Patrons stand in line at a corner market in the Tenderloin on Wednesday. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Fearing tobacco and vape bans will tank businesses, corner stores want to sell cannabis

Cigarettes are out. Cannabis is in.

On Guard column header Joe

Cigarettes are out. Cannabis is in.

Corner store owners are seeing their futures go up in smoke, as a recent tobacco ban and proposed new vape ban threaten their businesses. But if they can’t sell tobacco, one San Franciscan is asking, why can’t The City help corner stores turn into pot shops?

At least that’s the hope of San Francisco Small Business Commissioner Miriam Zouzounis, who also serves on the Arab American Grocers Association board. She’s been reading the tea leaves for the corner stores and smoke shops she represents, and it ain’t lookin’ good.

First came former Supervisor Malia Cohen’s flavored tobacco ban, approved in 2017. Now City Attorney Dennis Herrera and Supervisor Shamann Walton have proposed a similar ban for vaping cartridges, aiming at products like JUUL which are blamed for hooking San Francisco youth on nicotine.

But while protecting kids should be San Francisco’s aim, Zouzounis hopes the city officials will also help mom and pop store owners transition into other businesses instead of simply letting them shutter altogether.

“There’s no existing pathway for small businesses to get into that industry,” Zouzounis told me, Monday. “If our ethos is equity, let’s be intentional about that. Corner stores are local.”

It’s not the first time she’s asked The City for cannabis conversion, but in the wake of Walton’s new e-cig ban she’s renewing her call.

There are significant barriers to such a conversion, my colleagues have reported previously: The City has only offered one permit for new pot shops so far, a stunningly snail-like pace even in a city not known for civic speed. The City is also only now allowing new cannabis store applicants if they have in some way been impacted by the war on drugs. And, under state regulations, businesses aren’t allowed to sell alcohol alongside cannabis — so corner stores would have to give up the booze.

Cannabis conversion is just one of a number of mitigation options Zouzounis and the Small Business Commission have discussed to help corner stores and smoke shops.

They hoped for six- to eight-month extensions on the various tobacco bans, so corner stores could sell off items they’ve already paid taxes on, or for The City to offer a tobacco license buy-back program so shopkeepers can gracefully fold, instead of closing while up to their ears in debt. Zouzounis also mentioned shop owners are interested in seeing The City’s existing program, Healthy Retail San Francisco, which offers subsidies to bring fresh food into these markets.

So far The City hasn’t bit, Zouzounis said.

Herrera’s office did not comment by press time. Walton, for his part, told me by text message “I don’t have solutions for any grocers. We will work together and are meeting soon. For now, every grocer can sell the products they were selling prior to the existence of e-cigarettes. They are not deemed safe by the FDA, they target our youth and therefore they need to go.”

Zouzounis gets it. Kids are at risk. Local stores need to change.

But, she said, it would be nice if The City would help. Something. Anything.

“For some reason with the corner stores, we just legislate against them instead of coming up with a way to support them and help them change,” Zouzounis said.

The Small Business Commission will discuss the vape ban on Monday, April 8.

* * *

It’s a tale of two GoFundMe pages. On the one hand is the wealthy waterfront-dwellers’ page, intent on raising money to fight a proposed homeless navigation center at Sewall Lot 330, by the (cringe, Willie L. Brown Jr.) San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. The other GoFundMe, started by San Franciscan (and all around good-hearted human being) William Fitzgerald, in support of the Coalition on Homelessness which is advocating for the navigation center.

Well in the latest update to the Great GoFundMe War of 2019, the pro-nav center group has raised a whopping $161,550. The anti-navigation center group raised $90,467. And, let me point out, the wealthy, snobby, NIMBYs raised that money with only 297 donors, whereas the pro-nav center side showed true people power, with 1,659 donors. So how will the Coalition on Homelessness use that money?

“We’re working toward getting 1,000 (new) shelter beds, supportive housing, and we’ll also be working on getting this navigation center approved,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the coalition on homelessness.

Another shocker? The $160,550 is roughly 20 percent of their annual budget, which had Friedenbach breathing a sigh of relief.

“We’re always a struggling organization,” she said. “Underfunded, underpaid, understaffed. It will stabilize us and let us spend more time fighting for homeless folks.”

And it all started with $20 from William Fitzgerald.

* * *

I’m a big fan of my paper’s “Prep Focus” sports coverage. Even though I’m not the best uh, sportsball follower, I keep up with who’s-knockin’-who in our sports pages just out of San Francisco high school pride.

(I don’t have much skin in the game otherwise, as I went to Raoul Wallenberg Traditional High School and Ruth Asawa School of the Arts High School. Neither are hallowed names in the halls of Ess Eff sports, to my knowledge.)

Anyhow, I was tweeting out Lowell High School’s recent win over Washington High School from our Wednesday sports page, in our Thursday edition. Wash got their clocks cleaned, apparently.

But one fellow SF native who happened to go to Wash, Padraic Ryan, had a perfect retort to the win.

He tweeted, simply: “Revenge of the nerds.”

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at

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