Garcia: Urban geography rules pot-club politics

You don’t have to be an aficionado of hookah pipes to understand that when it comes to pot clubs in San Francisco, not all neighborhoods are created equal.

That explains the preponderance of cannabis service centers in the Mission district, the Haight and South of Market and a dearth of “pharmacies’’ in the parts of San Francisco where most people actually reside.

But it doesn’t spell out why neighborhoods can’t stop some clubs from operating in one area, yet have no problem shutting down clubs in another. If you were to suggest that money and political muscle might have something to do with it, you’d be on the right trail, although it’s not part of the official record. And it underscores that the regulations regarding pot clubs carry about as much weight as smoke.

About three weeks ago, a permit for a marijuana dispensary outlet on Valencia Street near Market came up for review. Scores of residents showed up at the Planning Commission to protest it for the primary reason that they strongly believed the smiley-faced club, called Mr. Nice Guy, was anything but. The Planning Department’s staff agreed, citing as evidence the fact that there was much loitering, smoking and less-than-savory behavior taking place outside Mr. Nice Guy’s doors, with multiple complaints from people in nearby homes, businesses, schools and churches. (Mr. Nice Guy, following in the footsteps of other pot clubs, also rounded up a large number of people and frequent buyers to testify on its behalf.)

Planners noted the fact that there were three pot clubs within three blocks of each other in the northern Mission — but over-saturation and proximity are not factors in the permit code, allowing planning commissioners to note the impressive opposition before voting to make the proprietor of Mr. Nice Guy that much happier by granting him a provisional operating permit.

Fast-forward a few weeks and there was yet another pot club permit up for review, this one in North Beach, that also drew a lot of opposition. That seemed to hold some import for planning commissioners, who cited the vocal neighborhood opposition as a reason for turning down the operating license for Holistic Solutions on Columbus Avenue.

So why did the neighborhood opposition count more in North Beach than in the northern Mission?

“That’s what we would like to know,’’ said Don Cecil, who lives a few blocks from Mr. Nice Guy. “It seems like it’s a complete flip-flop.’’

It also seems to point out the many flaws with The City’s new permit procedures for pot clubs, one of which is that having an overabundance of them in one area may not be good for the neighborhood. Or, as longtime Mission activist Lynn Valente put it to me when I toured her neighborhood recently: “What does it say about a neighborhood where you can get a tattoo, a piercing, or visit any number of pot clubs, but you can’t find a place to get bacon and eggs?’’

I’m not against pot or pot clubs, and neither are Cecil or Valente. They just point out the fact that even in an area with lots of industrial space, they’d like to see other uses for their commercial space than cannabis clubs. By the time the Planning Commission finishes reviewing all the permits by the beginning of next year, the northern Mission neighborhood could have nearly a dozen clubs operating within a short driving distance — not that you would want to drive if you were sampling the wares.

“I certainly wouldn’t want that many in my neighborhood,’’ said Planning Commissioner Michael Antonini, who cites residential opposition as his primary reason for voting against pot club permits. He also thinks that with 31 total permits pending, San Francisco’s embrace of all things related to medicinal marijuana has become a bit much.

“We have 31 pot clubs and Oakland has four,’’ he said. “That seems a bit preposterous. The whole thing is kind of a scam.’’

But there appears little political will to tighten the regulations. Cecil and Valente count among their neighbors Supervisor Chris Daly, who has gone on record as saying that he would not support any legislation that zones “any dispensaries’’ out of existence. And the Police Department is trying to remove itself from involvement in pot club oversight, recently deciding that it won’t be handling lighting and safety checks anymore.

Valente notes with some humor that at least every corner near her home won’t have a pot club on it. Word on the street is that an ice cream and candy store will be opening soon at 14th and Valencia streets. The only question neighbors have is whether it will be called “Munchies.’’

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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