Vapor Room dispensary prepares for closure
by Chris Carson
Martin Olive, the executive director of the Vapor Room, which is set to close July 31, can remember about eight years ago when he met a man who stood six feet two inches tall, but due to cancer weighed no more than 110 pounds. Over time, Olive said, he watched as the man grew stronger and started to grow physically because of regular treatment with medical cannabis.
Olive said the man began to eat again and smile more. Not only did the cannabis relieve the pain of cancer and suppress his nausea, but it allowed him to socialize with the small community at the Vapor Room. Medical cannabis helped him beat cancer then. When it came back again and again, in different parts of his body, the cannabis helped him beat it those times as well, Olive said.
That's one reason why Olive wholeheartedly believes in the value of medical cannabis.
"If I prefer to take a couple tokes off a joint for my illness," Olive said of people with cancer, HIV, or other illnesses, "then I should have that option."
"In California we do have that option, and we have it thoroughly regulated, and it's a shame we are not being allowed to show the rest of the world all the good medical cannabis can offer," he added.
The Vapor Room will have to close at the end of the month after the owner of its building in the Lower Haight received a letter from U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California Melinda Haag, threating seizure of property, even jail time of up to 40 years, if the owner did not remove the "illegal medical cannabis dispensary" from their property.
But what surprises and saddens Olive about the federal government's action, supposedly brought on by the club's proximity to the patch of grass used for the dogs at Duboce Park, is that it is not an illegally operating dispensary.
"We always prided ourselves on operating as legally and ethically as possible. We always felt confident that anybody doing research would notice that and see we were not a part of the type of dispensaries being targeted and I thought that would protect us," Olive said.
The federal crackdown on medical cannabis dispensaries began last fall, when Haag gave a press conference outlining the government's stance on medical marijuana. The Compassionate Care Act, an initiative passed by California voters in 1996, allows patients with a valid doctor's recommendation to possess and cultivate marijuana for personal use. Haag said that the medical cannabis industry has been "hijacked by profiteers who are motivated, not by compassion, but by money."
When asked if the Vapor Room takes a profit, or operates illegally in any way, Olive told the Bay Area Reporter that it has been "a model dispensary" and anyone would be hard pressed to find evidence showing otherwise.
Haag's comments from 2011 however, suggest that illegal or legal acts by dispensaries makes no difference. She suggested the federal government was operating on the basis that, as Olive said, "Cannabis has no medicinal value," and must still be treated as a banned substance, as it is under federal law. Because of the number of California dispensaries, Haag said she would focus on those close to places where children learn and play, such as schools and parks, making the Vapor Room a target.
Medical cannabis is basically being associated with crack cocaine, Olive said with a sarcastic laugh, as the logic for targeting dispensaries close to schools and parks is based on "the drug war stuff from the 1980s" when law enforcement made extra effort to keep drugs away from children.
The reality is, the federal government "has no interest in protecting communities," Olive said, and the closure of the Vapor Room is just the latest example in San Francisco.
Feds hit Oakland
Meanwhile, across the bay in Oakland, on July 10, Harborside Health Center, the state's largest dispensary and the city of Oakland's third largest retail taxpayer, found a similar note from Haag on its door, calling for "an official Complaint for Forfeiture of Property" on the basis "that cannabis is being distributed on the premises, in violation of federal law," said a statement sent to the B.A.R. by Harborside media rep Samantha Campos.
Harborside has vowed to fight the seizure of its property.
And if dispensaries can't be closed completely, efforts have been made to make things more difficult for people to access their medical cannabis. As of July 1, warned Merchant Service Providers, cannabis dispensaries will no longer be able to process transactions from credit or debit cards.
The Apothecarium in the Duboce Triangle neighborhood recently announced on Twitter it will no longer except credit cards, while the Green Cross on Market Street released a memo saying it can no longer take debit cards and urged people to contact their representatives and "demand that they support and defend California's medical marijuana laws."
A few politicians seem to be listening.
Rawstory.com reported that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) made a public statement supporting Californians' right to access medical cannabis and criticized the recent actions taken by the federal government. Pelosi even suggested that Democrats would be willing to take steps toward changing how federal law deals with marijuana after the November election.
Oakland City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, an out lesbian, noted last week that the federal Department of Justice initially said it would not target medical marijuana.
"They went back on their word – starting to target medical cannabis facilities allowed under California law," Kaplan said.
Out Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), along with Oakland City Attorney Barbara J. Parker, went public in defense of Harborside, criticizing the federal government for reaching too far into state's rights in a misguided effort to fix an unbroken problem.
"I ask that the federal government focus its scarce resources on the real crisis in Oakland – violent crime and illegal guns that are snuffing out the lives of so many," Parker said in a statement.
She added that, "In the midst of this crisis, it is tragic waste for the federal government to spend its time and money cracking down on legitimate health care providers."
Ammiano, who authored the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Control Act, which sets clear, statewide rules for the medical cannabis industry, said, "First the federal authorities targeted facilities near schools and parks, but now the rules seem to be changing. The U.S. attorney has been quoted as saying Harborside's size makes it more likely that laws have been broken. Is it good public policy to go after an operation just because it is highly successful at helping medical patients, with no evidence of criminal acts offered?
"The ongoing federal crackdown only reinforces the need for California to establish effective state regulation, through which we hope to convince federal authorities there is no need for criminal proceedings against organizations providing compassionate care," he said.
Olive couldn't agree more. He said he doesn't know a single person working in medical cannabis dispensaries that is against further regulation. He said that those who want to sell cannabis illegally will do so no matter what, but those who want to work within the laws feel like there should be more of them.
"Give us some laws," Olive said.