Berkeley Patients Group on San Pablo Avenue needs to move. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Last Tuesday afternoon, around 1:30pm, Rebecca, who describes herself as a “50ish” recent transplant from Los Angeles, headed over to the Berkeley Patients Group at 2747 San Pablo Avenue. For the past six months, ever since she moved north, Rebecca has gone to the medical cannabis dispensary once a month to get marijuana to help her with her insomnia brought on by menopause.

“It’s my favorite place,” said the Rockridge resident, who did not give her last name. “It just feels like a community place. The folks are very knowledgeable. I really rely on what they say.”

Rebecca does not know what she will do when BPG closes its doors on May 1, a casualty of the recent federal crackdown on dispensaries located within 1,000 feet of a school or park. She has visited other collectives, but none has made her feel as welcome as Berkeley Patients Group.

Other places “feel seedy to me,” she said. “I just like the way this place feels. I’m an older gal in my 50s. It feels comfortable to me.”

Rebecca is not alone. Other patients leaving BPG on Tuesday bemoaned the news that BPG will cease operations at its current site in just a few weeks.

“I haven’t found anything as good,” said Brandon, who lives in Concord. “You can’t beat the prices.”

BPG is being forced to shut its doors May 1 because its landlord, David Mayeri, received a letter from the U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag in November telling him the dispensary was located within 1,000 feet of a school, according to sources knowledgeable about the situation. The government threatened to seize Mayeri’s assets if the dispensary did not shut down.

Mayeri and BPG  negotiated a settlement whereby BPG agreed to move by May 1, according to California Watch. Mayeri has put the 17,500 square foot property up for sale for $2.55 million.

BPG officials have declined to talk publicly about their situation but say the collective is not closing. They insist the dispensary is moving, although they have not announced a new location.

Efforts to find a new site have not been easy, according to people familiar with the relocation efforts who asked not to be named. Landlords who once might have been willing to rent to a cannabis operation are now leery because of the recent federal crackdown. And there are not many areas in Berkeley that are 1,000 feet away from a school and yet within the city’s zoning guidelines.

“Most of Berkeley is essentially excluded by that rule,” said Dave Fogarty, a project coordinator for Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development.

The closure of BPG will also have a detrimental economic effect. The city’s three cannabis dispensaries generated about $160,000 in tax revenue for Berkeley in 2011, with the bulk coming from BPG, which is by far the biggest operation. BPG also employs about 75 people.

“I’m pretty sure Berkeley Patients Group is within the top 20 sales tax generators in Berkeley,” said Fogarty. “There’s a revenue loss. There is an economic effect. In an economic crisis, for 75 people to lose their jobs, that’s bad.”

Fogarty and other members of Berkeley’s economic development team have been ordered not to assist BPG in relocating, said Fogarty. Given the current actions of U.S. Attorney Haag, City Attorney Zach Cowan has said that it is not a good idea for Berkeley to be actively involved.

“The city attorney advised city staff not to help BPG because it’s potentially an illegal act for city staff to be active in assisting BPG,” said Fogarty.

Even if Berkeley Patients Group finds a new location, there probably will be a lag between the time it closes on San Pablo Avenue and opens elsewhere, said Erik Miller, the manager of Berkeley Patients Care Collective (PCC), which operates on Telegraph Avenue. The PCC is trying to prepare for that eventuality, he said.

“We are gearing up,” said Miller. “The staff is ready to work extra days to have more people there. We’ve talked about expanding our hours if it gets crazy.”

But PCC is a small storefront operation with one counter for retail sales and no place to consume medicine. It is not set up to absorb the hundreds of patients who visit BPG each day, said Miller.

The second largest dispensary in Berkeley, CBCB, did not respond to calls for comment.

Patients can also turn to a number of other cannabis operations in town, even if some of them are not complying with zoning codes. 3PGS, also known as the Perfect Plant Patients Group, is still operating on Sacramento Street despite a city order in December to shut down. The collective is operating in a commercial district. Berkeley law requires collectives to be in residential zones.

There are also a number of cannabis delivery services in Berkeley.

Berkeley Patient Group says it is moving, not closing [03.16.12]
Berkeley’s largest cannabis dispensary to close May 1 [03.15.12]
Federal letter may make Berkeley Patients Group relocate [03.14.12]
Berkeley orders two cannabis collectives to shut down [02.22.12]
Councilmember: Look at unauthorized cannabis collectives [12.06.11]
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...