Why?

San Francisco did everything right. Now the feds are shutting down legal marijuana in town. And nobody can figure out what happened

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Medical marijuana supporters marched on the Federal Building on Aug. 1 to protest the recent crackdown.
PHOTO BY TIM DAW

steve@sfbg.com

Just a couple years ago, it seemed like the golden age of marijuana in San Francisco, the birthplace of the movement to legalize medical pot and a national leader in creating an effective regulatory framework to govern an industry that had become a legitimate, respected member of the business community.

More than two dozen patient cooperatives jumped through a variety of bureaucratic hoops to become licensed dispensaries, most of them opening storefront businesses that were often the most attractive, clean, and secure retail outlets on their blocks, sometimes in gritty stretches of SoMa, the Tenderloin, or the Mission.

"Pretty much everyone involved agrees that San Francisco's system for distributing marijuana to those with a doctor's recommendation for it is working well: the patients, growers, dispensary operators, doctors, politicians, police, and regulators with the planning and public health departments," I wrote in "Marijuana goes mainstream" (1/28/10).

Since then, San Francisco's medical marijuana industry has only become more established and professional, complying with new city regulations (such as changing how edibles are packaged to avoid tempting children), paying taxes and fees -- and making very few waves. According to city officials, there have been almost no complaints from anyone about the dispensaries -- and in San Francisco, people complain about everything.

But in the last six months, the full force of the federal government has brought the hammer down hard on this budding business sector, forcing the closure of eight brick-and-mortar dispensaries and instilling paranoia and insecurity in those that remain.

In just the past few weeks, two of the city's oldest and most respected dispensaries –- HopeNet and the Vapor Room -– were forced to close their doors.

There's been little rhyme or reason to which clubs get those dreaded letters warning operators and landlords to shut it down or be subject to asset forfeiture and prison time -- and the officials involved have refused to explain their actions, except with moralistic anti-drug statements or unsupported accusations.

"These are people who played by the rules and paid their taxes, and now they're being punished for it," said Assembly member Tom Ammiano, a leader in creating a state regulatory framework to govern the distribution of medical marijuana, which California voters legalized in 1996. "This is pure thuggery. They are ignoring due process out of blind prejudice and ambition."

Ammiano met with Melinda Haag, the US Attorney for the Northern District of California, who has coordinated the local crackdown from her 11th floor office in the Federal Building near City Hall, shortly after she announced her intentions to go after medical marijuana. He said she was like a throwback to a less enlightened era.

"In talking to Haag, not only is she a bit of a bully, but she's totally uneducated about the issue," Ammiano told us. When she told him that her office has received many complaints about the dispensaries, he asked to see them -– even making a formal Freedom of Information Act document request –- but she has yet to produce them. "Her duplicity is very moralistic, it's like going back 100 years."

Neither Haag nor anyone from the White House or Justice Department would grant an interview to the Guardian to discuss the reasons for and implications of the crackdown, or to answer the list of written questions her office asked us to submit. Instead, Haag gave the Guardian this statement and refused to respond to our follow-up questions: