Smoke and mirrors

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Compassion and Care Center employee and longtime medical marijuana activist Wayne Justmann proudly displays a framed "keep up the good work" letter from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D–San Francisco) in the second-story medical cannabis dispensary in San Francisco.

"Patients can sit and relax and get away from the problems of the world," Justmann told the Guardian in describing this half pharmacy, half community center, which features AIDS information brochures, a DSL Internet connection, the makings for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and marijuana priced at $18 for an eighth of an ounce.

The CCC, which has been open both legally and illegally since 1992, is one of the numerous medical cannabis dispensaries that are having a hard time getting through the city’s onerous approval process. Under guidelines that the Board of Supervisors approved and the mayor signed in November 2005, all of the dispensaries have until July 1 to get the required permits, but none have successfully done so.

The supervisors recently voted to hold off enforcement for the dispensaries that have already applied for permits, which 26 of the 31 or so clubs had done at press time. Pending legislation by Sup. Michela Alioto-Pier would set a new deadline of Jan. 1, 2008, while also effecting procedural changes that could make it difficult for many facilities to ever get permits. She is proposing more stringent disability access requirements and wants to give the Mayor’s Office more control over which clubs must abide by them.

Justmann and many others in the medical marijuana community interviewed by us see the pending legislation as a mixed bag. It would remove the police inspection from an approval process that now requires clubs to deal with six city departments, easing some concerns of proprietors in this quasi-legal business. Yet the legislation would also require all clubs to meet the Americans with Disabilities Act’s standards for new construction, which could prove logistically difficult and prohibitively expensive for most dispensaries, which are in older buildings. For example, the CCC would need to build an elevator in the aging building where it rents space.

Alioto-Pier told us the amendment — which will be heard by the Planning Commission on July 12 and the board thereafter — is necessary to place medical cannabis dispensaries on par with other medical facilities. "Specifically because they are medical, the board felt it’s important for MCDs to be accessible," she told us. "It’s what I think should have been across the city."

Under the amendment, dispensaries would have to ensure that their bathrooms, hallways, and front doors were wide enough for wheelchair access and that they had limited use–limited access elevators, which would disqualify vertical or inclined platform lifts. While dispensaries like ACT UP’s could aim to spend "tens of thousands of dollars" to meet the standards, co-owner Andrea Lindsay told us, others wouldn’t be able to comply, such as those that couldn’t afford the expense or whose landlords wouldn’t allow extensive remodeling jobs.

The CCC is accessible only by stairs and does not have the money or permission to do the work that the amendment would require. "Still, we provide the necessary services to the patient," Justmann said. He also cited the financial gamble in spending large sums on a business that — unlike other health care facilities — always stands the risk of being shut down by the federal government.

Stephanie (whom we agreed to identify only by her first name), an HIV-positive patient of the CCC for the past three years, told us the new accessibility standards could make affordable marijuana less accessible. "The places that will be able to be kept open will be price gougers," she said. "I won’t be able to afford it."

Some MCDs unable to meet the new standards could apply to the Mayor’s Office on Disability for waivers, giving Mayor Gavin Newsom — who has publicly said there should be fewer MCDs in town — more authority over medical marijuana. That arrangement would be a change from the procedure for other projects, which must submit waiver requests to the Access Appeals Commission, which is part of the Department of Building Inspection.

Kris Hermes of Oakland’s Americans for Safe Access expressed his skepticism about the switch. "The main concern of the people is that the MOD will have the ultimate discretion," he told us. But Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, who sponsored the Medical Cannabis Act in 2005, seems to be supporting the Alioto-Pier legislation. "It’s important that the MCDs are consistent with other health care facilities and businesses," he told us. "We want to do everything in our power to make this not so cost prohibitive."

No dispensaries have acquired a permit yet, although five now have "provisional permits." Many MCDs in the waiting line cite red tape and already stringent requirements as barring them from recognition as official businesses. Clubs must pay $6,691 for a permit and cannot generate "excessive profit" when in business.

"I don’t know what we need to do next," said Lindsay, who paid ACT UP’s fees six months ago. "The city’s new to the process. We’re new to the process. It’s frustrating on both sides."

For Kevin Reed, owner of the Green Cross Dispensary, meeting the new standards would be a hard task to accomplish in the next six months. As he told us, "You’d pretty much have to knock down a building and rebuild it."*