Conservative Chinese push for SF cannabis ban could spark serious political benefits

There’s a weed war engulfing San Francisco, and it sprung from our Chinese communities.

Ahead of the legalization of recreational cannabis in California beginning Jan. 1, a ban on pot shops has been floated for Chinatown. Members of the Board of Supervisors may vote as early as Monday to severely curtail the spread of dispensaries in each neighborhood they represent.

So how in the Sam Wo did our city, the bastion of liberal left-hood in the United States, which voted 74 percent for Proposition 64 to legalize cannabis, find ourselves amidst reefer madness?

The Chinese folks speaking at recent City Hall meetings are hoppin’ mad about Mary Jane — someone get them a joint, stat.

I’m told that China’s historical struggle, and subsequent war, stemming from widespread opium addiction plays a role in the opposition to cannabis.

But opium isn’t weed. The former has led to overdoses and deaths, the latter leads to too many munchies. The power brokers stirring anti-cannabis fervor in our neighborhoods know this, but as far as they’re concerned, why educate their communities when they can gain political points?

This fight isn’t only about the good green.

An opponent of a medical cannabis dispensary glances at supporters outside of the Board of Supervisor chambers during an appeal hearing for The Apothecarium on Oct. 3. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

These political movers and shakers, and in particular Pius Lee, a Chinatown organizer, stand to politically benefit for years to come if major cannabis concessions are won at the Board of Supervisors on Monday.

“Pius, after the death of Rose [Pak], is trying to promote himself as the Chinatown go-to guy,” said David Ho, himself a political power player who tends to do his work in the shadows.

Ho’s mentor was Rose Pak, the powerful community organizer. Famously, Pak and Pius Lee competed politically for years. Decades. She often won.

Pak died of natural causes last year, leaving a power vacuum in the Chinese community — and Pius Lee is ascendent.

Pius Lee, third from left, is a Chinatown community organizer who’s pushed for strong regulations on cannabis in San Francisco. (Courtesy photo)

Those 300-plus Chinese community members scorching City Hall during multiple public hearings on medical marijuana dispensaries and cannabis regulations were chiefly organized by the San Francisco Community Empowerment Center’s Executive Director Teresa Duque, who herself is now building serious political capital.

Duque runs in the same political circles that supported state Sen. Scott Wiener, including Josephine Zhao, a fervent Wiener supporter. It’s no wonder Wiener has called anti-weed organizers a “vocal minority,” but not by name.

As Duque organized, Pius Lee swooped in to use his community leverage to further push city leaders toward a ban. Formerly aligned with the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Pius Lee now counts the Chinatown’s Six Companies group among his major allies, who in turn call much of Chinatown among its members.

It’s common knowledge in political circles that San Francisco’s Chinese voting bloc is heavily swayed by these leaders, as well as Chinese language outlets KTSF, Sing Tao Daily and The World Journal, with whom they enjoy deep relationships.

That’s the constituency that makes or breaks the Sunset District, Chinatown and other Chinese-populated neighborhoods. San Francisco’s politicos need them.

But Pius Lee’s push toward a political win has been marred by odd bedfellows. He spoke publicly alongside a representative of the Pacific Justice Institute, which was identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-LGBT hate group.

An Oct. 24 issue of Sing Tao Daily, a Chinese-language newspaper, splashed Pius Lee on the front of its “B” section, where he can be seen speaking to reporters with Frank Lee, previously identified by at least eight media outlets, including the San Francisco Examiner, as a spokesperson for PJI. In that photo, Pius Lee argued Frank Lee was not acting as a spokesperson for PJI.

“Different organizations were speaking out,” Pius Lee told me, but “we don’t organize together … I don’t want to associate with them … I am against what they said” regarding LGBT people.

sign opposing medical cannabis dispensaries hang outside The Apothecarium’s proposed site at 32nd and Noriega streets in the Sunset on July 12. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

The opposition from these groups also pulled Ho, Pak’s longtime lieutenant, into the fray. Ho is an investor in the Barbary Coast Collective seeking to open at 2165 Irving St., prompting direct confrontation with Pius Lee.

The Sing Tao Daily, for instance, ran an Oct. 21 story in which the community slammed Ho. An unnamed source told the paper, “Unexpectedly, [David Ho] took advantage of the trust of the Chinese community in obtaining ‘power’ from political circles and made personal interests contrary to the traditional Chinese culture and ethics.”

Ho is a kingmaker, and last year played a hand in the electoral win of Supervisor Ahsha Safai over progressive candidate Kimberly Alvarenga. But Ho is strongest in the shadows, and now he’s gaining notoriety.

One sign held by an anti-weed protester at the Planning Commission on Oct. 19 read, “No No to Bully Ho!”

David Ho, middle in back row, appears with Mayor Ed Lee, former Mayor Willie Brown and other friends, famiy members of the late Rose Pak in a community room at 730 Sacramento St. in San Francisco on Sept. 19, 2016. (Jessica Christian/2016 S.F. Examiner)

Despite being described as running against the grain of the Chinese community, Ho said he’s staying true to his principles as a Chinese progressive, and a Green Party member — he’s clashed with his community before, he said, supporting affirmative action, same-sex marriage and sex education.

But his community has the more progressive Board of Supervisors members backed into a corner, he noted. Ho refers to these folks as the “Chinese Tea Party,” and called out progressives for their silence.

“Where are our progressive friends on the board with this?” Ho asked. “I’m shocked they’d support that right wing agenda.”

These conservative Chinatown residents are at Supervisor Aaron Peskin’s back, too. Peskin told me he supports a Chinatown ban on dispensaries because the district “could still be extremely well served” by dispensaries in other neighborhoods.

Reasoned arguments aside, Monday’s vote could very well come down to how backed against the wall the Board of Supervisors feels from the Chinese community.

A political win for them now will embolden them in the future.

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

Editor’s note: The bottom photo caption in this story incorrectly stated the location of a meeting with David Ho, Mayor Ed Lee and former Mayor Willie Brown. The meeting took place at 730 Sacramento St.

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