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Dispensary alleges supervisors were under political influence in Sunset pot shop decision

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Products sold at The Apothecarium Marina on opening day for recreational customers in the Marina, San Francisco, Calif. on Thursday January 11, 2018. (Emma Marie Chiang/Special to the S.F. Examiner)

A medical cannabis dispensary that was denied a permit last year by San Francisco supervisors to open in the Sunset asked a Superior Court judge Thursday to overturn that decision, arguing elected officials were influenced by the political donations and connections of a would-be competitor.

Former Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and her husband Dr. Floyd Huen partnered with The Apothecarium to apply for a city permit to open a pot dispensary in the Sunset.

But after being approved by the Planning Commission, the permit was appealed to the Board of Supervisors, which struck it down in a 9-2 vote in October. The appellants, Ark of Hope Preschool and Lutheran Church of the Holy Spirit, were represented by Ray Hacke, an attorney with Pacific Justice Institute, which the Southern Poverty Law Center considers an anti-LGBT hate group. Supervisors Jeff Sheehy and Malia Cohen supported the permit.

Two months later in December, a similar appeal was filed against another dispensary, Barbary Coast Collective, to open in the Sunset on Irving Street and 22 Avenue. The board rejected that appeal in a 10-1 vote, opposed only by Supervisor Katy Tang, who represents the Sunset.

That made Barbary Coast the first approved cannabis dispensary in that mainly residential neighborhood with a large population of anti-Cannabis Chinese-American neighbors.

Now The Apothecarium, which sought to open at 2505 Noriega St, is asking a Superior Court judge to overturn the decision by the Board of Supervisors. The City has 30 days to respond. 

The court filing argues the board had no legal basis to overturn The Apothecarium’s permit, but also argues the board was influenced by Barbary Coast’s political connections and contributions. 

The court filing cites a newsletter article from Catholic San Francisco that said about half of “$153,000 donated by owners, employees, lobbyists and firms associated with the cannabis industry to campaigns for current San Francisco supervisors” came from Barbary Coast but didn’t specify the time frame. The Examiner was not immediately able to verify that amount.

Barbary Coast executive director Jesse Henry, for example, contributed a total of $18,500 to supervisors since 2014, according to filings with the Ethics Commission. Barbary Coast’s attorney Brendan Hallinan contributed $4,500 to supervisors campaigns since 2014, filings show. 

By contrast, The Apothecarium’s contributions since 2014, the year its application process began, totaled $2,700, said spokesperson Eliot Dobris. He said the only contributions came from Apothecarium’s CEO Ryan Hudson, lobbyist Michael Colbruno and land use attorney Brett Gladstone. The Examiner did confirm these contributions with campaign filings.

The court filing also mentions David Ho, a political operative in Chinatown whose influence helped elect some members of the board and who is an investor in Barbary Coast. Ho contributed a total of $2,000 to supervisors since 2014, four $500 contributions,the maximum amount allowed per a supervisor’s campaign.

The Apothecarium “played by the rules,” according to the legal filing.

“The supervisors then twisted around into rhetorical pretzels, attempting to justify unsupported findings. The supervisors then turned around and approved another dispensary over the same objections.”

Those “unsupported findings” include concerns The Apothecarium would be near children under 5 years old, something The City’s own cannabis regulations do not consider an adverse impact, and the business “would not bring measurable community benefits.”

Ho told the San Francisco Examiner Thursday that he didn’t discuss The Apothecarium’s appeal with any members of the board, and noted that he helped save both Barbary Coast Collective and The Apothecarium from being caught up in the board’s approved moratorium on new dispensaries.

“They should be sending me Christmas cards, not making slander against me in Superior Court,” Ho said.

Dobris, the Apothecarium’s  spokesperson, said they don’t have evidence the board voted against The Apothecarium’s permit as a favor to Ho and the Barbary Coast Collective.

“Why would they go against their own stated opinions? The answer we keep going back to is, follow the money,” Dobris said.

Ho dismissed the claim money had an influence. “If $500 is going to buy me a vote, everybody will be doing it,” Ho said.

Several supervisors were asked to comment on the legal filing.

“It’s just not the case,” Supervisor Hillary Ronen said, when asked if her vote was influenced by contributions.

She said, “I didn’t think about contributions” when she made her decision. Ronen said she supports cannabis businesses and deferred to the neighborhood’s district supervisor, who, she said, had more positive remarks about Barbary Coast than Apothecarium, even though Tang ultimately opposed both.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin also denied being influenced by contributions.

“When I ran for office in a hotly contested race in 2015, I raised hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Peskin said. “And I am not beholden to anybody who [donated], whether it was $500 or $50. I vote the way I think it’s right. It’s that simple.”

When asked about the similarity of the appeals and the different outcomes, he said, “Had the order been different, I think we would have said no to the first one and yes to the second one.”

He said that the board’s position on cannabis was evolving leading up to legalized cannabis, which emphasized geographic equity. Recreational cannabis became legal statewide on Jan. 1 under voter-approved Proposition 64.

“The context of the conversation was very different,” Peskin said. “The board had evolved to a much more permissive notion of cannabis siting.”

The City Attorney’s Office declined to comment. “We have not been served with the writ, and we can’t comment on something we haven’t seen,” said John Cote, City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s spokesperson.

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