Under the gun from city regulators, Oaksterdam is disappearing, at least for now. The area of inner city Oakland near the 19th St. BART stop underwent a dramatic renaissance in the last few years, driven by medical marijuana distributors who set up shop in what had been a decaying former downtown entertainment district. At the end of last month, at least a half-dozen medical marijuana "cannabis cafes" dotted the area, but since a city ordinance designed to recognize and regulate the dispensaries went into effect on June 1, Oaksterdam has begun to disappear.
Under the ordinance, passed in February, the city limited the number of medical marijuana clubs to four and barred the location of any club within 1,000 feet of another. Some clubs have simply closed their doors, while others will attempt to survive as normal cafes. But while local marijuana activists bemoan the closings, they do not view them as the end but as the beginning.
"Oaksterdam isn't dead, this is just a setback," said Richard Lee, owner of the Bulldog Coffeeshop, one of the oldest and most well-known of the Oaksterdam pot shops. In a surprise move, city officials did not grant a permit to the Bulldog, which Lee said will attempt to remain open as a café. But while the Bulldog didn't make the cut, the SR71 Cafe, another dispensary owned by Lee, will be allowed to stay open.
"What surprised everyone was that they closed so many in the heart of Oaksterdam -- the 19th Street BART station made the area the most mass transit-accessible in the city, and it doesn't seem like they took the accessibility needs of patients into account, said Dale Gieringer, head of California NORML (http://www.canorml.org). "But the closure of the Bulldog was the most surprising thing about this. They had been there longer than anybody, everybody liked them, they have a nice sidewalk café where patients and non-patients alike could hang out. It was really the only place like that in Oaksterdam, so we're really upset that they want to close the Bulldog," Gieringer told DRCNet. "Hopefully we can get the city to see the light on this. We have some friends on the council, but this is going to be a period of painful readjustment."
The Bulldog isn't the only major operation to have to shut down for lack of a permit. The Third Floor Compassion Club on Telegraph Avenue is also closing its doors. Third Floor supplied so many people that its owners hired buses this week to transport patients to clubs outside the city limits in nearby Berkeley, Hayward, and other suburban locations to buy their medicine, both Lee and Gieringer reported.
But activities surrounding the Third Floor club and some other clubs may have contributed to the city's decision to undo Oaksterdam, Gieringer said. "There was a real scene developing on Telegraph Avenue," he said. "A local TV station did an expose showing people reselling pot on the street near the clubs, and two clubs, Third Floor and the Dragonfly, got out of hand. The scene was too rambunctious, not discreet enough for the city authorities, and they decided they wanted to clear all that out," he said.
"This is not the end of the world," said Jeff Jones, head of the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Co-op (http://www.rxcbc.org), which, since it was enjoined in federal court from dispensing medical marijuana, now serves as a medical marijuana referral center on Telegraph Avenue. "This is a step back, but it is also a step forward," he told DRCNet. "The city is recognizing and regulating our community, which is a step forward, but it is also overstepping with some draconian measures that are having a negative impact on our community."
The unfazed attitudes displayed by medical marijuana supporters stem from the fact that the city will revisit the ordinance in six months, leaving open the possibility that it would revisit its decisions on number and location of the dispensaries. "This could help us with getting more permits," said Jones. "If these places behave, we will go back to the city and ask for four more permits."
"Nothing is set in stone at this point," concurred Gieringer. "There will be a reevaluation of what's going on in a few months. If it stays this way, Oaksterdam could be history, but Oaksterdam is popular and people see how it has benefited the community. I suspect that within six months or so, things will be back."
Proponents of the dispensaries are working on two fronts with city officials, Gieringer said. "Right now, the decision-making process is pretty opaque. The ordinance gives city officials a lot of discretion. We will attempt to amend the ordinance. In the meantime, we will continue to work with our friends in the city government to ensure that their decisions take into account the needs of patients."
"We have a couple of council members who are already saying it was a mistake to limit this to four clubs," said the Bulldog's Richard Lee, "and that the regulations are too restrictive. There is a six-month review, so we are hoping to get more club permits and loosen the regulations."
But if Oaksterdam is under attack now, it could well come roaring back stronger and more open than ever, Lee said. "There is a lot of support for doing an Amsterdam-style red light district in Uptown, which is what this neighborhood used to be called. There are powerful real estate developers who are supportive of opening up adult use cannabis shops, and if we can get the Oakland cannabis initiative on the ballot this November, we could have a green light for adult use and not just medical use," he explained. "That's our master plan -- medical marijuana was good in 1996; that was a way to establish the industry. Now, you already have marijuana distribution in the clubs; you just have to change the criteria for who can buy it."
The Oakland initiative would direct city law enforcement authorities to make marijuana offenses their lowest priority. It would also direct city officials to urge the state legislature to pass laws legalizing marijuana use and sales. City officials will announce next week whether organizers gathered enough signatures in time to make the November ballot.
In the meantime, Bay area medical marijuana consumers aren't waiting. "New clubs are popping up like mushrooms all over Northern California," Gieringer said.