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SF NIMBY Culture: An Old Problem Facing a New Industry

Photo Chris Roberts


SF NIMBY Culture: An Old Problem Facing a New Industry

San Francisco may have a hyper-liberal reputation nationally, but the city’s residents can be ferociously conservative when it comes to development in their own neighborhood — the latest political showdown over a new dispensary is just one more example.

Dialogue between the two crowds that squared off in front of a public library on San Francisco’s west side was never going to happen: Even if months of very bad blood wasn’t tensing the air, even if there wasn’t a near-impassable language barrier and even if the teenager standing silently in front of the mob on one side (the lone instance of the two sides mixing) wasn’t wearing a unicorn mask over his head — an exchange of ideas was not on the agenda.

The occasion for this gathering on a foggy and blustery weekday evening in early May was supposed to be a public meeting; an opportunity for the local business trying to take over a long-vacant storefront on a quiet commercial stretch a flew blocks away, to introduce itself to the neighbors and answer any questions they had.

But those same neighbors organized into an angry crowd, which was confronted (and clowned) by the whimsical kid in the mask — there would be no meeting tonight: Fears over just such a scene led anxious librarians to abruptly call it off.

So there were no questions, just chanting and yelling; all noise, no signal — all under the watchful eyes of half-amused police taking in the scene. The angry townspeople arranged around Unicorn Kid had long ago made up their minds: the city’s Sunset District is no place for a store selling medical cannabis.

New Industry, Old Problem

Vicious land-use struggles are a part of life in San Francisco. Though the city is unimaginably far-left by flyover country standards, most city-dwellers are as conservative as Catholic priests during the Spanish Inquisition when it comes to what sort of business they allow to move in next door.

Development projects that could add a few dozen apartments to a housing-starved city in need of thousands are downsize or canceled entirely if the new building replaces a prized Victorian or corrupts a view. NIMBYism is activated even if there’s no physical change to the cityscape; the cherished “character of the neighborhood” can be invoked if a new merchant is considered unsavory — or fails to charm the right people.

Unlimited resources can’t save you — they may be more of a hindrance than a help. Corporate behemoths like Starbucks (blocked from opening a store in one stretch of this neighborhood not long ago) and Jack Spade (barred from the Mission District) have discovered this the hard way.

So has anyone proposing to open up a legal medical marijuana dispensary. Marijuana merchants in San Francisco face a unique problem — there aren’t enough of them; with roughly 30 cannabis dispensaries in a city with a daytime population of over one million people, many dispensaries can’t keep up with the bottlenecked demand.

And when sales to all adults 21 and over is allowed next year, demand is expected to explode. Most common visions of San Francisco halt at the fog bank enveloping its west side — there are no cable cars, sea lions or views of bay-spanning bridges for most of the roughly 75,000 people who live here; there aren’t even that many rainbow flags, taquerias or tech bros.

Instead, stretching from the hills at the middle of town to the coast of the Pacific, there’s a semi-suburban stretch of nearly identical two-story Mediterranean homes — neat rows broken by churches, gas stations and grocery stores with large parking lots.

This is what passes for San Francisco’s conservative Bible belt; most of the 37,000 San Franciscans who cast votes for Donald Trump live here. Voters are conservative homeowners who can be counted on to oppose rent control, soda taxes and other San Francisco values, including gay rights — voters in this area approved Proposition 8, California’s short-lived ban on gay marriage — and cannabis decriminalization.

Ironically, this is also one of the few places a marijuana dispensary can open in San Francisco. The city’s strict planning code prohibits dispensaries from opening within 1,000 feet of a school or park, the idea — not yet supported by data or any kind of study — being that there’s some sort of negative nexus between cannabis sold in a store and youth. San Francisco is a densely packed city, with many schools and parks; the commercial spaces open to marijuana inhabit a precious few tiny stretches scattered throughout the city.

Still, the effort to keep The Apothecarium, a successful medical cannabis dispensary with multiple locations in two states (including a flagship headquarters in the Castro District — the literal birthplace of medical marijuana in America, which rediscovered weed was medical “thanks” to gay men dying during the AIDS epidemic) from opening up a second location in an old pharmacy on Noriega Street in the Sunset has become notably unsavory.

The dispensary’s opponents include at least one member of the Pacific Justice Institute, a Sacramento, California-based fundamentalist Christian organization. The PJI is opposed to gay marriage, trans-person friendly bathrooms and has been classified as a homophobic hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The PJI’s involvement has been seized upon by the Apothecarium — a key player in the Castro District, where it is the only medical-marijuana dispensary and a generous donor to local causes — but just how heavily involved the PJI is with the attempt to stop the dispensary depends on who you ask.

District 4 Supervisor, Katy Tang, who represents the area, said most of her constituents — including the ones opposed to the dispensary — have no idea who or what the PJI is.

