In the past two years, a sort of renaissance has been taking place in a section of downtown Oakland near the 19th Street BART station. A string of shops offering medical marijuana to card-holding patients has emerged along Telegraph Ave. and Broadway. On one sunny Sunday a few months ago, the dispensaries, with names like the Bulldog Café and the 420 Café, drew crowds of people into an otherwise deserted downtown Oakland. With jazz bands playing and street vendors offering various alimentary delicacies, the area took on more of the aspect of a low-key street party than a depressed urban district. Or more like Amsterdam, land of the cannabis café, than other mid-sized American cities, thus the "Oaksterdam" moniker.
But the number of establishments offering medical marijuana has continued to increase, and not all of them have been rigorous in ensuring that only medical marijuana card-holders can buy their product. Some appear to be fly-by-night operations, with no phone numbers or business licenses, and one has become known as the "Parking in Rear" dispensary, so named for the only sign that marks its door.
Now, prodded by anti-drug councilmen and one loudly complaining neighbor, the Oakland City Council is considering a measure that would regulate and limit the enterprises. Members of the Bay Area medical marijuana community told DRCNet they approved of regulation in principle, but had big problems with some of the measure's particulars.
While negotiations over the final wording of the proposed Oakland medical marijuana ordinance are underway, the proposal as currently written would:
If the ordinance as written were to be enacted, the proximity language would virtually wipe out Oaksterdam. Nestled among the dispensaries on Telegraph and Broadway is the Sexual Minority Alliance of Alameda County, which qualifies as a "youth center." The director of the alliance, Roosevelt Mosby, is the one person who has complained the loudest about Oaksterdam, telling anyone who would listen -- including drug czar John Walters -- that activity around the clubs had a negative impact on his clients.
One solution, said Jones, was to grandfather in existing clubs. "The city manager is considering grandfathering," he said, "so it could be worse."
"We will speak against the ordinance," said Hilary McQuie of Americans for Safe Access (http://www.safeaccessnow.org). "For us, the optimum solution would be that there is some sort of regulation around the clubs and that they be subject to health and safety inspections like any other place serving patients. They should have good ventilation and be able to control odor leakage. They should be compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Some aren't, and how can they say they're serving patients if they're not accessible? Ideally, we'd like them to be regulated and to have a way of dealing with bad actors that is fair and transparent," she said.
"But this ordinance as written is too arbitrary," McQuie told DRCNet. "The current proposal would limit the number of clubs to four, and some council-members want them not to allow smoking on site. I think we should have as many clubs as the market will bear, and we should allow smoking on site because the social space aspect of the clubs is one of their most important functions, especially for people who are new to marijuana," she said. "Oakland needs people coming into town, and if these clubs bring people downtown, that's great."
The current number of clubs is at least 15, Jones said, and he believes the city should have a higher limit. "I'm pushing for 9 to 12 clubs," he said. "Maybe we can reach an acceptable compromise number." Neighboring Berkeley, with about one-third the population of Oakland, has four clubs, he pointed out.
Another issue is that of variety. "The clubs have different formats," McQuie explained. "Some are like clinics or doctors' offices or pharmacies. Some people aren't comfortable with the smoking and the paraphernalia and all that," she said. "Other places cater to different folks. We need to have a variety of formats to fit the needs of the patients," she said.
Now, negotiations are going on before the ordinance is presented to the city council on Tuesday. "I support regulation, but this ordinance needs some changes," said Councilmember Nancy Nadel. "It was submitted hastily, and the amount of cannabis allowed in the facilities is lower than what the city decided earlier," she told DRCNet. "I am also working to try to change the proximity limitations, and I think four dispensaries is not enough." The ban on consumption may be a tougher nut to crack, she said. "I don't think I can change that, but we may be able to only ban consumption by smoking."
For Nadel, one of the most irksome provisions of the ordinance is the ban on hiring people with arrest records. "Many of the people involved with this have records because they've been dealing with federal interference with our state law," she said. "Under this provision, Jeff Jones, one of the most honest and upright medical marijuana advocates I know, would not be able to work in one of these facilities."
In an indication of the politics of pot in the Bay Area, even supporters of the ordinance's harshest measures are careful to couch their comments within a broader acceptance of medical marijuana. "This will bring the city into closer conformity with the state medical marijuana law," Councilmember Jean Quan told DRCNet. "From walking the streets of the neighborhood, I think this goes beyond medical cannabis. We need to separate legalization from medical cannabis. There have to be tighter standards," she said. "If you're going to defend medical cannabis, we have to make such it stays within that core function."
Councilmember Quan also defended the ordinance as one that would protect dispensaries. "It would protect informal collectives, and for larger, more organized dispensaries, it would provide some standards and give us the opportunity to do some formal monitoring," she said. "There is no regulation now, and many places have opened without permits. I have heard that there are some abuses, that some dispensaries are selling to people who are reselling, some are selling to people without cards, some are letting smoke get outside or into other parts of their buildings. We want to stop that," she said.
The City Council will discuss, possibly amend, and then vote on the ordinance on Tuesday. If approved then, the measure would have to be approved a second time.
"We were under the radar for a long time, but with two clubs opening recently with a different vibe, I think the issue hit critical mass. Regulation is inevitable; we just have to have reasonable regulation," McQuie said.