Want to escape the booming neighborhoods of San Francisco? Head west, where the rows of single-family Mediterranean-style or boxy Doelger homes that make up the Sunset District are virtually unchanged since their construction in the mid-20th century, giving the avenues a timeless feel. There are no towering construction cranes putting up condos, and 21st-century conveniences fail you: My Sidecar ride request to be taken to the Sunset was rejected three times before I settled in for a $40 cab ride.
There is also little sign of California's multibillion dollar cannabis industry. The city's west side is entirely bereft of legal marijuana. Despite a quirk in the planning code that makes the Taraval Street commercial corridor one of a select few places in San Francisco where marijuana can be sold legally, there are no cannabis dispensaries here. The nearest marijuana stores are on Geary Boulevard in the Inner Richmond and on Ocean Avenue near City College.
Peter Wong would like to keep it that way. A friendly, heavyset man, Wong is in many ways a prototypical Sunset resident. He grew up in Hong Kong but has lived here for decades in a predominantly Cantonese-speaking community. He owns a home not far from Ming's Diner, the Hong Kong-style restaurant on Taraval Street where I meet him, his wife, and a close family friend for lunch.
They are kind people. Wong's wife repeatedly reaches across the table to fill my tea cup the second it is drained. They are also adamantly opposed to the would-be newcomers to their neighborhood: as many as three pot clubs.
In 2010, Wong was one of the locals who fought to keep a proposed medical marijuana dispensary out of the Sunset. Despite strength in numbers — Wong says several thousand other residents signed on to a petition opposing the dispensary — and support from the district's supervisor at the time, Carmen Chu, the fight was neither easy nor pretty.
Community meetings in which the cannabis sellers tried to explain themselves would regularly dissolve into shouting matches; after epic City Hall hearings — one that kept Wong, his neighbors, and the city's Planning Commission at Civic Center until 3 a.m. — the dispensary that had been proposed for a nearby chiropractor's office was denied a permit … thanks to a typo in the city planning code.
Now, with legalization looming on the horizon and the cannabis industry itching to expand, the fight is back — only bigger.
Once considered at critical mass with 27 licensed cannabis dispensaries, San Francisco is now apparently unable to meet the demand for legal weed stores.
Successful cannabis merchants are itching to open up second locations in the city's outlying neighborhoods, areas positioned near freeways with easy access to San Mateo County, the large, affluent suburban area that has no dispensaries. That includes the Sunset, which means Wong and the community are gearing up for another anti-cannabis development fight.
There is irony in this: Medical cannabis is Chinese in nature. What legendary botanist Linnaeus dubbed Cannabis sativa in the 1700s already had a name: dà má, one of the 50 fundamental herbs of traditional Chinese medicine.
However, it appears that a 2,000-year record of acceptable if unconventional (by the standards of Western medicine) herbal medicine is nothing in light of more recent history. To understand the Wongs and other Sunset District residents of Chinese descent who say they have a deep aversion to cannabis, you must go back less than 200 years.
In the early 1800s, the international drug trade looked like this: Hopelessly addicted to Chinese tea, Britain was running out of cash with which to buy it, until traders hit upon the idea of swapping narcotic opium harvested from nearby imperial India for the precious tea. Alarmed by the toll opium abuse was wreaking on his country, the Qing emperor ordered the opium trade abolished. The British objected, with cannon balls; the resulting conflict ended with the British taking ownership of a rocky island near Canton with a deep harbor — now known as Hong Kong.
Put another way, Hong Kong owes its existence to the drug trade.
Along with the usual reasons for opposition to cannabis dispensaries, including the perception that they bring crime, Wong and other Chinese residents of the Sunset have another concern: the “pot dispensary” evokes a long, unhappy history of outsiders imposing a set of unfavorable conditions in which illegal drugs are at the center.
“My culture,” Wong said, “is against it.”
After lunch, Wong and I step outside. Across the street is an auto body shop. This is where a father-and-son team, contractors with Irish surnames (another Sunset trope), want to open a large cannabis dispensary with a grow room. Up the block, the dispensary team that was defeated in 2010 has refiled its application. A few blocks away on Noriega Street, a Castro District pot club, The Apothecarium, has applied to open a second location.
A few years ago, when covering Wong's first fight to keep dispensaries out of his neighborhood, I dismissed the area's anti-dispensary struggle as factually unfounded drug-war paranoia that relied heavily on cross-cultural misinformation.
My view neglected a few facts. The city's Chinese are hardly alone in disliking pot. Longtime dispensary The Green Cross was run out of its original location near Mission Dolores by the mostly white Fair Oaks neighbors. And in San Francisco, local attitudes hold sway.
“The bottom line is, this fight is no different than a fight against a McDonald's or a Starbucks,” Wong told me. “District 4 [the Sunset] has the right to say, 'We don't want this.'”
When it was time for me to head back downtown, I hopped an L-Taraval Muni train. A few blocks from the cannabis conflict zone, my train rumbled past a bar called the Dragon Lounge. A sign outside boasts of the beauty of its bartenders and the high quality of its cocktails.
Cannabis still wants in. But for now, the Sunset has picked its poison.