Pot-shop crackdowns in San Francisco all about location

04/15/2012 12:00 AM

04/15/2012 9:57 AM

Directly across the street from tiny Sgt. John Macaulay Park, with its swings and wooden climbing train, is a strip club flashing signs for "Live Nude Shows."

People walking three blocks and around the corner will pass a massage parlor, a porn theater, four liquor stores and a tobacco and head shop before reaching the place federal prosecutors shut down as a threat to the children's playground.

The Divinity Tree marijuana dispensary's operators – Raymond Gamley, 59, and Charlie Pappas, 64 – closed shop in the gritty Tenderloin district Nov. 15 rather than risk the consequences of perhaps the most powerful weapon U.S. authorities are using to go after medical cannabis outlets.

Invoking Reagan-era federal sanctions inspired by crack cocaine dealers selling to kids at America's parks or schools, San Francisco U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag threatened the Divinity Tree's landlord with seizure of the property and up to 40 years in federal prison. Last month, Haag sent out more letters to city dispensaries, warning of equally severe penalties.

Similar notices from U.S. attorneys are closing pot outlets in Colorado and elsewhere in California, making it challenging for marijuana stores to operate in many urban regions.

The tactic is playing out dramatically in San Francisco, birthplace of California's medical marijuana movement and a densely packed environment where neighborhoods may encompass pot dispensaries, parks, schools and all manner of uses, upscale to seedy.

In the city where Dennis Peron championed the state's 1996 medical marijuana law in the name of his lover, who died of AIDS, Gamley and Pappas took over the Divinity Tree dispensary on Geary Street in 2005. They say they didn't much notice the playground, a block over and two blocks down at the corner of O'Farrell and Larkin streets.

Now they know it well. They also know strip clubs, porn houses and liquor stores aren't against federal law, but marijuana – medical or otherwise – is. As a result, they're out of business for imperiling the playground.

"Look at San Francisco," Gamley protested. "It's so crowded. The terrain lends itself so that it's difficult not to be within 1,000 feet of anything. You can see how silly it is. I can't tell you how bad it feels, what they did to us."

In the Mission district, where former fashion store operator Al Shawa opened the Shambhala Healing Center last year, a letter arrived from Haag last month threatening "enhanced penalties" for "operating within prohibited distance" of the Jose Coronado Playground.

Shawa says the edge of the playground, which has an asphalt court for tennis, soccer and basketball and a small children's play area next to a locked clubhouse used for storage, is 960 feet from his store's rear wall and 1,100-feet from its only entrance.

Shawa said he expects to shut down because "I probably don't have the guts to challenge the feds."

"We call it the 44-cent policy," said Shawa, who says he worked with the city Planning Commission for 18 months and spent $250,000 to open the dispensary. "For a postage stamp, with no raid or anything, they can get people to just close and leave."

Nine S.F. dispensaries shut

Don Heller, a former Sacramento federal prosecutor, said citing dispensaries stores' proximity to playgrounds may provide political cover in the liberal city for exercising federal law against an industry Haag has asserted is "hijacked by profiteers."

Heller said Haag may be striking a blow to pot permissiveness in her city, which early on issued permits to dispensaries even though Proposition 215, the medical marijuana initiative adopted in 1996, made no mention of marijuana stores. "San Francisco was blatant about it, and so arrogant, you knew something was going to crack down," Heller said.

Nine of 27 dispensaries in the city have closed since October. Haag, who declined comment on the recent letters, also forced the closure of California's oldest dispensary, the Marin Alliance of Medical Marijuana in the Bay Area town of Fairfax, for operating near a Little League field.

Another landmark marijuana store, the Berkeley Patients Group, announced it was shutting down to seek another site after Haag threatened property seizure and prosecution over pot sales near a French language school and school for the deaf.

In Sacramento, one dispensary, Grass on 10th, closed due to federal threats over proximity to a school. About 20 of 38 city stores, grandfathered in despite their proximity to schools, parks and homes, remain open.

Caleb Counts, whose Fruitridge Health and Wellness closed in December under a federal order that didn't cite the distance issue, said shuttered clubs will have a hard time reopening under the federal government's 1,000-foot distance standard and local rules banning them within 300 feet of homes. "We've been working for months with multiple real estate agents, and it's virtually impossible," Counts said.

High-profile sites targeted

In San Francisco, the HopeNet Co-op dispensary, a small shop near Ninth and Howard streets with a smoking and vapor bar, passed its local health inspection last week. But operator Catherine Smith sat dejectedly with an order to close by the U.S. attorney.

HopeNet is one of the few outlets in San Francisco to allow on-site pot consumption because it operates more than 1,000 feet from a public elementary school. But three years ago, a private Mandarin immersion school for youths opened nearby.

In her fragrant waiting room, Smith fumed beneath a framed letter she once got from San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, now California's attorney general. It read: "My office will not compromise in supporting the rights for our loved ones who are sick and need medical marijuana."

"I'm not a drug dealer," said Smith, a former Bangor, Maine, police officer who opened the dispensary with her husband in 2005. "I'm permitted and regulated. It seems to me California voted for this overwhelmingly. And I don't sell to kids."

Michael Vitiello, a McGeorge School of Law professor studying marijuana enforcement, said many dispensaries getting closure letters are highly visible establishments, "most likely to be complying with state and local regulations and paying taxes."

The Divinity Tree's Pappas, a medical marijuana activist who was left a quadriplegic when he was shot in a robbery 35 years ago, took no salary as chairman of the dispensary in the Tenderloin. Gamley, his business partner, said he earned $84,000 annually to run the place that employed 12 people and paid $500,000 a year in state taxes.

"Even though we're within 1,000 feet of a playground, it's not like it's even in the same neighborhood as us," Gamley said. "I mean, they're trying to put the genie back into the bottle and I don't think they can."


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