Noe Valley Voice July-August 2005

Cannabis Club's Permit Suspended After Complaints from Neighbors

By Liz Highleyman

When the Green Cross cannabis club opened in July of 2004, it might have expected a warm reception from the neighborhood, given Noe Valley's overwhelming support for California's 1996 Compassionate Use Act, also known as Proposition 215. Eighty-eight percent of local residents voted in favor of the measure, which decriminalized the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. However, life for the medical pot dispensary on 22nd Street between Guerrero and Fair Oaks streets has been anything but mellow.

Neighbors on Fair Oaks have held at least two community meetings, where they voiced complaints about noise, odor, traffic, and a dramatic influx of Green Cross customers in the past six months.

"It seemed like things were getting out of control," said Fair Oaks Street resident Veronica Gaynor. "People felt like they were losing their neighborhood."

Then on June 10, despite extensive efforts by the Green Cross to mitigate problems, the city suspended its permit, on the grounds that the club was creating "conditions that are hazardous, noxious, or offensive." Currently, the cannabis dispensary remains open, pending a Planning Department hearing on July 15.

Cars, Loitering Annoy Neighbors

The controversy heated up this spring, around the time Fair Oaks Street experienced a rash of burglaries. Residents began speaking informally among themselves, and on May 23 held a hastily organized meeting at the Liberties bar, where discussion soon shifted from crimes to quality-of-life issues.

Neighbors talked about loud music and the pervasive odor of marijuana smoke coming from the dispensary, as well as people loitering on the sidewalks and in cars outside. They said Green Cross patrons often double-parked and blocked driveways while purchasing their cannabis.

"Some of their customers are intimidating," said Karen Saux, who with Gaynor helped organize the meeting. "Anyone who dares to ask someone not to park in their driveway gets verbally abused."

Residents also described open marijuana use outside the club, as well as what appeared to be cannabis distribution or resale. They also expressed concern about the dispensary's location near a youth center and two schools (Edison Charter and Adda Clevenger).

"You have ruined the neighborhood with your little marijuana nightclub, posing as a health care clinic," read an anonymous June 16 e-mail message sent to Green Cross founder and president Kevin Reed. "Most of your customers fit the same profile: male, under 30, non-white, skater punk/home boy/gang-banger aesthetic. Since when do so many members of this demographic have such serious medical conditions?"

Hair Salon Driven Away

A second community meeting was held at St. James Church on June 6, the same day the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government may prosecute medical cannabis patients and providers, despite state law.

Attended by nearly 200 people, the meeting was extended to two hours to accommodate comments from neighbors. Among them was Craig Morton, who operated the Shear Delight hair salon next door to the Green Cross for more than 10 years. Morton told how the noise and marijuana smoke from the dispensary drove him to sell his business this past winter.

"It reached the point where I felt I was run out," he said. "I did vote for Proposition 215 because I am a person with HIV and I thought I might need it someday. But I had a very negative experience with the whole thing. There were no regulations in place to protect me."

At the request of District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty, several city officials also attended the June meeting. Dan Sider, of the city's Planning Department, explained that San Francisco currently regulates cannabis dispensaries as "social services." There is no specific permit for cannabis dispensaries, he said, but like any other business, they must obtain a business license and a change-of-use permit.

The Green Cross, said Sider, is one of only four cannabis clubs in the city that went through the permit process. But some neighbors within the required 150-foot radius claim they did not receive notification. In any case, no hearings were held.

Police Confirm Traffic Congestion

San Francisco Police Department Capt. John Goldberg told meeting attendees that the overall crime rate for the area surrounding 22nd and Guerrero had actually decreased slightly from last year. While burglaries were up, they did not appear to be connected to the Green Cross or its clientele.

But a plainclothes investigation confirmed other allegations. One weekend evening, officers observed 60 to 70 people going in and out of the club, Goldberg reported. When they left, "there were two cars parked in driveways, all four crosswalks were blocked, and the fire hydrant was blocked."

While the officers did not observe money changing hands, "several times, two or three cars would show up at the same time," Goldberg said. "One person would get out and go into the club, return to the cars, and distribute the marijuana before driving away."

Club Adopts "Zero Tolerance"

Meanwhile, Reed--who himself uses medical cannabis to manage chronic back pain--says he has done everything possible to address neighborhood concerns. He concedes that the Green Cross originally opened without a permit, but says the city's policy was so nebulous he didn't know he needed one.

When informed that he did, he posted a sign in the window, ran the required newspaper notices, and hired a service to provide notification by mail to neighbors within the required 150-foot radius. A change-of-use permit for the club, at 3412 22nd Street, was granted in February 2005. A second storefront at 3420 22nd Street, where Reed met with the Voice, is a small private office, not--as some have alleged--an auxiliary smoking lounge.

