Concerns raised about new medical cannabis collective

A second medical cannabis collective has opened its doors in a commercial district, in apparent violation of Berkeley zoning laws. But the operator said he thinks a storefront in a strip of stores is less disruptive than bothering neighbors in a residential area.

The exterior of Perfect Plants Patient’s Group on Sacramento Street. Photos: Frances Dinkelspiel

A new medical cannabis collective has opened up on Sacramento Street near Oregon, bringing to two the number of groups that are operating in a commercial district in apparent violation of Berkeley’s zoning ordinances.

Perfect Plant Patient’s Group, or 3PGs, opened its doors in early September at 2840B Sacramento St., according to Eric Thomas, 35, a former highway construction worker turned cannabis entrepreneur. The non-profit cannabis collective operates in three counties, runs a delivery service, and is planning to open another bricks and mortar operation in Vallejo, he said. The group had to shut down its El Sobrante location in late July because it was located in unincorporated Contra Costa County, which has a ban on cannabis operations.

After getting kicked out of El Sobrante, Thomas called around to various East Bay cities to find out about their medical cannabis laws and selected Berkeley because it “seemed the most organized,” he said. Thomas and his partners also had conversations with City Councilmember Kriss Worthington’s office about relocating here and felt encouraged to do so. (Worthington’s office did not tell the group to locate in a commercial area, said Thomas.)

It is difficult to tell that the Perfect Plant Patients group storefront is a cannabis collective. The windows are covered with black garbage bags so no one can see inside and a “No Trespassing” sign is propped up against the window. The black metal mesh door into the three-room space is almost opaque.

Thomas is aware that the storefront sits in a commercial district and may be violating Berkeley’s zoning laws, which require collectives to operate in residential areas. Only the city’s three licensed dispensaries can operate in a commercial district. Thomas said he will move if he has to, but thinks that it is less disruptive to be located in the strip of small stores on Sacramento Street than among people’s homes.

“As far as operating out of a commercial building, I made that decision based on one thing,” said Thomas. “I didn’t want to be disrupting a residential neighborhood. To bring in 100 people into someone’s neighborhood throughout the day isn’t logical. It puts a strain on the neighborhood.”

Another medical cannabis collective, Forty Acres, operates from a set of rooms over the Albatross pub on San Pablo Avenue near University. That is also a commercial district.

The city of Berkeley is aware of both collectives and has had some meetings to discuss the situation, according to Elizabeth Greene, a city planner who acts as the secretary to the Medical Cannabis Commission.

But the precise nature of the city’s response to the collectives is not clear. Berkeleyside has sent numerous emails and made many phone calls to city officials asking why the cannabis collectives are being permitted to operate in commercial areas, but has not gotten a response. Berkeleyside has also asked why Forty Acres was turned down when it applied for a business license so it could pay taxes to the city.

A sign warning against drug dealing near the location of a new medical cannabis collective

The city’s hands-off attitude may encourage more and more collectives to set up shop in the city, a member of one of Berkeley’s three licensed dispensaries said in September.

“If word gets out you can open a dispensary in Berkeley by not calling it a dispensary, we will have a 100 opening just like in San Jose,” said the man. “When everybody finds out Berkeley is open season, there is going to be mayhem. My worry is we are going to have a Wild Wild West kind of thing.

Neighbors are also worried. Laura Menard, a vocal neighborhood activist, sent an email October 15 to the city manager’s office and copied it to numerous Berkeley officials.

“Over the last few weeks residents have noticed increased drug sales and public use of marijuana by adults and minors in the area of Sacramento and Oregon Streets.”

Menard continued:”Yesterday we watched a group of middle school aged kids smoking pot in front of Spiral Gardens — the smell was strong enough to be noticed a block away.

“We witnessed people knock and gain entrance to 2840B Sacramento Street, a business with no signage just instructions posted on the door explaining how to gain entry. We saw a bike messenger leave the shop heading up Oregon Street. I have seen numerous hand-to-hand sales in the area on my way walking to Berkeley Bowl West. There is a new group of people dealing drugs in the area unfamiliar to local merchants and residents.”

Later in the email Menard wrote: “Sacramento Street residents and merchants have worked long and hard to rid the area of drug sales, public consumption, and the crime associated with illegal drug sales. Considerable city resources have been spent in abatement proceedings and police enforcement operations for decades. The building is tagged in a few places with gang graffiti: BB, for Borders Brothers.”

3PGs got its start in 2009 in Monterey County. Thomas and his family had been operating a highway construction company and working with major contractors like Thomas & Pratt and Ghilloti Brothers. The recession hit hard and left their company with $800,000 in accounts receivable, he said. Thomas sunk into a depression that doctors tried to treat with a variety of anti-depressants, he said. The drugs only made things worse so he tried medical cannabis. It lifted his mood.

Eric Thomas, who runs Perfect Plants Patient’s Group, with his binder full of legal and tax documents

Thomas joined the Monterey County Collective and then took over a leadership position, expanding its operations to 2,000 members across three counties — Solano, Contra Costa and Alameda. Each member pays a $30 annual membership fee, he said, and then “contributes” to the collective for their share of medical cannabis. He runs the Sacramento Street store with his nephew, Andrew Thomas, 20.

Thomas said he is legal and transparent. He brought a thick white binder stuffed with tax and licensing documents to a meeting with this reporter and was willing to share everything. The state Board of Equalization has granted 3PGs licenses to operate in three counties. Thomas even disclosed that he had paid $12,480 in taxes to California since April 2011.

“We are a legitimate business,” he said. “We have nothing to hide. We are a 501c3 (a non-profit) and shouldn’t even be paying taxes. But we want the community to benefit. We are here to better our surrounding citizens and cities.”

Rapid growth of cannabis collective raises concern [09.29.11]
Does new cannabis body provide more accountability? [07.20.11]
Berkeley loses money as cannabis commission idles [05.25.11] 

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Frances Dinkelspiel is co-founder and executive editor of Cityside. Email: