Why S.F. Doesn't Want Tourists to See Cannabis - November 18, 2015 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

Why S.F. Doesn't Want Tourists to See Cannabis

For a certain generation, Joe DiMaggio was San Francisco's greatest citizen. The son of a Sicilian fisherman, whose people gifted the city cioppino and christened Fisherman's Wharf, DiMaggio never forgot his roots. Even after the Hall of Fame baseball career with the New York Yankees and the marriage to Marilyn Monroe — whose legend eclipsed his own during his lifetime — he spent much of his retirement at the family's waterfront restaurant on Jefferson Street. Located next to the docks where, when Joe was a boy, the clan would gather on Sundays to help repair his father's fishing nets, the restaurant's two story building — now named after his younger brother, Dominic — is still in the DiMaggio family.

Recently, the DiMaggio building had a chance to play host to one of modern-day San Francisco's cultural and commercial commodities. A legal marijuana store, looking to be the first to operate in an area visited by more than 10 million tourists annually, had approached the family with a solid offer: a long-term lease, at well above the going rate in a market where T-shirt and souvenir hawkers already pay $40 to $60 per square foot.

When word of the potential new neighbor spread, however, the local merchants were so opposed that they went out and found the DiMaggio building an alternate tenant. Now, an outfit called “Rocket Fizz” — an “upscale soda and candy shop” — will open up in the ground floor of the DiMaggio building as early as this year.

This is the third time that would-be cannabis sellers have approached the wharf in the last year. This latest effort, led by former software salesman Romwold Connolly and called Krinze, has secured a lease in an old video camera store on Taylor Street, across the road from the longshoreman's union hall.

The fight over whether Connolly can secure a permit to sell marijuana is already fierce. Competing petitions have popped up on Change.org, and a showdown at the city's Planning Commission is scheduled for Dec. 17.

The controversy begs an unanswered question.

San Francisco's tourists smell cannabis, see it, and buy it in the street. Yet the wharf, one of the few places in San Francisco zoned for a dispensary, has successfully beaten back dispensaries for almost a decade.

What's behind the city's deep aversion to showing visitors how we do legal marijuana?

In downtown Denver, when you want to kill time before a Rockies game or walk off a meal at the Hard Rock Café, you can stroll along a pedestrian mall and, within a few blocks, find a merchant selling adults 21 and over recreational cannabis. In Denver, tourism and cannabis coexist.

For almost as long as the Haight was famous for hippies, San Francisco has been the intellectual and commercial capital of the cannabis industry. The legal marijuana enjoyed by more than half of Americans began with Dennis Peron's renegade cannabis club in the Castro in the 1980s. Our proximity to the state's cannabis-producing regions mean that the city is the de facto hub for the state's biggest cash crop, valued at over $16 billion.

And yet this is not a point of civic pride. Leaders in the Chamber of Commerce and in City Hall have long behaved as if San Francisco's place in the pot pantheon were a great municipal shame, akin to the downfall of Detroit. This may be why the city's cannabis dispensaries are generally located in lower-income, rundown parts of town: the places too politically weak to say no.

In 2006, the wharf successfully steered away a dispensary proposed by The Green Cross (which now does brisk business in the Excelsior).

The same opposition is out in force this time because, the merchants say, Fisherman's Wharf is supposed to be family-friendly. In-n-Out, the Rainforest Café, the Spy Shop — a marijuana retail outlet is an “awkward” fit among these kid-safe zones, says Troy Campbell, executive director of the wharf's Community Benefit District. Our tourists, he says, aren't marijuana users. (The weed you smell at the wharf? That comes from homeless people and gutter punks.)

It is true that adult fun is hard to find at Fisherman's Wharf: There are only a handful of bars and liquor stores, Campbell points out, and a troublesome nightclub a few blocks away was successfully shut down. (The shops selling t-shirts that promote marijuana use, for now, go unprotested.)

This conversation, of course, is happening before California is expected to entertain the question of legalized recreational marijuana. If the state legalizes, and there's a legal adult cannabis shop where millions of out-of-towners mill around, business will be beyond brisk.

This is also at least the third try for Connolly, Krinze's would-be CEO, to open up a dispensary. (Zoning defeated an effort in the Castro; an effort to rent in the Fifth and Mission Garage near downtown was felled by the landlord — the city's Municipal Transportation Agency.) He swears the out-of-towner market is not his focus, and that he just wants to give the 250,000 San Francisco residents who live in the northeast quadrant of town an alternative to going to dispensaries located in the Tenderloin, SoMa, or the Mission.

Whatever Connolly's motive, maneuvering into a future market that could measure in the millions is smart business. It is also unwelcome in San Francisco, where accepted weed tourism may remain a thing of the future even after it becomes legal.