Since Reed was made aware of neighbors' complaints, he has installed commercial door closures and seals and upgraded the ventilation system to control noise and odor. In late May, the club disallowed marijuana smoking on the premises by customers, and in June extended the ban to staff (many of whom are also patients).

In addition, Reed instituted a "zero tolerance" policy regarding loud music, double-parking, and driveway blockage. The Green Cross installed 16 surveillance cameras to monitor the adjacent street and alley, and hired a security guard to be on duty while the dispensary is open. Reed told the Voice the building upgrades and security equipment cost about $50,000.

As for customers who may not look ill, Reed says the Green Cross does not judge patients based on appearance. Clients must have a doctor's recommendation and a medical marijuana patient ID card issued by the Department of Public Health. "We don't profile," says Reed. "It's ultimately up to the doctors who they give the recommendations to."

Some Neighbors Are Supportive

Not all neighbors have a negative opinion of the Green Cross.

"The truth, as I see it from 22nd and Guerrero, is that the patients, young and old, come and go without posing a threat to anyone here, and I fear that the main offense they have committed is embodying a look that we are conditioned to believe is threatening," says Charlie Pizarro, who has lived at the corner for 11 years. "With the Green Cross, we have a locally owned small business that is filling a need in our community, and is doing so in a way that I believe is respectful of all of us who live here."

In a June 16 message to a neighborhood e-mail list, local resident Jason Coben, who suffers from nerve and cartilage deterioration, wrote, "I am one of those people that many of you like to refer to as 'not looking very sick.' All this talk of shutting [the Green Cross] down is an extreme overreaction, and smacks of politicians pandering to a vocal minority. They are providing a valuable service in a professional manner, and it would be to the detriment of a lot of us if they were to close."

Supervisor Dufty maintained in a June 16 letter to the community, "[I]t doesn't matter if a business sells donuts, bowling balls, or medical cannabis, has to abide by the planning code and notification requirements."

But some think the Green Cross is being held to a higher standard, since any successful business would generate increased traffic and congestion. "Unlike the patrons of the bars and restaurants around here, the patients of the Green Cross do not scream through the neighborhood drunk at 2 a.m. They do not urinate on my house or turn over garbage cans," says Pizarro.

Reed Appeals Suspension

After the June 6 meeting, Dufty asked Zoning Administrator Larry Badiner to suspend the Green Cross' change-of-use permit. Badiner in turn forwarded the request to the Department of Building Inspection (DBI), which issued a notice of suspension on June 10.

The Green Cross appealed the suspension on June 22. "We take the position that Reed has due process rights, and that the revocation is not enforceable until the appeal is heard," said Reed's attorney, Acrolina Panto.

The Planning Department, DBI, Dufty's office, and the city attorney are working together to determine how to proceed. "We're trying to figure out the best legal remedy," Sider told the Voice.

The issues surrounding the Green Cross are far from unique, as the city grapples with a dramatic increase in cannabis dispensaries--now numbering about 40--and a rise in complaints similar to those of the Fair Oaks neighbors. On March 29, the Board of Supervisors imposed a 45-day moratorium prohibiting new cannabis clubs from opening; the ban was then extended for an additional six months. On June 28, District 5 Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi proposed a set of dispensary regulations, which covered issues such as proximity to schools.

Business and Neighborhood Mismatched?

The location issue resonates with Dufty. He believes there might be a mismatch between the pot club and the Fair Oaks neighborhood. "The Planning Department did not do due diligence," he says. "The Green Cross has had an inordinate impact. I don't think any business with that type of intense activity could exist in that location."

While neighbors acknowledge that Reed and his staff have made a good-faith effort to address their concerns, some remain unsatisfied. "The problems immediately around the Green Cross have abated, but now illegal parking is occurring further away on Fair Oaks," says Saux. "We still get e-mails every day with some sort of complaint or observation."

As an alternative medical service, some feel the Green Cross should cultivate a more professional atmosphere. "If the patients are sick, why do they need loud music?" asks Gaynor. Others wonder, what kind of medical facility is busiest on Friday and Saturday nights?

"Our concern is not about patients who legally use the facility, but customers who are seemingly taking advantage of the city's inability to responsibly police and regulate such businesses," Gaynor concludes. "It would be a shame if this turned people against medical marijuana."

The Planning Department and DBI will hold a public hearing regarding the Green Cross cannabis club at 9 a.m. on July 15 in Room 400 at City Hall. Zoning Administrator Larry Badiner told the Voice that "the city will be listening to arguments pro and con, evidence of how the program has been operating, and how it has changed its operations in response to neighborhood concerns." The city's Board of Permit Appeals will hold a separate hearing to consider Green Cross owner Kevin Reed's appeal on Aug. 19.