San Francisco planners, with very little public discussion, are moving to ban all new medical marijuana outlets in the city until new policies are in place for recreational use.
The Planning Commission July 20 passed a recommendation for a moratorium of up to two years on new dispensaries. It’s not binding – the Board of Supes will have to make the final decision – but the commission has to approve every application for a dispensary, so the action signals that it may become much more difficult to get a permit to open one.
That happened pretty much behind the scenes while the supes, with much media attention, approved a new Office of Cannabis to oversee the transition to an era when weed will be legal for anyone 21 and older.
The citywide moratorium came up when Sup. Ahsha Safai proposed a permanent cap on dispensaries in District 11; he wants no more than three. There are already three operating in the district, so unless one shuts down, there would be no more permits ever approved in his part of town.
There are currently 15 MCDs operating or approved in District 6, and 11 in District 3.
Safai suggested in testimony before the commission that D11 was different, because commercial districts are immediately adjacent to single-family homes. He said that neighbors complain constantly about parking problems and people smoking in front of their doors.
Commissioner Hope Johnson noted that people also live close to commercial strips in D3 and D6, and that although they may not have single-family homes, they also have to deal with any impacts of local businesses, including MCDs.
The Planning Department staff recommended that instead of siding with Safai, and setting limits in one district (which could lead to other supes doing the same, and creating a mess of different rules in different parts of town), the city should simply stop issuing any new permits right now.
In their rush to talk about the hot news that the city is going to hire a cannabis director, most of the major news media missed this entire episode. Joshua Sabatini at the Examiner noticed, and put the word out before the meeting.
But only three speakers showed up, and all three were from D11 and spoke in support of Safai’s bill.
Nobody on the commission or from the community spoke against the idea of a citywide ban.
That discussion was happening at the same time that some of the supervisors, led by Sandra Lee Fewer, have been raising questions about equity in this rapidly growing industry.
Fewer asked at the supes meeting that the new cannabis office director be someone who understood the fact that many of the communities most impacted by the war on drugs are not represented among the owners of cannabis outlets, and thus aren’t sharing in what will be a whole lot of new wealth.
If that’s the case – and I don’t have data on the demographics of pot club ownership in the city – then a ban on new dispensaries, which could last for as long as two years, won’t do much to address the disparity.
There are 28 applications currently pending, City Planning records show. All of them would in effect be killed by the new rules.
The Small Business Commission opposed the Safai legislation, saying that it would create an oligopoly in D11, protecting three operators from competition, and driving the business into other parts of town.
But Safai and the three speakers noted that there are actually five outlets serving the district (two on the side of Ocean Avenue that immediately abuts the district line) – and that many of their customers are from San Mateo County.
San Mateo, Safai said, has a total ban on medical cannabis dispensaries, so patients often drive to San Francisco – and the closest place is D11.
(UPDATE: Safai’s statements about San Mateo County aren’t exactly accurate — there are two dispensaries in Pacifica, and a number of delivery services.)
In the next few months, everyone agrees, the city is going to face a huge challenge drafting regulations to implement that state law that will allow all adults to buy recreational cannabis. Will it be sold only in specialized outlets, or could existing retailers, like corner stores and liquor stores, stock cannabis? Will existing MCDs be allowed to expand their business to everyone? (It make sense; they already have the infrastructure, and let’s face it: Any adult in San Francisco who wants to buy cannabis can do so; getting a medical recommendation if you’re over 21 is pretty routine).
Does that mean that the existing — and not terribly diverse – operations will be poised to cash in first?
Tough issues. But in the meantime, what we’re seeing is a pretty quiet move to make a pretty major policy decision. The Planning Commission approved the ban unanimously.
The Board of Supes Land Use Committee will hear Safai’s bill Monday/24. It will come to the full board Tuesday/25.