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SF passes moratorium on medical cannabis dispensary permits

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The Board of Supervisors voted 9-2 in favor of the 45-day moratorium. (Jessica Christian/2016 S.F. Examiner)
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San Francisco enacted a temporary ban Tuesday on issuing permits for additional medical cannabis dispensaries despite concerns over patient access as it prepares for the era of legalized recreational use.

Supervisor Malia Cohen introduced in July a blanket moratorium on the issuance of all permits for medical cannabis dispensaries (MCDs). It quickly faced significant opposition from business leaders and cannabis advocates like state Sen. Scott Wiener.

After making an exemption for four MCD applicants in the pipeline — those with already scheduled hearings before the Planning Commission — and stripping a controversial amendment made Monday by Supervisor Katy Tang, the Board of Supervisors voted 9-2 to enact the moratorium for 45 days. Subsequent votes could extend it for up to two years.

SEE RELATED: SF may temporarily block new medical cannabis dispensaries from opening

Supervisors Jeff Sheehy and Mark Farrell opposed the measure.

The proposal was backed by a July city planner staff memo that advised the moratorium as the city worked out regulations for recreational marijuana, which becomes legal statewide January 2018.

But those with pending applications cried foul, arguing it wasn’t fair to block them. Advocates of medical cannabis also said it sends the wrong message and would set back San Francisco’s leadership role on the issue.

Cohen, however, defended the proposal Tuesday, arguing it was necessary to “allow our city to take a pause and evaluate the best way to regulate cannabis.”

“I would never dream of stifling any patient’s ability to have access to much needed medicine,” Cohen said. “There are 35 medical dispensaries here in San Francisco. I want to squelch the rumor that people and patients will be hurt.”

Cohen argued that the pause would help The City figure out the best way to allow MCDs to undergo a process to gain permission to also sell recreational marijuana.

“It’s prudent for us to take a pause and to re-evaluate our current controls as to how we can refine them to better serve patients in San Francisco as whole,” Cohen said. “I am not an anti-cannabis person.”

Sheehy, who is a medical cannabis card holder, blasted the moratorium and said it was getting off on the wrong foot in the new era of legalized cannabis for recreational use by “stymying medical cannabis operators today.”

“I would hope we wouldn’t kick off the process by stymying medical cannabis operators today,” Sheehy said.

There are 27 permit applications on record with the Planning Commission in various stages.

Cohen said she addressed criticism by allowing those four with already scheduled hearings to move forward.

“It targets the wrong people,” Sheehy said. “Medical cannabis kept a lot of people living with HIV alive when there were no treatments available to them.”

He continued, “We seem to be conflating medical cannabis with adult use. Thirty-five [MCDs] may seem like a lot, but how many Walgreens and CVSs are in The City? For patients to be able to access their medicine that has been proven to help people with certain conditions, I think that’s [a] different frame. The concerns about adult use we will address.”

On Monday, Tang, who represents the Sunset District, had amended the proposal during the board’s Land Use and Transportation Committee hearing specifically for the moratorium to apply to applicants with a conditional use permit.

That amendment, however, would have impacted both the Apothecarium permit recently approved by the Planning Commission and pending an appeal by the Board of Supervisors with a hearing date on Oct. 3, and the conditional use permit application being heard before the Planning Commission on Oct. 12, the Barbary Coast Collective.

Both applicants are in the Sunset District, which has long succeeded in blocking medical cannabis dispensaries, and both involve politically connected persons.

David Ho, who is an investor in the Barbary Coast Collective seeking to open at 2165 Irving St., is a well-known political operative who has helped organize Chinese voters for members of the Board of Supervisors. He was none too happy with Tang’s amendment and showed up to City Hall before the meeting and succeeded in sinking it. Ho told the San Francisco Examiner he was only against the moratorium if it impacted his application.

Ho said they have been working on the location for two years and just “want our day in court.”

The Apothecarium is co-owned by former Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and her husband, Dr. Floyd Huen. “Sunset voters overwhelmingly support access to cannabis and the Planning Commission approved our dispensary 5 to 1,” Apothecarium’s executive director, Ryan Hudson, said in a statement after the board vote. “We hope to begin serving Sunset patients without any further delays.”

Before the meeting, Tang had agreed to remove her Monday amendment. “The amendment I proposed in Land Use Committee was intended to build upon Supervisor Cohen’s grandfathering clause and to address those MCDs that must seek Conditional Use Authorization approvals,” Tang said in an email to the Examiner. “However, there were unintended impacts with the amendment, and that is why I am withdrawing that amendment today.”

The board is expected to take up cannabis regulations in short order. Sheehy is expected to introduce to the board next week legislation regulating recreational use that was crafted by multiple city departments over the past several months.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional information.

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