster said. “It was never our goal to get a zoning certificate today. We want to educate folks about who we are. We are a community organization; we aren’t just limited to our patients.”  

Berkeley Councilmember Jesse Arreguin said that under the city’s municipal code, there’s nothing legally preventing Berkeley Patients Group from getting the zoning certificate.  

“The only way to change that is if we amend Measure JJ,” he said.  

Berkeley Patients Group is scheduled to meet with Ecole Bilingue tonight.   

Ecole Bilingue spokesperson Jennifer Monahan said she was hopeful that both sides would be able to address each other’s concerns.  

“It’s our hope that a solution can be worked out involving a location that is not in the immediate vicinity of a school,” Monahan said. ”It is unfortunate that Measure JJ literally has a double standard with respect to schools—which wasn’t made clear to Berkeley voters when they approved the measure. We view the situation as fluid and have not determined the exact legal or political steps we will take if a mutually satisfactory solution cannot be reached.”  

Dekeuster said that Berkeley Patients Group was committed to listen to everyone.  

“We really like the location and would like to stay in Berkeley,” she said. “It would be a shame for anyone to go down the path of lawsuits.”