SF medical marijuana industry expansion on hold

cindy chew/2005 S.F. Examiner file photoA medical marijuana dispensary looking to add a location in the Excelsior was put on hold due to concerns from the neighbhorhood about the types of people the businesses attract.

San Francisco is saying no to a medical marijuana green-light district.

Cannabis, whether legally sold for medicinal purposes or illegally sold for recreational use, is California's biggest cash crop and one of the country's fastest-growing industries, but a further expansion of medical marijuana dispensaries in The City's Excelsior looks unlikely for now.

The neighborhood, still a mostly working-class area despite citywide gentrification, has three of San Francisco's 24 storefront medical marijuana businesses. One is near Silver Avenue, and the other two are about 15 blocks away south of Geneva Avenue near the border of Daly City.

On Thursday, the Planning Commission delayed until December a decision on whether to grant a permit for a fourth Excelsior dispensary — which would serve as a second location for SPARC, a successful South of Market operation.

There are no medical marijuana businesses between the Excelsior and San Jose about 50 miles south, which makes southern San Francisco an attractive place to put a dispensary.

But the two medical marijuana dispensaries already in operation south of Geneva Avenue are also drawing an unsavory element to the neighborhood, according to merchants, residents and police.

Blight caused by medical marijuana is a longstanding argument against allowing dispensaries to operate, but one that is lately holding more weight among decision-makers.

Also at issue are The City's nearly 10-year-old rules governing medical marijuana.

In 2005, San Francisco became the first city in California to craft such regulations. But there is growing concern that the rules — which restricted medical marijuana businesses to a limited Green Zone of less than 5 percent of The City — are outdated and need updating before more legal cannabis is allowed in The City.

SPARC, which has one of The City's busiest dispensaries at 1256 Mission St. near Eighth Street, has about 7,100 members in the Excelsior and the surrounding areas, according to the business.

But two blocks away from the storefront church in the 5400 block of Mission Street where SPARC wants to open a second location are existing dispensaries Mission Organics and Tree-Med, leading to questions of how many medical marijuana dispensaries are too many.

“We do have a situation where clustering is a problem,” said Rodney Fong, the Planning Commission's vice president. “SPARC is a great organization … but there are just too many” dispensaries.

Any changes to The City's zoning rules on marijuana would have to be made by the Board of Supervisors, and legislators have not touched the topic in years.

Previous calls from the Planning Commission to redraw the Green Zone and update The City's rules on medical cannabis — which were written before Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana in 2012, and before California's medical marijuana industry grew to be a roughly $1 billion industry, according to the Board of Equalization — have gone unanswered.

It's all but impossible for the rules to be updated before SPARC returns in December to try to win a permit.

“We thought we did everything perfectly,” said Robert Jacob, SPARC's executive director who also serves as mayor of Sebastopol and operates a dispensary in that Sonoma County town along with one in Santa Rosa. “But we'll listen to all the concerns and try to address them.”

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