How to Make Cannabis Work in San Francisco: Part II

Activist Terrance Alan highlights where S.F.'s new adult-use ordinance falls short on responsible consumption laws, compassionate care programs, and equity permits.

Thanks to Prop 64, adult-use cannabis is coming to California on Jan. 1. But is San Francisco ready?

On Sept. 26, District 8 Sup. Jeff Sheehy introduced an ordinance to address the numerous facets of how adult-use will work for the city. Cannabis activist Terrance Alan says that while the bill offers a good start, it still leaves much work to be done.

“We have a 70-page ordinance,” Alan says. “That’s not a bad thing. I can understand why everybody might feel it’s rather daunting, but we have to remember what we’re doing.”

When one stops to tally everything that San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors and recently established Office of Cannabis have been asked to address, suddenly those 70 pages hardly seem sufficient. Before adult-use can get underway, the city will need rules defining where dispensaries can operate, how permitting will work, how medical operations will be differentiated from their recreational counterparts, and much more. The ordinance currently under consideration speaks to some of these matters, but leaves others unclarified.

For Alan, who was instrumental in establishing San Francisco’s Entertainment Commission, there are several key areas the ordinance needs to improve, the first of which is the compassion component of the medical cannabis industry.

“Compassion was the foundation on which the medical cannabis dispensary was allowed to occur,” Alan says. “It started with Dennis Peron’s buyer’s club on Market Street. If you went there, they won’t turn you away because you didn’t have $100 in your pocket. They would give you something.”

Peron, known lovingly as the godfather of medical cannabis, opened the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club — the first public marijuana dispensary in the country — in 1992. He would go on to serve as coauthor for California’s Proposition 215, the groundbreaking legislation that, in 1996, became the first medical marijuana initiative approved at the state level.

Alan is concerned that San Francisco has yet to include in its legislation a clear mandate for cannabis retailers to participate in a compassion program.

“What do people do that can’t afford this medicine?” he asks. “Since it’s not covered by insurance, how are they going to get access? The very people who can’t afford it may very well be the very people whose lives we need to save by offering them cannabis.”

In addition, there need to be rules addressing responsible adult consumption. As things stand, it will be legal to purchase cannabis at various locations around the city, but illegal to consume it almost everywhere.

“The legislation, as proposed, puts a noose around the neck of an entrepreneur seeking to provide a location for responsible adult consumption,” Alan says.

Cannabis consumption, at present, can’t take place in public view, can’t occur anywhere where alcohol or food is served, and can’t be visible from the street. That essentially leaves qualified consumers to enjoy their cannabis in dedicated smokers’ lounges.

“It’s basically a stoner den for patients,” Alan says, “which is fine, but that’s not the future of this marketplace.”

He also worries about the impact that having no place to toke up will have on the expected tourism boom California’s pivot to adult-use may have. In a June article, the L.A. Times wrote that the state’s Bureau of Marijuana Control estimates tourists spend over $122 billion a year, “much of it on leisure goods and services.”

How, then, does San Francisco expect to sell visitors on the appeal of cannabis, if the city offers no appealing places to consume it?

“We are not going to stop people from [consuming] cannabis just because the Department of Public Health said we can’t,” Alan says. “So why make people into criminals? Why give the Police Department another set of unenforceable laws they can use to target demographics that they feel are particularly troubling?”

This point leads Alan to perhaps the murkiest aspect of the ordinance: equity.

Some may recall that Oakland made headlines when it announced intentions to issue half of its initial adult-use permits to individuals who were adversely affected by discriminatory marijuana laws. Now San Francisco is poised to do the same.

Sheehy’s ordinance outlines that all retail cannabis permit seekers must meet the eligibility requirements as an equity applicant. The problem? No one is quite sure how the city is defining the term.

“I don’t have a good solution,” Alan concedes. “If the city wants only equity, than it’s got to get its act together and figure that out, and have enough input from the community so that when they make the gavel hit the table, they don’t have a lot of people pissed off about who got put in and who got left out.”

For now, the time has come for concerned citizens to make their voices heard by contacting their supervisor by email, phone, or, ideally in-person. As the Board of Supervisors weighs the ordinance and works to fill the numerous gaps left in the language, the input of patients, business owners, advocates, and industry professionals may ultimately be a deciding factor in how adult-use takes shape.

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