When city officials last summer tightened the screws on Oakland's thriving "Oaksterdam," where medical marijuana dispensaries were multiplying and driving the revival of the neighborhood around the 19th Street BART station, it looked like Oaksterdam's fleeting glory days were already behind it. But nine months later, while the medical marijuana dispensaries have been reduced to four by city ordinance, at least one former dispensary has mutated into a place where pot can be bought and consumed by adults without the slightest medical marijuana pretense.
Driven by a combination of cultural zeitgeist, electoral victory, and entrepreneurial energy, and centered on an innocuous looking neighborhood cafe, which for obvious reasons wishes to remain unnamed, the quasi-legal sale of marijuana to adults has now begun on American territory. While the pot-shop operator has managed to establish a beachhead for open marijuana sales in Oakland, his legal situation is precarious.
Although Oakland voters last fall passed Measure Z, the Oakland Cannabis Regulation and Revenue ordinance, which directs police and city officials to make marijuana the lowest law enforcement priority, and although the city has a record of being friendly to medical marijuana, the non-medicinal sale of marijuana remains illegal under California law and federal law alike.
Not that the shop's owner seemed overly concerned. "The Oakland police hang out in front of the place and write parking tickets," he told DRCNet. "It's hard to say if they're aware of the adult sales going on because we don't ask them. But generally, the police tell us they don't have the time to bust open-air crack markets, so they worry very little about private marijuana sales."
By all appearances, they have little to worry about. On a Friday afternoon during last week's NORML conference, visitors found the shop tucked among a cluster of cannabis and medical marijuana-related businesses on a pleasant block economically revitalized by the Oaksterdam effect. Inside the clean, well-lit shop, visitors were greeted by a typical coffeehouse layout, with the establishment offering coffee, tea, other non-alcoholic beverages, and a limited selection of food.
But the real action was in the back room, whose entrance could be gained only upon providing proof of membership in the cafe's "private club." As the owner explained, "You need to be referred by somebody; we're not really set up yet for people to just fly in cold. With the law making private sales, use, and cultivation the lowest police priority, we just issue private membership cards," he said. That's how dozens of NORML conference attendees managed to gain entry to the back -- they gained "guest memberships" for the asking at a table set up at the conference.
In back, an enthusiastic, well-informed attendant displays a limited menu of marijuana, hashish, and cannabis foods ("Reefer's Peanut Butter Cups"). Upon purchase -- an eighth-ounce of Sweet Tooth kind bud went for $44 -- the visitors relaxed in the adjacent small smoking room as they tested their purchases and found them worthy indeed. Squinting in the bright sunlight outside, the visitors peacefully made their way back across the bay to San Francisco, while the cafe's patrons inconspicuously came and went.
"We're trying to promote Oaksterdam as a happening area," said the owner. "With the cannabis business and other businesses working together, we can make this a happening tourist area. While some cities see cannabis as a problem, Oakland sees it as providing jobs and taxes."
The over-the-counter sale of marijuana to adults has emerged as California grapples with the question of regulating medical marijuana dispensaries. At the end of March, San Francisco joined a growing list of California cities that have imposed moratoriums or otherwise restricted the dispensaries -- in part because they were growing like mushrooms in the foggy San Francisco air. At the same time, however, San Francisco radio stations are carrying advertisements from "full-service" medical marijuana operations that promise to get you inspected, registered, and pointed, card in hand, to a nearby dispensary.
With such operations, a blurring of the line between legitimate medical marijuana distribution -- legal under state law -- and the sale of marijuana to any adult who wants it for whatever reason is blurring. The Oaksterdam establishment semi-openly purveying pot, which has a history of supplying medical users, is further eroding that distinction.
"With all the medical marijuana permits here, local police don't worry too much about marijuana," said the cafe owner. "And with the feds, it is ironically more politically difficult for them to single out adult sales places, because then they would be implying that medical marijuana is okay, and for them, there is officially no such thing as medical marijuana."
Local activists and the cafe owner are torn between keeping a low profile and pushing the envelope, but in the meantime Oakland appears to be approaching an Amsterdam-style policy where marijuana laws technically remain on the books but are not enforced. What is going on is illegal under California law and federal law, but does anybody care? Perhaps no news from Oaksterdam is good news.