Medical Cannabis Dispensaries Under Scrutiny

By Alex Emslie
The Ingleside Light 

The fiery, 2-year debate between Excelsior neighborhood groups and medical cannabis advocates is not yet over, despite the San Francisco Planning Commission’s Feb. 16 approval of three new marijuana dispensaries for the district’s Mission Street border.

The Outer Mission Merchants and Residents Association plans to challenge two of the dispensaries, both proposed for Mission Street’s 5200 block, at the city board of appeals as soon building permits are issued. The appeals board halted another dispensary from opening in the Sunset district in 2010 because of location’s nearness to a daycare center, and OMMRA President Steven Currier said he’s identified several childcare facilities around the cannabis clubs’ proposed locations.

“I’m not saying MCDs are not legitimate businesses, but people are scared to death,” Currier told the Planning Commission. OMMRA’s appeal will also challenge “clustering” two dispensaries on the same block and the location’s proximity to the Daly City border, Currier said.

MCDs must be at least 1,000 feet from a school or a community facility that primarily serves children, but planners say daycare facilities are covered by a different section of the code and are not allowed consideration when locating potential dispensary locations. Members of the appeals board, noting the code’s confusing language, believe daycare services are intended to exclude dispensaries, according to their 2010 decision.

Medical cannabis patients and purveyors say their right to easily accessible store-front dispensaries is a civil rights issue.

“While there is an emotional response of people who just don’t want it in their neighborhood, there are people who do want it and need it in their neighborhood,” Medical Cannabis Advocate David Abernathy said. “For a lot of people this is a useful and necessary medicine to help treat their illnesses.”

In testimony to the Planning Commission that stretched well into the night, 17 people spoke in favor of the dispensaries, but not one of them identified themselves as an Excelsior district resident. About one dozen Excelsior residents testified against the MCDs.

“I have a bar that’s two doors down from where I’m located,” said Laurie Heath, who lives next door to The Green Cross’s proposed location at 4218 Mission Street. “It’s sandwiching my property in with activity that I disapprove of.”

Many Excelsior residents said that they support medical marijuana in general, but they are animately opposed to dispensaries in their neighborhood, which they say has traditionally been working-class community of families with children. Medical marijuana advocates assert that access to what they say is a less addictive alternative to powerful pharmaceutical drugs like Oxycontin, an opiate often prescribed for severe chronic pain, is the right of sick people under California law.

As recently as 2005, southern Mission Street and the Excelsior district were plagued by thefts and violent crime. Incidents have steadily decreased over the past seven years due to hard work, neighborhood pride and a forward-thinking police department, community groups say. Although graffiti still blights the murals and bus stops, violent crime has dropped significantly, and some residents are worried that medical cannabis dispensaries will bring crime back into their neighborhood.

Officers from the Ingleside police department – which enforces the Excelsior district – say the most trouble comes from the rowdy bars on south Mission Street, but many merchants and residents are convinced the medical marijuana dispensaries will bring crime back to their neighborhood.

In response, Abernathy cited studies by the University of California and Regis University that found medical cannabis dispensaries have no impact on either violent or property crime. A study by the California Center for Population Research at UCLA completed in October found that crime rates were certainly affected by poverty and unemployment, but the density of medical cannabis dispensaries appeared to have no impact.

San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos wrote a letter to the planning commission expressing concern over the clustering of two medical cannabis dispensaries on one block of Mission Street, but commissioners said the city’s code creates the problem by with the required 1,000 feet setback from schools and youth-serving community centers.

In an email to Excelsior community groups, Avalos said he would look into regulating clustering and strengthening the language around facilities that serve children, but that it would likely be a “longer term fix.”

Prospective medical cannabis dispensary owner Inna Yakubov, who is attempting to open Tree Med on southern Mission Street, called her location a “needle in a haystack” because so few properties in San Francisco are far enough from schools and youth recreation facilities.

“By extending the zoning limitations to cover elder care facilities and day care facilities, the city would be imposing a de facto ban on all new medical cannabis dispensaries,” she wrote to the planning department.

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