1101 University Ave. seen from San Pablo Avenue. Photo: Gordon Commercial Realty

After being forced to move by the federal government eight years ago and after facing down a similar threat in its next location, Berkeley Patients Group is eyeing a new home at University and San Pablo avenues.

BPG plans to move into 1101 University Ave., the site of an old Pet Food Express store. The space is five times larger than its current site at 2366 San Pablo Ave. (near Channing Way), which will allow the dispensary to resume the free acupressure, massage, yoga and other patient therapies it abandoned in 2012 when the landlord kicked the dispensary out of 2747 San Pablo Ave. after the U.S. Attorney threatened to seize the property, said Étienne Fontán, BPG’s director.

BPG also hopes to allow patients to once again consume cannabis on-site in a vape lounge, much like the one it operated for 10 years at 2747 San Pablo. That will only happen if the Berkeley City Council votes Tuesday night to permit on-site consumption in storefront dispensaries. A vape lounge allows patients and customers to gather socially, said Fontán. Building community is an integral part of BPG’s mission, and that is done when people can gather and talk to one another, he said. In addition, many customers need a place to consume since their landlords (which can include the federal government) prohibit smoking cannabis at home. Public consumption of cannabis is prohibited in Berkeley.

“We want to go back to our roots,” said Fontán. “We want to have a lounge again. We want to have a community center again. We want to be able to spread out and be with our people in a way that we have known for years but have been restricted due to the size of our location currently.”

While a dozen people attended a recent Cannabis Commission meeting to express support for BPG’s move, not everyone in the immediate vicinity of the new store is happy. Some neighbors are annoyed that the dispensary was not required to notify them of its plans before the Jan. 9 commission meeting. Others are concerned that the dispensary will attract loiterers and bad actors so close to the West Berkeley Branch Library just up the block. Other neighbors are perplexed why Berkeley, which bans cigarette smoking indoors, would permit cannabis consumption in a closed building. Moreover, they don’t think having a dispensary at one of the major intersections visitors pass through as they enter Berkeley sets the right tone.

“When you get off the freeway, it’s one eyesore after another,” said Susan Black. “You start with the encampments. Then the empty stores. I don’t know that having a major cannabis place is what people want to see when they go into Berkeley.”

Since BPG already holds one of Berkeley’s coveted dispensary permits, it only needs a zoning certificate to move its operations. After hearing of its plans, the Cannabis Commission voted Jan. 9 to certify that BPG was in compliance with city and state operational and safety standards. The new site is also 600 feet from K-12 schools and parks, as required by Berkeley municipal code. On Jan. 21, Berkeley issued BPG a zoning certificate to move. BPG will have to apply for a building permit to remodel the building. No timetable has been finalized for the move, said Fontán.

“This is an opportunity we had to take because 2366 San Pablo Ave. was always a band-aid solution,” said Fontán.

While BPG was not required to inform neighbors of its plans, it wants to involve the community and solicit ideas and suggestions for the space, according to Sabrina Fendrick, BPG’s chief public affairs officer. BPG has set a community meeting for Friday, Jan. 31, from 1-2 p.m. at the West Branch Library.

The lack of notice has infuriated Carol Denney who lives nearby and is a long-time activist against secondhand smoke. She heard about the Jan. 9 Cannabis Commission meeting just by chance and was the only person to speak out against BPG’s move, she said.

“They (BPG) did a lot of outreach to make it seem like they didn’t have any opposition,” said Denney.

She said there is an artificial distinction between smoking tobacco and cannabis — both involve combustion and inhalation of particulates. Employees at BPG will be exposed to secondhand smoke if there is a vape lounge, despite the ventilation system, she said. She is also concerned that BPG will be close to the West Branch of the Berkeley Public Library, even though Berkeley law does not require a buffer zone around libraries.

Denney and a group of about five neighbors have made flyers to inform the neighborhood about what is going on, she said.

Last week, someone posted flyers on the windows of 1101 University, according to Fendrick. Denney does not know who put them there, she said.

“Berkeley City Council proposes marijuana dispensary and vape lounge by West Branch public library,” one flyer read. “What happened? Big Cannabis is what happened. Most of the Berkeley City Council has taken money from the dispensary or representative…. Protest this insult to our families, our children, and our neighborhood, the oldest in Berkeley….Big Cannabis throws a lot of money around. But it can’t vote like we can. Tell your neighbors. Call the mayor.”

“Eighty percent of Berkeley voted to make cannabis legal,” said Fontán. “Being harassed and treated like this I find very unfair and sad. If the residents of Berkeley can’t accept these progressive changes it’s really shocking and kind of hurtful given our 20-year relationship with the community.”

Opponents of BPG’s move intend to show up to the Tuesday council meeting even though BPG is not on the agenda. They intend to challenge the proposed change to Berkeley’s municipal code that will allow on-site cannabis consumption in storefront retailers that install a ventilation system. The City Council will also consider legalizing up to seven cannabis delivery services in Berkeley, expanding the area where cannabis can be commercially grown to the MULI and MM districts, and allowing warehouses that take phone and internet deliveries.

The flyers prompted BPG to send out an email and tweets encouraging supporters to turn up at Tuesday’s meeting.

“All of us, as stakeholders, patients, consumers, and activists, need to show up in full force to the Berkeley City Council meeting. The opposition is already bombarding council members with fear-mongering and propaganda. They will be doing everything in their power to stop lounges from operating in our city,” the email said.

people in lounge
The consumption lounge BPG operated at 2747 San Pablo Ave. until it was evicted in 2012. It was voted “Best Dispensary Lounge” by the East Bay Express in 2011. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Berkeley currently allows six dispensaries to operate in the city. Four are up and running – BPG, Berkeley Cannabis Buyers Club, Patients Care Collective and Hi-Fidelity. The iCann Health Center, a dispensary geared toward seniors, is set to open on Sacramento Street on Feb. 6. The Apothocarium is planning to open a dispensary on Telegraph Avenue near Bancroft Way.

Cannabis generated $1.8 million in taxes for Berkeley in fiscal year 2019, which ended in June, according to a staff report. About $641,000 came from the sale of medical cannabis while $1.169 million came from the sale of adult-use cannabis.

When BPG presented its plans to the Cannabis Commission, it proposed adding a second story to the building so it could consolidate its retail and business operations, which are now located on Fourth Street. That proved too expensive, however, so that plan has been dropped.

1101 University has huge windows facing the street but state law prohibits the display of any cannabis products. BPG is considering ways to conceal its operations and involve the community at the same time, said Fendrick. The dispensary is thinking of building a barrier a few feet inside the windows that could display community art, she said.

BPG’s security plan involves having two security guards on-site 24/7. Moreover, it would prohibit loitering outside. Staff members will walk around the neighborhood at least once a day to make sure people aren’t loitering and to pick up trash generated by customers.

Some neighbors said they feared clearing out the area would just displace people around the neighborhood.

Update 1/29: The Berkeley City Council voted on Jan. 28 to allow on-site consumption in dispensaries. However, the city needs to change its smoking laws before any can proceed. Each cannabis retailer will also have to apply for a use permit in order to open a lounge, a process that will involve a public hearing.

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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...