More than 50 people crowded into a room at City Hall on Feb. 4 to listen as the Medical Cannabis Commission selected three finalists for the fourth dispensary. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
More than 50 people crowded into a room at City Hall on Feb. 4 to listen as the Medical Cannabis Commission selected three finalists for the fourth dispensary. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Berkeley’s Medical Cannabis Commission selected three finalists for the city’s coveted fourth dispensary opportunity Thursday. This despite the fact that a number of the commission’s members wanted to recommend all six dispensary finalists to the City Council as a way to suggest that Berkeley needs more medical cannabis in the community.

The top vote getter was Berkeley iCANN Health Center at 3243 Sacramento St. near Alcatraz Avenue. Its proprietor, Frances Sue Taylor, is a Berkeley resident who is on the board of the Alameda County Advisory Commission on Aging. iCANN would focus on reaching out to the senior community, she said. Six commissioners put iCANN at the top of their list.

Read more about medical cannabis issues in Berkeley.

The next highest vote getter was Berkeley Innovative Health, which would be located at 1229 San Pablo Ave., between Gilman and Harrison streets. Its proprietors are Shareef El-Sissi and Soufyan Abou-Ahmed and the dispensary would be modeled after their Garden of Eden dispensary in Hayward. Five commissioners put BIH near the top of their lists.

The third recommended dispensary is Berkeley Compassionate Care Center, which would be run out of the Ameoba Records building at 2465 Telegraph Ave. The owners of that dispensary would be Marc Weinstein and David Prinz. Its manager would be Debby Goldsberry, a founding member of the Berkeley Patients Group, and a board member of NORML, a nonprofit that has worked to legalize marijuana since its founding in 1970. BCC got four votes.

“The three either represented distinct geographical areas that needed to be served, a demographic that needed to be served, and were local businesses that seemed appropriate for adults,” said Stewart Jones, a commissioner.

The recommendations by the Medical Cannabis Commission will be forward to the Berkeley City Council, according to Elizabeth Greene, the planning staff member who works with the commission. The earliest the council will look at the issue is late March, she said.

Berkeley voters adopted Measure T in 2010, which authorized Berkeley to add a fourth dispensary. Currently, Berkeley has three dispensaries: Berkeley Patients Group, Patients Care Collective, and CBCB.

Frances Sue Taylor, one of the founders of Berkeley iCann Health Center, addresses the Medical Cannabis Commission on Feb. 4. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Frances Sue Taylor, one of the founders of Berkeley iCANN Health Center, addresses the Medical Cannabis Commission on Feb. 4. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

The competition for the final spot was fierce, with 11 organizations filing applications. Although Berkeley law requires all dispensaries to be non-profits or not-for-profits, the business is still incredibly lucrative. A recent press release, issued when the publicly traded corporation Terra Tech merged with Blüm Oakland, announced that Blüm’s revenues were $14 million a year. (The proprietors of Blüm Oakland were trying to open Blüm Boutique in Berkeley, catering to women, but did not make the final cut.) Berkeley Patients Group has brought in as much as $15 million annually, according to documents obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

One indication of the growing interest in cannabis as a business in Berkeley is that 4Front Venture Group, which makes strategic investments in the marijuana industry, is an advisor to Berkeley iCANN Health Center. 4Front has lent money to the principals of iCANN to fund the application process and has the ability to convert its investment into equity, according to documents submitted to the city. 4Front also purchased the building iCANN hopes to use, according to Taylor.

Before the commissioners talked about which applications they considered the strongest, they had a discussion about the process. While the law only laid out the path to add one dispensary, many commissioners said they thought Berkeley should add more than that. The need is there, some said.

“What I would like to do is recommend all of the dispensaries,” said Commissioner Charles Pappas. “I think we should ask for more and maybe we’ll get more.”

Added Jones: “The petition could be to expand the number of dispensaries beyond four. There is strong public support in the community, in the state [for that]. We all feel frustration that we have to choose one over the others. It appears there is only one slot and more than one qualified applicant.”

Both Jones and Pappas suggested to the more than 50 people in the room to aggressively lobby the City Council to add more than one extra dispensary.

Pappas said a few times in the meeting that he fears Mayor Tom Bates will not even vote to add one dispensary. In June 2013, the council voted to slow down the dispensary selection process since the federal government was prosecuting Berkeley Patients Group and other cannabis dispensaries. The council took that action even though a delay could mean the loss of more than $50,000 in taxes a year to the city.

Pappas said Bates was so disinterested in siting a fourth dispensary that he had left his appointment to the MCC vacant for eight months.

“I have no confidence in the mayor and the City Council,” Pappas said after the meeting. “They are going to foot drag and keep people in the community from getting what they need. I am sad about that.”

This story was updated after publication with a clarification about 4Front Ventures.

Finalists pitch for Berkeley’s fourth dispensary (02.01.16)
6 groups vying for dispensary permit hold meetings (11.10.15)
Berkeley cannabis selection process proceeds despite mayor’s suggestion to stop process (10.30.15)
11 groups vie to open Berkeley’s fourth cannabis dispensary (05.06.15)
12 apply to operate Berkeley’s fourth cannabis dispensary (03.24.15)

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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...