Code enforcement officer Greg Daniel and Deputy City Attorney Laura McKinney prepare to present report to Zoning Adjustments Board. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

After listening to residents complain how a medical cannabis facility on Sacramento Street had drawn unsavory loiterers, trash, and trouble – as well as testimony that it was a good neighbor – the Zoning Adjustments Board on Thursday voted 7-0, with one abstention, to declare it a public nuisance.

The vote that determined Perfect Plants Patients Group at 2840-B Sacramento Street had violated numerous zoning laws will send the issue to the City Council, which will make the final determination whether the business should shut down.

The decision disappointed Eric Thomas, who founded the medical cannabis collective. He said he has been trying to find a new location for the business, but has not found a landlord willing to rent to him.

“It’s very tough,” said Thomas after ZAB handed down its recommendation.

Eric Thomas, the founder of Perfect Plants Patients Group, testifies in front of ZAB. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Thomas opened Perfect Plants Patients Group in September 2011 in an area that is zoned commercial. Berkeley only allows dispensaries (retail cannabis entities that may sell cannabis) to operate in commercial districts. There are currently three permitted dispensaries in the city, and voters agreed in November 2010 to allow a fourth, although the laws governing that are still being worked on.

Since 3PGs does not have a permit to operate as a dispensary in a commercial district, it is regarded as a collective, which means it can only operate in a residential area and its use must be “incidental,” to the residence. 3PGs has about 3,800 members, said Thomas. That many people coming into a residential neighborhood would have a strong impact, he told ZAB. That is why he opened in a commercial zone. (He told Berkeleyside in Oct. 2011 that he knew he was operating in violation of zoning codes but thought it was the lesser of evils.)

“We are not a nuisance to the neighborhood,” said Thomas, who also operates a cannabis club in Vallejo. “We are an asset. We have seen an improvement in traffic. We have seen an improvement in the neighborhood itself. We service the neighborhood with affordable medicine… The end result of closing Perfect Plants Patients Group would be someone in a local neighborhood with a cell phone and a bunch of medicine. It wouldn’t be good for the city of Berkeley.”

Some of the volunteers at 3PGs testified that the licensed security guards helped protect the block and made it safer for children to walk to nearby Longfellow Middle School. They regularly sweep the block and try to be a positive force for good.

Those descriptions of 3PGs improving the neighborhood contrasted sharply with those of residents, who said the collective had brought trash and loitering, and maybe even shootings, to the area.

“There have been young men standing around,” said Christopher Allen. “My four-year old daughter has found drug bags with their logo on it in my yard. There are also people smoking in their cars.”

Added Don Santos: “We have enough drug trafficking that is illegal in the neighborhood. The establishment does not keep its drugs in its purview. It is spreading out and I don’t like it.”

While the discussion at the meeting was technically about 3PGs’ legality, in many ways it became a forum on the city. Both residents and ZAB commissioners questioned why it had taken Berkeley so long to shut down 3PGs. The city started receiving complaints about the business in October 2011.

“Why has it taken a year to get to this point?” ZAB Commissioner Bob Allen asked Greg Daniel, a code enforcement officer. “Why doesn’t the City Attorney’s office just shut them down? Other cities with which I am familiar with could have shut this down within a month or two.”

Daniel said that the city had to follow a legal process, which took time. He also said his division had spent much of the past two years investigating illegal massage parlors and that had consumed staff time.

“It comes down to priority and resources and at the time the priority was the 15 massage parlors,” said Daniel.

Residents also blamed the city for ignoring this part of town. Sacramento Street around Oregon and the surrounding area has too much crime, violence, and drug dealing, they said. In March, 24-year old Vallejo resident Devin Lee Whitmire was shot and killed outside Bob’s Liquors, located a few doors down from 3PGs. One woman, an apartment house owner, said that the city didn’t even send in street sweepers to the section of Sacramento near Oregon Street, even though it cleaned up nearby areas.

“We have enough liquor stores,” said Mahmoud Mahmoud, a local resident. “We have enough prostitutes. This area is full of drug dealers. Move those drug dealers to the hills where the nice people live. Don’t dump anymore drug dealers in our neighborhood.”

Toya Groves, a ZAB Commissioner who used to be closely involved with Forty Acres Medical Marijuana Growers Collective, which has also been served with a cease and desist order because of violating zoning laws, suggested to the neighbors that 3PGs was not the sole cause of trouble in the neighborhood.

“Medical marijuana already has a stigma attached to it and I want to urge the neighborhood to consider the outside influences,” said Groves. She abstained in the vote.

“This has been a really troubled area for along time in great part because the city has not down its part on the drug issues,” said Allen, the ZAB commissioner.

Berkeley moves to shut down cannabis collective [09.26.12]
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]
Southside residents contend with a spate of shootings [03.30.12]
Sacramento Street shooting victim dies, arrest made [03.30.12]
Shooting on Sacramento and Oregon, victim wounded [03.29.12]
No known injuries in Monday shooting on Russell [03.18.12]
Dec. 23 shooting involved five men with guns [03.07.12]

Would you like to get a recap of the day’s Berkeley news in your inbox at the end of your day? Click here to subscribe to Berkeleyside’s free email Daily Briefing.

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...