Rounding Up the Usual Suspects: City Zoning Policy Creates Drug Districts

When not blue and on television, methamphetamine is in the running for the title of world's most-loathed drug. If America was treated to Bryan Cranston teeth-grinding and face-scratching his way through five seasons, surely Breaking Bad would have been less of a popular phenomenon.

In the eyes of the federal government, meth is less harmful and more useful to medicine than marijuana: The DEA lists meth as a Schedule II controlled substance, while marijuana is ranked among the worst scourges in Schedule I. But that doesn't matter; meth is bad and so are the people who use it.

That's the narrative, and that's partially why there wasn't much outrage when meth landed a Castro resident in federal prison for the better part of a decade. Selling $3,000 worth of meth at a shipping center near his apartment, and having more crystal back at home, earned 31-year old Jonathan Gildart seven years and three months in prison.

In San Francisco, three grand is rent money. Hardly a Heisenberg, but U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag thought enough of the bust to send out a press release that highlighted Gildart's bad luck.

He drew attention from the feds, but his first bad move was renting the wrong apartment: Since his place was within 1,000 feet of a school, he was eligible for significant penalty enhancements, lessened only with his guilty plea.

Think about that: The next time you sell $20 worth to a friend or ask your favorite restaurant server to pick you up a gram, are you sitting on the sofa or swapping bags under the table near a school? This is a densely populated city that hasn't entirely shed itself of kids, so chances are the answer is yes — and chances are your weekend party favors make you eligible for a stiff sentence, whether or not you even knew the school was there.

No one is asking for a safe zone for tweakers (or heroin users; pols quashed the notion of a city-blessed shooting gallery). Things ought to be different for marijuana users — they enjoy some legal protection, they pay taxes, and they're way less eager to rip off a bicycle — but they're not.

The presumed bubbles of innocence projected around schools are helping create de facto pot districts around town. These “weed zones” are stirring up more backlash against the evils of legal weed — and meanwhile creating de facto pot monopolies for those lucky to get in.

State law says no medical marijuana dispensary can be within 600 feet of a school. San Francisco went even tighter: Our rules put the barrier between classrooms of children and cannabis stores at 1,000 feet (and as marijuana supporters love to point out, no such restrictions apply to liquor stores on Mission or strip clubs on Broadway, both within sight of kids at recess). Like bans on taco trucks near high schools, there's no science behind this; there's nothing stopping kids walking another block and going into a dispensary (aside from the armed guards).

Add that to those neighborhoods declared off-limits to pot — concessions to legislators, who in return gave their backing to legal pot clubs in districts not their own — and there's not much real estate left to play with. So dispensaries go where they can: downtown, SoMa, parts of the Mission, where at the time no one cared to outlaw it. That means some are close to others, and in one case, on the same block. City planning rules are the cause of the “clustering” issue that's confounded planning officials, who for years now have been asking the electeds to fix it.

They're getting to it. Next year. It took three dispensaries trying to open up on the same block in the Excelsior District, and another two within a block of one another, to stir up enough outcry, but a “study” on all the above is due May 1.

After the study, then action. In the meantime, there's now tremendous financial incentive for dispensary operators to be the first one on the block, because they could be the only one allowed: Other cities created cannabis millionaires with restrictive zoning — by putting “hard caps” on how many pot clubs were allowed. Some became Walmart in size to meet the demand.

That could happen here — drug sellers made wealthy, thanks to anti-drug sentiments. Imagine if Heisenberg had help from the local lawmakers.

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