Chem Tales: SF Nixes Pop-Up Cannabis Marketplaces

Last month, a collection of food trucks and vendors with portable tables under pop-up tents gathered on a strip of pavement in South of Market for a pancake breakfast. The Saturday morning meal was noteworthy enough to draw the attention of The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle, because it involved cannabis.

The “loaded” pancakes were the opening ceremony for the “Get Baked Sale,” a cannabis-laced food emporium that took over the space for the day. Attendees with a medical marijuana recommendation — available from doctors on-site, as always — could sample THC-laden treats until they became comatose, and buy an armload of their preferred super-strength brownies to bring home from the vendors. If you wanted a bag of regular old cannabis flower without the hassle of going to a dispensary, you could buy that, too.

The baked sale was a smashing success. According to organizer Jared Stratton, Get Baked drew 1,000 guests who paid up to $30 a head ($45 if you wanted the loaded breakfast). A series of follow-up events, with the first scheduled for Aug. 1, was quickly planned.

It also drew attention from the city's Health Department, the only entity of any kind regulating commercial marijuana activity in San Francisco. Under the current interpretation of city law, cannabis cannot be legally sold in a farmers market environment. The story of how it came to be sold in that way, for a day at least, is a microcosm of the confused conditions in which California's multibillion-dollar cannabis industry operates. It's also an example of how the wild “Green Rush” is attracting a stampede of unscrupulous hucksters willing to bend or create rules on the fly in order to secure their piece of the market.

Republicans love to talk about how overregulation is strangling California's $2.3 trillion economy. If that were true, Donald Trump should adore the local marijuana free-for-all. No special state license is required to sell cannabis. Nor does any state agency outside of law enforcement regulate cannabis production or sales.

In San Francisco, the Department of Public Health is solely responsible for permitting and licensing the city's roughly 30 medical cannabis dispensaries, known as MCDs. Anyone distributing cannabis to nine or more people in the city needs an MCD permit, and the distribution can be in one of two places: a licensed dispensary, or the end of a delivery conducted by that licensed dispensary. This means, technically, that the dozens of marijuana delivery outfits offering their services online are breaking the law.

This suggests that the city's rules are unenforceable. They may be. They are, for sure, rarely enforced.

Larry Kessler is the city health inspector who took over control of the city's MCD program on July 1. Kessler is “new” only to Green Rush greenhorns; he ran the MCD program for a long while before stepping aside a few years ago. After hearing about the first baked sale, Kessler laid it out clear: temporary, pop-up marijuana sales are not allowed. Stratton then informed him of the plan to have the event anyway, and to get around the nine-person rule by organizing as many nine-person cannabis collectives as necessary to service the demand from a thousand people. Kessler responded by informing the city's dispensaries via e-mail that any vendor who participated in such gamesmanship would no longer be able to sell their products in San Francisco — at all.

That sent some of the bigger, more reputable vendors packing. It also sent Stratton on a righteous tirade. “He's talking out of his fucking ass,” Stratton says of Kessler. “I want what was promised to me and what the law states.”

But the Get Baked Sale did more than play in the margins of vague rules. In order for any of the sales to have been legal in DPH's eyes, Stratton needed a licensed MCD on hand to “sponsor” the event. Under that sponsor's name — and, more importantly, under the sponsor's MCD permit — the cannabis products on hand at the Baked Sale could be sold. Stratton told Health Department officials that he had a licensed MCD to “sponsor” the event. That appears to have been a misrepresentation. The dispensary cited by Stratton as the sponsor claims it was not sponsoring anything, and was there only to sell non-psychoactive merchandise at a vendor booth Stratton offered them free of charge. That point may now be headed to litigation. In the meantime, that bit of hustle has been exploded: One of the two MCDs that Stratton identified as “sponsors” for the August event was similarly planning only on selling merchandise at a vendor table, its president told SF Weekly. That MCD has since dropped out entirely.

If you wonder why events like the High Times Cannabis Cup and HempCon only ever skirt the edges of San Francisco — their local home is at the Cow Palace, across the border in Daly City — the reason why lies in this squabble. At Cannabis Cups, attendees can walk around and buy marijuana products from anyone wishing to sell it (and there are plenty of people looking to sell). San Francisco will not abide that.

The Get Baked Sale may move to a more hospitable clime — to wit: Oakland, though a permit had not been secured by press time — but in the meantime, the dustup has also spelled the end of other cannabis pop-ups. At least two regular events, a chef-catered cannabis-infused dinner (which also received NYT coverage), and a monthly, women-run “speakeasy” called High Society that drew ou the dab crowd, have both gone to ground. “He's ruined it for a lot of the rest of us,” one organizer said of Stratton.

It's not over, either. In the hurry to secure a segment of the pre-legalization cannabis market, Get Baked Sale kicked over a hornet's nest — of regulation. The deliveries may be next.

“You can't, just because you have a permit, hand out medical marijuana wherever you want in San Francisco,” Kessler told SF Weekly. “The number of unpermitted deliveries going on in San Francisco right now is shocking.”

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