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Dispensaries in limbo as SF weighs moratorium option

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A budtender weighs marijuana at The Apothecarium’s Marina location at 2414 Lombard St. The Apothecarium’s proposed location in the Sunset District was approved by the Planning Commission last month. (Mira Laing/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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Five years after the Vapor Room closed its Haight Street shop under federal pressure, the medical cannabis dispensary is finally ready to appear before the Planning Commission this month for permission to open in South of Market.

“It’s taken us this long to find a new compliant location,” said Stephanie Tucker, the Vapor Room’s community outreach director. “It’s been a really long journey for us.”

But talks of a moratorium on medical cannabis dispensaries in San Francisco are making the future hazy for the operators of the Vapor Room and other proposed dispensaries that have worked at length to open up shop in The City.

Supervisor Malia Cohen introduced legislation July 25 for San Francisco to hit the pause button on approving new pot dispensaries until The City can figure out regulations for recreational marijuana sales come January 2018.

SEE RELATED: SF may stunt growth of cannabis industry ahead of legalization

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Dispensary owners are worried that the Planning Commission could bump their scheduled hearings in the coming months until after the supervisors vote on the temporary ban.

Vapor Room owner Martin Olive said that if dispensary owners have gone through the planning process and have a hearing date, “you should be given your chance to be heard at the Planning Commission.”

The Vapor Room is scheduled to be heard Aug. 24.

Delays mean added costs for dispensary applicants, who are locked into leases without revenue and who also fear that they could be placed at the end of the line when California begins to issue licenses to sell marijuana Jan. 2.

“I’m concerned with the timing of any potential delays on a local level and how that may interfere with timing for state licenses,” Tucker said. “If you want to be first in line for a state permit, you need to have a local permit.”

The state is expected to begin accepting applications for licenses as early as November so that the licenses are issued beginning Jan. 2, according to Alex Traverso, communications chief for the Bureau of Medical Cannabis Regulation.

Traverso said the state is still considering whether priority will be given to dispensaries that are already locally permitted. He said the process “won’t be first-come, first-served necessarily, as we still have to make sure people have all their ducks in a row to be licensed in the first place.”

The slow-down for the cannabis industry comes as many look to marijuana to create living-wage jobs for a diverse population of workers. The industry is also expected to boost tourism in San Francisco next year.

There are currently 11 medicinal dispensaries in the planning pipeline, according to the Planning Department. Five dispensaries have hearings scheduled with the Planning Commission between August and October.

Cohen’s moratorium would temporarily ban the Planning Commission from approving medical cannabis dispensaries for 45 days, once approved by the Board of Supervisors, which could happen as early as September.

“We currently do not have sufficient tools to regulate and approve MCDs,” Cohen said through a representative. “Our existing regulatory framework for MCDs is over a decade old, and while it has been more successful than other jurisdictions in California, it has outlived its usefulness and needs reconsideration.”

City planners were the first to recommend the citywide moratorium last month after Supervisor Ahsha Safai introduced a now-approved proposal on May 2 to ban new medical cannabis dispensaries in the Excelsior.

San Francisco has issued licenses for medical cannabis dispensaries for 12 years, and the Planning Commission approved a dispensary as recently as last month with the expansion of The Apothecarium to the Sunset District.

If the moratorium passes in September, plans to open a second dispensary in the Sunset would be put on hold. Barbary Coast Collective is scheduled to appear before the Planning Commission for their Irving Street location Oct. 12.

There are also two September hearings for the proposed SBA Wellness dispensary at 3015 San Bruno Ave. in Portola and the Connected SF dispensary at 5 Leland Ave. in Visitacion Valley.

“We just feel that there should be some concessions made for people who have scheduled hearing dates,” said Quentin Platt, a partner with Connected SF.

Platt is also a partner in another proposed dispensary at 761 Bryant St. called Access SF, which has a hearing date Aug. 24.

“Delays are very costly and they make it even harder for people of limited means to serve patients, open a business, or get a foothold in this very expensive city,” Platt later said in an email.

Platt explained that the approval process takes about a year, and dispensaries have to be in a lease to start the process.

“You’re paying $60,000 in rent before you even know if you have a permit,” Platt said, noting that there are also added costs for attorneys, architects and consultants.

California officials are considering whether priority will be given to existing dispensaries with local permits when the state begins issuing recreational permits on Jan. 2. A citywide moratorium could put San Francisco dispensaries at a disadvantage. (Sarahbeth Maney/Special to S.F. Examiner)

There are six dispensary applications that are not yet scheduled to appear before the Planning Commission.

The latest application, filed in June, is to open a Defonce Chocolatier inside the Westfield San Francisco Centre. The store is hoping to sell “California’s finest edible-infused chocolates” on the mall’s third floor, according to filings.

When Cohen introduced the moratorium, Supervisor Aaron Peskin said that dispensaries already scheduled to appear at the Planning Commission should be heard.

“Anything that has been calendared that is before the Planning Commission should be either approved on the merits or rejected on the merits,” Peskin said. “But they should not continue those during the month of August.”

The moratorium would need nine votes at the Board of Supervisors for approval.

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