Herbwise: Shambhala Healing Center next on the federal chopping block

When Al Shawa, founder of Shambhala Healing Center, was asked about what he was going to do now that the federal government is trying to shut down his business, he was (understandably) irresolute. 

“I have no idea. Who comes first, the chicken or the egg? Do I blame the federal government or the city? Somebody did me wrong.”

Shawa opened his medical cannabis dispensary one short year ago on Mission Street. He knew he was close to Jose Coronado Playground, but that’s why he underwent an 18-month permitting process with the city, which assured him that the playground’s clubhouse was not being used. In late February, his landlord received a letter from US attorney Melinda Haag that asserted illegal trafficking of drugs were taking place near a children’s playground. His landlord, Haag informed, risked criminal prosecution, imprisonment, fines, and civil forfeiture if Shawa’s business wasn’t out of the space in 40 days. Similar letters were sent out to roughly 12 dispensaries last autumn. Those dispensaries are now closed.

But on Saturday morning, Shawa seemed confused, and not entirely hopeless that his small business could be saved. He sat in his back office, a man trimming weed one room over. “I would hope the city would stand firm and protect these entities,” he said from behind his desk, next to a bank of security cameras. “I don’t understand where it stands on this – it should be taking a leading role.”

Posted: these signs now greet patients at the Shambhala Healing Center. Guardian photos by Caitlin Donohue

Though the SF Board of Supervisors passed a resolution in support of cannabis dispensaries’ right to operate without federal persecution last October, Mayor Ed Lee has yet to speak out on the federally-compelled closures, besides to comment that he’ll kow-tow to the authorities on the matter of marijuana’s medicinal efficacy. We asked Lee’s office for comment when the Department of Justice requested Department of Public Health records for 12 Bay Area dispensaries in February (a move that preceded the previous round of letters from Haag), to no avail. 

Shawa had previously operated a clothing store named Privilege at the address, but opened up Shambala when a fire damaged his inventory. Since opening, he said he’s become attached to many of the regular patients. “You feel like your responsible for their wellbeing,” he said, before talking about how his dispensary passed out 200 turkeys to the community on Thanksgiving, and gave the nearby Folsom Street firehouse $5,000 worth of toys to distribute during the holiday season. 

Throughout the recent travails of the medical cannabis industry, one of the more frustrating issues has been the seemingly random way businesses have been targeted by federal agencies. Shawa’s is a case in point. While he grapples with the notion of shutting his doors, the owner of a restaurant across the street, Gus Murad of Medjool Restaurant and Lounge, is applying for a permit to open a new dispensary on the same block (as reported by Mission Local). 

Lupe Ruiz, who has been floor manager at Shambala since the dispensary opened, seemed likewise shaken and frustrated with the city’s lack of response in the matter. 

“I’m kind of devastated,” she told me in between helping patients. “How do you allow someone to open and then when things get hot you don’t say anything about it?” She recalled a picnic in Dolores Park Shambala recently organized for its patients at which people played ball games and got to meet each other.

The dispensary does seem to be a gathering place of sorts – on the morning I interviewed Ruiz and Shawa, patients consulted budtenders about the right strain of cannabis for them, joking and friendly-like. Shawa says that more than one patient has teared up when he told them that the dispensary’s future was uncertain. 

“Who listens to these stories?” Ruiz concludes sadly, with a sentiment that the rest of the medical marijuana community can surely sympathize with. “People are not being heard.”