A cannabis grow room in the Forty Acres Medical Marijuana Growers Collective in September 2011. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

The landlord of the San Pablo Avenue building that houses Forty Acres Medical Marijuana Growers’ Collective won a court judgement last week to evict the cannabis business.

An Alameda County jury voted 12-0 on Nov. 2 that the collective was a nuisance and an unlawful use of the property, according to Michael McLaughlin, attorney for Clarence Soe, who owns the building with his two sisters. The sheriff’s department is scheduled to evict Chris Smith, the collective’s top executive, the collective, and other tenants the week of Nov. 26, he said.

But the eviction might be stayed if Smith’s attorney convinces a court that Soe rented the premises to Smith under false pretenses, said Clifford Fried, Smith’s attorney. He has filed for an injunction against the eviction as well as a separate lawsuit charging Soe with fraud and asking for $50,000 in damages.

The eviction is only the latest twist in the saga of Forty Acres, which began operation in 2009 on the second floor of 1820 San Pablo Ave. and soon grew to an organization of 7,000 members.

Founded by Smith and Toya Groves, a Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board official, Forty Acres was owned and operated by African Americans and aimed to break the stranglehold of Berkeley’s three cannabis dispensaries, all operated by whites. Smith and Groves wanted to create a collective that taught African-Americans entrepreneurial skills in the burgeoning cannabis industry. Ultimately, they hoped to apply for the permit for Berkeley’s fourth dispensary, which was authorized by voters with Measure T in November 2010.

Chris Smith, co-founder of the Forty Acres Medical Marijuana Collective. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

But Forty Acres immediately came up against Berkeley’s zoning laws, which require that cannabis collectives only operate in residential districts and that their use be “incidental.” Starting in February 2011, Berkeley officials informed Smith that Forty Acres was out of zoning compliance since it was a collective operating in a commercial rather than residential district. Smith and Groves argued that, since Forty Acres started before the passage of Measure T, it should be grandfathered in.

After Berkeleyside ran stories about Forty Acres and Perfect Plants Patients Group, another collective operating in a commercial area, the city issued cease and desist orders to the two collectives in February 2012, and threatened them with fines of $500 a day. While inspecting the San Pablo property, city officials also discovered that Soe had illegally converted a permitted dance studio into 11 unpermitted living units and ordered them vacated.

Forty Acres closed briefly but then reopened. (Groves left the collective in early 2012.)

Once Soe found out that Berkeley considered Forty Acres to be operating illegally, he asked Smith to shut it down, said McLaughlin. When he didn’t comply, Soe filed an eviction suit in March.

“Chris was operating his club up there and refused to leave,” said McLaughlin. “He left us no choice but to file an eviction notice.”

Soe was not opposed to the cannabis collective, just the fact that Berkeley considered it illegal, said McLaughlin. Smith applied for a business license in February but it was denied.

In October, Smith filed a counter suit against Soe, charging him with fraud and breach of contract, according to court records. Smith contends that Soe converted the space into residential units, rented them out, but never informed the tenants that Berkeley had not issued a permit. That case has not been scheduled for a hearing yet.

The City Council is scheduled to hear an appeal from a ZAB ruling on Tuesday next week that Perfect Plants Patients Group, or 3PGs, at 2840B Sacramento St., is in violation of the city’s zoning laws and is a public nuisance and should be shut down. Neighbors of 3PGs testified to ZAB in September that they had seen an increase in crime and loitering on Sacramento since 3PGs opened its doors, and frequently found discarded plastic cannabis bags around the area. Neighbors have been frustrated by the city’s slow response to shuttering the collective and have collected 112 signatures to date on Change.org asking Berkeley to shut it down immediately. Eric Thomas, the operator of 3PGs, has denied that his business is a magnet for crime. Instead, he contends, it is a positive force in the neighborhood.

Berkeley moves to shut down cannabis operation [09.26.12]
Berkeley orders two cannabis collectives to shut down [02.22.12]
Rapid growth of cannabis collective raises concerns [11.29.11]

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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...