“Frankly, the only ones talking about the PJI and spreading their hateful information is the Apothecarium,” Tang told a constituent in an e-mail exchange posted to Reddit.

The dispensary’s opponents also include members of a local Chinese-language Lutheran church — whose pastor, Christopher Ng, spoke at a Pacific Justice Institute-organized press conference called to oppose the dispensary.

Ng claimed that relatives of his congregation had died from marijuana overdoses — though there are no documented incidents of fatal marijuana overdoses.

This sparked an indignant response from District 8 Supervisor, Jeff Sheehy — a gay man with AIDS who uses medical-marijuana and one of Tang’s colleagues on the Board of Supervisors — but not from Tang, whose main involvement in marijuana was jamming through a last-minute change to city zoning code a few years ago to make it even more difficult for cannabis dispensaries to open in her district.

So whatever Ng (or the PJI) is preaching to his choir goes all but unchallenged. If worshipers at the Church of the Holy Spirit (some of whom were in the angry crowd arranged in front of the Unicorn Kid) were told marijuana is a corrupting evil by their spiritual leader, there was no counterpoint.

Could they be induced to listen — and would they changed their minds? We will never know.

Same Old Sunset
Dispensaries have been trying to open in the Sunset for almost a decade with no success.

In 2010, an effort by three marijuana entrepreneurs to open a marijuana store on Taraval Street, a few blocks away from the angry crowds at the library, was scuttled after neighborhood outcry, helped in part by Tang’s predecessor — current city Assessor-Recorder Carmen Chu, who led an appeals board to revoke an earlier granted permit. The appeals board was at the time chaired by a city power player, who would later run the city’s zoo; dispensary operators claimed a political hit-job.

The Apothecarium filed its permit for Noriega Street back in 2014, but waited until it could marshal resources for what it knew would be a difficult foray. After winning permits in Berkeley and in San Francisco’s also-conservative Marina District — and with the payoff for another dispensary worth the gamble — the Apothecarium still tread carefully.

To front its effort, the dispensary enlisted Dr. Floyd Huen, an Oakland-based physician and political activist — who happens to be married to Jean Quan, the first Asian-American mayor of Oakland, California across the bay.

And for the meeting that never was, the dispensary hired a translator to answer questions from the crowd of anti-dispensary locals, nearly all of whom spoke English as a distant second language behind Cantonese – if at all.

But every time Huen, a young Asian man from the neighborhood, or a translator attempted to speak into a bullhorn, shouts from the Chinese-speaking crowd — many of whom held signs reading “Spare our children from drugs!” and “No MCD!” — drowned it out.

And hence the devolution into a cacophonous stand-off, with ominous undertones.
“Racist, sexist, anti-gay! PJI, go away!” the rainbow flag-wavers chanted, appropriating a line from anti-fascists’ picketing of the alt-right. But to listen to The Apothecarium tell it, the PJI are the alt-right.

“What the PJI is doing is using this group to establish a base in San Francisco,” Huen told me over the shouts. He may be right; at least three other current and former San Francisco Bay Area elected officials — all of them Asian-American — agree.

Approached for interviews, members of the anti-dispensary crowd told stories of increased crime rates and families wrecked by teens using drugs. Trotting out an argument used by anti-legalizers across the country, they said it was concerns for children, not anything to do with gay people or the Apothecarium per se, that motivated their passion.

The problem, for The Apothecarium and any other medical-marijuana dispensary trying to open up for business in the Sunset or several other San Francisco neighborhoods with a conservative population — is that their arguments don’t need to be based in fact or reason. All that matters to the local Planning Commission, which is scheduled to decide on whether to grant the dispensary a permit in July, is whether or not the neighborhood is opposed.

They are. It appears overwhelmingly opposed, by a factor of about “seven to one,” as Katy Tang, the local supervisor, wrote to an emailer.

Approached for interviews by this monolingual English-speaking reporter, dispensary opponents mostly turned away or demanded to know if their interlocutor was “for marijuana” before answering.

“This is a social movement,” said one, who gave his name only as Daniel, and told stories about legalization causing enormous problems whenever it was tried. He had no specifics when pressed, and for specifics, he brushed doubts aside.

“Just Google it!” he said.

A little later, the young neighborhood local stepped to the bullhorn to tell a story about how his conservative Chinese grandmother, reluctant to try cannabis despite a cancer diagnosis, had become converted to medical marijuana’s good news.

This triggered something: The anti-crowd turned and left for home, leaving the rainbow flag-wavers slightly nonplussed.

The Apothecarium’s hearing at the city’s Planning Commission is scheduled for early July. All indications are that the library fracas is only an amuse bouche for what’s cooking.

TELL US, is NIMBYism an issue facing canna-businesses where you live?

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