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

City Councilman Jesse Arreguín will ask the city manager tonight to investigate whether two medical cannabis collectives are operating in violation of Berkeley’s zoning laws.

Arreguín’s announced his intent after a contentious meeting of the Medical Cannabis Commission on Thursday, Dec. 1. The MCC spent a large part of its meeting debating whether to send a letter to city officials drawing attention to the proliferation of collectives in commercial districts, but could not agree on the wording. The MCC will take up the matter again in January.

“I don’t think this should be swept under the rug,” said Arreguín. “It is an important issue. Some action needs to be taken. The city is trying to be sensitive to these particular collectives, which provide medicine to patients. At the same time, they are clearly violating the city’s zoning laws and medical marijuana ordinances.”

A group of neighbors who live near the Perfect Plants Patients Group on Sacramento Street near Oregon has sent a letter to the City Council expressing concern about the unauthorized cannabis collective, which is operating in a commercial district, contrary to Berkeley’s zoning ordinances. Arreguín said he would ask City Manager Christine Daniel at the council meeting to investigate the claims in the letter.

The city has been aware of 3PGs for months, as well as the fact that another cannabis collective, Forty Acres, is operating in a commercial district. Wendy Cosin, now the interim planning director, wrote an email to Forty Acres in February 2011 expressing concern that the organization was “illegally operating a dispensary,” but the city has taken no steps to correct the situation, despite articles in Berkeleyside and letters from residents.

“I am also troubled by the fact that no action has been taken on this issue,” said Arreguín.

The MCC voted at its November meeting to send a letter to city officials drawing attention to the two collectives operating in a commercial district. Law requires that collectives only operate in a residential zone. Only the city’s three licensed dispensaries can operate in a commercial area.

When a draft of the letter was presented at the MCC’s Dec 1. meeting, a number of people, mostly connected with Forty Acres, expressed concern.

Chris Smith, one of the co-founders of Forty Acres, said the letter was based on unproven information and a hidden agenda – the desire of the city’s three dispensaries to preserve their profits.

“You are trying to send off a letter that has no basis at all,” said Smith. “It’s a distraction. You guys need to be focusing on the issues – which are patients’ rights.”

Smith’s father, Scott B. Smith, reiterated that point.

“It’s all about money,” said the elder Smith. “It’s all about race. It’s all about position. Unless the people who were in the community before do not change their tactics and their ways, hell is going to be paid in one way or another.”

Representatives of the dispensaries took issue with the idea that they were in the medical cannabis business for money rather than helping patients.

Aundre Speciale, the director of Cannabis Buyers Club of Berkeley, or CBCB, said her organization is concerned about the rise of unauthorized collectives not because she wants to shut them down, but because she wants a level playing field. It is not fair that CBCB has to pay taxes to the city and has to shut by 9 pm and the collectives do not, she said.

“If I could change the name of our nonprofit operation from a dispensary to a collective, do we get to stay open all hours of the night and not pay taxes?” said Speciale. “I am furious that members of the collectives are portraying us as the for-profit bad guys. We are not profiteers. We have much higher expenses because we follow the rules. To be called a profiteer over that … I find insulting.”

MCC Commissioner Toya Groves, who is also one of the co-founders of Forty Acres, objected to many aspects of the proposed letter. She thought it was not right to lump Forty Acres together with 3PGs because Forty Acres was operating from its San Pablo location before the passage of Measure T in November 2010. That measure was the first time Berkeley set zoning regulations for collectives, so Forty Acres should be grandfathered in, she said.

Groves also said that by calling the collectives “unauthorized dispensaries” in the letter, it was casting them in a negative light.  The letter seemed to want to shut them down, said Groves.

Groves also expressed concern that singling out these two collectives, which are run by people of color, might be racially motivated.

“The grouping of these collectives, which are very different, is a very high concern to me,” said Groves. “I am going to play the race card here. The only two similarities is who they are organizationally and the demographics of the patients they serve. It appears to be racially biased.”

Commissioner Stewart Jones, who was one of the co-authors of the letter under discussion, took umbrage at this assertion.

“I would appreciate it if you ceased raising the race issue,” said Jones. “There is no race motivation behind it.”

The commission started to wordsmith the letter but when it became clear that would be contentious, Commissioner David Stoloff made a motion to indefinitely table the letter. That motion failed and the commission then decided to try and finesse the letter in the next few weeks and bring it back before the commission.

In a separate matter, the city will start issuing business licenses to cannabis collectives in 2012, announced Elizabeth Greene, the city planner who staffs the commission. This will allow collectives to pay taxes to the city.

Rapid growth of cannabis collective raises concerns [9.20.11]
Concerns raised about new medical cannabis collective [10.27.11]
Commission ponders growth of unlicensed pot clubs [11.4.11]

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...