City Hall’s Reefer Madness

S.F. races against time to establish an Office of Cannabis, before statewide legalization happens Jan. 1.

When medical marijuana dispensary SPARC decided to open a second location at 473 Haight St. in 2015, it jumped feet first into a steaming pile of controversy. Over the next year, in heated meetings and in email exchanges, residents, local business owners, the neighborhood association, Sup. London Breed’s office, and the Planning Department battled over permits, renovations, the distance from schools, security, and city law. Money changed hands, friendships were threatened, and this year, an appeal was filed for a building permit to install a sign. It was, and continues to be, draining for everyone involved.

That wasn’t an isolated incident. Last week, more than 700 people — many from out of town — showed up at a City Hall Planning Commission hearing to speak for or against The Apothecarium opening a second dispensary on the corner of Noriega Street and 32nd Avenue. Discussion of the agenda item began at 6 p.m. and lasted until midnight. In the end, the Planning Commission voted 5-1 in favor of the expansion.

Even though it’s legal, opening a medical marijuana dispensary in San Francisco is hard and time-consuming. Thirty-nine currently exist within county limits, with 11 more in process. And as the legalization of cannabis sneaks up on us —  the state is required to open applications for businesses who want to sell recreational marijuana by Jan. 1, 2018 — the city is hustling to develop regulations.

Enter the Office of Cannabis, the latest plan to streamline the process and lighten the burden on other city departments. Sup. Jeff Sheehy leads the proposal to establish the office, with Sup. Malia Cohen also sponsoring the plan.

“This ordinance puts San Francisco on the road to meeting the will of the voters as expressed by Prop. 64. In San Francisco, more than 74 percent of voters supported adult cannabis,” Sheehy says. “But the devil’s in the details. Consistent and well-considered regulation is needed.”

The Office of Cannabis will receive an already-approved $700,000 yearly budget, which pays for the director, two employees, a website, and outreach. It will work with the Fire Department, the Department of Building Inspection, the Department of Public Health, and the Planning Commission to review the permits for new dispensaries. It will also provide recommendations on how to regulate the industry. And the office will have a hefty amount of power: Under the director’s jurisdiction, it could revoke or suspend permits for dispensaries that violate rules, and will have the final sign-off after the above city departments have reviewed applications. Sheehy hopes this office will make the city’s process of managing dispensaries “more streamlined, less expensive, but still providing basic services of a one-stop shop.”

On paper, it sounds good. But few things pass through City Hall smoothly, and the supervisors fought passionately during their July 18 meeting about what the office’s purpose should be, who would be hired, how many staff members are necessary, and if it can be revenue-neutral. Sup. Sandra Fewer, concerned about racial and economic equity, proposed that a decision on whether or not to establish the office be tabled until September.

Sheehy struck back against a continuance, highlighting that the city only has five months to create its own policies before legalization hits.

“We’re having the entire state of California legalize adult use,” he said. “Everywhere around us will be wide open. The state will have rules, and they will become the de facto rules in San Francisco. If we don’t have rules in place by Jan. 1, we won’t be able to have control over what happens. … For Christ’s sake, some of this stuff looks like candy. Do we want it sold at the local convenience store? … Let’s be real. It’s coming.”

In a mid-board discussion vote, Fewer’s proposal for a continuance was shot down, 3-8. And in the end, the supervisors voted to establish the office. But the lack of consensus on what the office would do, how it would be funded, how many staffers would be hired, and what policies are necessary to get San Francisco ready by Jan. 1, is disconcerting. The supervisors have a lot of work to do in the next five months — or more accurately, four months, as the board takes a recess for all of August.

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