Commission ponders growth of unlicensed pot groups

The Medical Cannabis Commission at its September meeting. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Berkeley’s Medical Cannabis Commission agreed on Thursday to send a letter to the city manager expressing concern about the proliferation of cannabis collectives in areas that are not zoned for them.

The commission noted that two collectives — Forty Acres and Perfect Patient’s Plant Group — were operating much like dispensaries without having to comply with the numerous laws that regulate them, including getting licensed and paying taxes

“It is really important that we watch out for the interests of those people who are abiding by what is asked of them by the City of Berkeley,” said Commissioner Stewart Jones, referring to the three dispensaries currently permitted by the city. “I am concerned about an influx of (groups) coming into Berkeley. There are two now. Next week there could be two more.”

Commissioner Charley Pappas pointed out that he had predicted years ago that Berkeley might see an influx of medical cannabis collectives trying to operate below the radar. When the City Council was pondering allowing a fourth licensed dispensary, Pappas said he told members that was too few. Since many nearby counties, including Contra Costa, seemed to be banning medical cannabis outlets, patients would be turning to Berkeley for their medicine since the city supports the industry.

“I told the City Council three or four years ago that three dispensaries were not enough for Berkeley,” said Pappas, who is president of the Divinity Tree Wellness Cooperative in San Francisco, which has been targeted recently by the federal government and will probably soon shut its doors. “People come from areas where they can’t get medicine. That’s why you have these other dispensaries and delivery services popping up.”

Berkeleyside reported in late September that Forty Acres, which calls itself a medical cannabis collective, was operating in a commercial district, which is not allowed under Berkeley zoning laws. Forty Acres, which has 7,000 members, also operates late hours, sells bongs and pipes, holds parties, and exchanges money for medical cannabis. Measure T, passed by Berkeley voters in November 2010, allows the city’s three permitted dispensaries to engage in those activities, but requires collectives to only operate in residential areas in an “incidental” manner. Wendy Cosin, now acting planning director, wrote to Forty Acres in February 2011 stating that the city was “concerned that you are illegally operating a dispensary.”

Berkeleyside also reported in late October that another collective, Perfect Plants Patient’s Group or 3PGs, opened along a commercial section of Sacramento Street.

The commission decided to send a letter to the city manager that “expresses our concern and our awareness” of the collectives operating in areas that are not zoned for them and ask what the city manager is planning to do about it. Jones will draft a letter to that effect and the commission will vote on it at its December meeting.

The directors of two of Berkeley’s dispensaries also voiced concern about the collectives.

“We have to pay so many significant taxes,” said Aundre Speciale, the director of Cannabis Buyers’ Club of Berkeley, or CBCB, located on Telegraph Avenue Shattuck Avenue. “We have to pay an extra tax to the city. We had to pay extra expenses on our building for a year while we jumped through the hoops to get a permit…. I am not suggesting the places should get shut down. I am just asking for a level playing field. If we are called one thing I would ask that people not get special privileges because they are called something else.”

Erik Miller, the director of the Patients Care Collective, said that the two collectives were calling themselves collectives but were acting as dispensaries. If the city does not pay attention to this sleight of hand, it will attract even more collectives who do not operate within the confines of the law, he said.

“If you have a cash register and are doing sales then you are a dispensary, according to the language of Measure T,” said Miller. “We have two dispensaries who are not calling themselves dispensaries and are not paying 2.5% tax and who are under no regulation… You are going to have an influx of people coming in and opening up as dispensaries and not calling themselves a dispensary.”

No one from either Forty Acres or 3PGs addressed the commission. Toya Groves, the vice-president of the commission and a co-founder of Forty Acres, was not able to attend the meeting.

Under Measure T, all cannabis groups in Berkeley, including collectives, are required to pay a 2.5% sales tax on cannabis transactions. The city estimates the tax will bring in $300,000 a year. But Berkeley has not yet granted any business licenses to collectives, and that step is required in order to gather taxes.

Elizabeth Greene, a city planner who staffs the Medical Cannabis Commission, said the city is still working on a process on how to issue business licenses to collectives. She did not give a timetable about when that might be completed.

The commission, which is still getting its bearings after just four meetings, is also hoping that city staff can give clarification about the difference between dispensaries and collectives. It asked Greene to draw up a chart for the December meeting outlining what dispensaries can do, what collectives can do, where they overlap, and where they don’t.

The commission also voted to ask to meet with Mayor Tom Bates to help him craft a letter to the federal government expressing outrage and concern about the recent crackdown by federal officials on medical cannabis operations in California. While no dispensaries in Berkeley have gotten a letter from a U.S. Attorney threatening them with closure, Pappas has been affected and many commissioners are concerned about the situation.

“It is a scary state of affairs out there,” said Dan Rush, who serves as chair of the commission and is an organizer for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5, which unionized workers in Oakland’s dispensaries. “The US Attorney has declared war on us… roll up your sleeves and fight.”

Rapid growth of cannabis collective raises concern [09.29.11]
Concerns raised about new cannabis collective [10.27.11] 

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