In most California cities — like many in the North Bay — the fight over new dispensaries pits pro- and anti-cannabis partisans against one another. Prohibitionists, often couching their objections in euphemistic language, go head-to-head with cannabis businesses and their stoner neighbors. Relatively small problems are blown out of proportion, and NIMBYs often get the final say.
In San Francisco, however, few residents are publicly anti-pot. In one Southeastern San Francisco neighborhood, for example, the debate over whether to open a new dispensary is centered around concerns about equity, fairness, and prioritizing small businesses over corporate chains. It’s a marked shift that shows how San Francisco attitudes toward cannabis are still evolving.
The new dispensary, located at 5 Leland Ave. in Visitacion Valley, is on the same block as the dispensary Elevated SF. In 2017 and 2018, the creation of any dispensary on this block — Elevated or the 5 Leland location — was heavily contested. Elevated was at one point accused of faking signatures on a petition to open the shop.
Today, that’s all bong water under the bridge and neighbors are concerned with the prospect of the 5 Leland Ave. shop — referred to as “Connected SF” in application documents from 2016 and now nameless according to forms filed in 2021 — putting Elevated out of business.
“If you don’t want Walmart here, well, isn’t this kind of the same thing?” asks Visitacion Valley resident Sun Chu. “I mean, it’s a chain, and it’s big — 2,200 square feet.” That’s more than twice the size of Elevated SF’s 880 square feet.
Though it is not entirely clear who would run the 5 Leland Ave. location, an examination of application documents reveals a number of San Francisco cannabis pros with established industry connections alongside equity applicants. According to the SFEG website, the dispensary currently planned for the 5 Leland location would be co-owned by Kim Mitchell, who also plans to open a dispensary on Divisadero called Nicer Co., and John Nauer, Jr. of the SF Equity Group. SFEG has a mission of helping entrepreneurs severely impacted by the War on Drugs, like Mitchell and Nauer, navigate the city’s well-intentioned but bureaucratically complicated cannabis Equity Program.
Applications dating back to 2018 also name Quentin Platt, who is COO of the company Equinox Botanicals and a member of the Cole Ashbury Group, a partner in the Berner’s on Haight “Cookies” dispensary. Connected SF — the business name found in applications from 2016 — is another Bay-Area based cannabis brand that rivals Cookies in hype and luxury price points. Rodney Hampton, who owns the CDXX dispensary on Third Street in the Bayview and has, according to neighbors, been running art gallery operations out of the 5 Leland location during the pandemic, was listed as a co-owner in 2017.
Questions about ownership and brand-name affiliation add to the confusion and creeping sense of suspicion among neighbors. Some residents simply hate the idea of a chain store moving into the tiny commercial strip, jamming up parking and drawing unwanted attention to a remote neighborhood. Others, like neighbor Russel Morine, say the new dispensary’s behavior makes them seem like a big corporate brand trying to pull a fast one on the community.
Morine notes that the incoming dispensary did a poor job publicizing a May 5 “community outreach” meeting and neglected to record or share notes from the session. He also says that the owners never answer questions from locals about their potential impact on surrounding businesses. “Have people come, talk about your product, talk about your goals — don’t just spring it on us,” Morine says.
Neighbors intent on halting approval of the new dispensary believe a city planning code that prohibits a new dispensary opening within 600 feet of an existing dispensary will help their cause. The new dispensary would be approximately 200 feet from Elevated.
However, the 5 Leland shop may be able to get around the regulation thanks to a loophole — the application has been on the books since December of 2016, four months after the first application was filed for Elevated, but about three months before initial, medical dispensary plans for Elevated were actually approved (Elevated became a recreational dispensary in 2018).
Adding to the controversy is the fact that the new dispensary initially appears to violate city laws. Dispensaries are not permitted to open within 600 feet of any existing “schools,” and some neighbors believe community centers on the block, such as Real Options for City Kids, Visitacion Strong Families, the Asian Pacific Community Center, and the Cross Cultural Family Center each might qualify.
Though the proximity to schools might have been a major concern two years ago, now neighbors who spoke with SF Weekly say these concerns are secondary. Concerns about whether children will be somehow corrupted should another dispensary move in “is kind of ridiculous, because they see [dispensaries] everywhere now,” says Chu. “I don’t think anybody will peddle it — it’s just a law that maybe we can work to our benefit.”
Morine, who has been encouraging his neighbors to contact city planning via Nextdoor post, admits that his perspective has changed since 2018, too. He was one of the initial neighbors who spoke out about the construction of any dispensary on the block, including Elevated. Now, Elevated has won his heart — and 5 Leland has become an even bigger concern. “I was opposed to Elevated coming in, I was opposed to 5 Leland,” says Morine. “But Elevated, man — I think they’re really trying to do a good job.”
Despite the fact that this neighborhood voted overwhelmingly against Prop 64, there is also a strong contingent in Visitacion Valley that empathizes with those hurt by the War on Drugs. Some within this contingent may see welcoming legal cannabis as a way to actively right the wrongs caused by decades of draconian drug policy.
Although they have a reputation for working with big corporate brands that makes some industry insiders suspicious, San Francisco Equity Group (SFEG), which 5 Leland’s owners are a part of, is also known for bolstering worthy entrepreneurs and protecting their interests. Cindy De La Vega, an SFEG member, has received heaps of praise for her successful Stiiizy location in Union Square, which is not only owned by the former Sunnydale Housing Projects resident, but also actively employs budtenders who themselves come from marginalized communities. Shawn Richard, who co-owns the Berner’s on Haight “Cookies” dispensary, is also a founding member of SFEG and is Executive Director of the nonprofit Brothers Against Guns, a Bayview-based youth organization focused on violence intervention. The group has also proven its investment in the broader San Francisco community in other ways, often encouraging its members to attend peaceful social justice rallies and lending its support to organizations like United Playaz.
Of course, as in any neighborhood, certain locals simply don’t understand what all the fuss is about in the first place. “I don’t see a problem with this. More competition should mean lower prices,” Visitacion Valley resident David Burban wrote in a post on Nextdoor.
The application for the 5 Leland dispensary will likely close in the next few months, and the city planning commission is scheduled to discuss the permit in their May 27 meeting. That meeting is shaping up to be tense: Numerous vocal neighbors have promised to attend, and the commission has already received well over 500 comments in opposition to the dispensary. The planning commission has received just over 30 comments in support of the new shop.
No matter the outcome, Chu plans to remain loyal to Elevated. “And guess what?” she asks. “I’ll walk right by Cookies.”
Elevated SF declined to comment for this story. SFEG and Equinox Botanicals did not respond to requests for comment.