Sunset cannabis fight heats up
by Sari Staver
Opponents of a medical cannabis dispensary in the Sunset are apparently making unsubstantiated claims about marijuana in an effort to scuttle the project.
At a news conference organized by the anti-LGBT hate group Pacific Justice Institute earlier this month, pastor Chris Ng of the Lutheran Church of the Holy Spirit announced that there have been several marijuana overdose deaths among relatives of his parishioners.
"I don't know anything more, that was what I was told," Ng said when pressed for more details.
San Francisco officials sharply disputed Ng's claim.
"Oh, come on," said Supervisor Jeff Sheehy, a gay HIV-positive man who is also a medical marijuana patient, when told about purported overdoses.
"It is widely known that nobody has died from an overdose," Sheehy said in a phone interview with the Bay Area Reporter. "Just the opposite. It helps people deal with diseases and provides relief for many conditions."
Sheehy likened PJI's tactics to those of President Donald Trump, who has been criticized for numerous false and misleading statements.
"It's sad to see the type of tactics used by President Trump here in San Francisco," Sheehy said. "Using blatantly false statements to manipulate voters, in coordination with an anti-LGBT hate group, is so unfortunate and very divisive."
At issue is a proposal by the Apothecarium, a Castro-based medical cannabis dispensary, to open a facility in the Sunset. Dr. Floyd Huen, an internist and medical adviser to the Apothecarium, was shouted down at a recent community meeting in the neighborhood.
At that same March 15 news conference, held at the San Francisco Community Empowerment Center, Frank Lee, a community activist and local spokesman for PJI, urged San Franciscans to "come together" to oppose medical marijuana dispensaries trying to locate near facilities where children congregate.
"We at PJI are here to weigh in on behalf of every community group and religious institution to be sure rights of children are respected," said Lee.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, PJI has been listed as an "anti-LGBT hate group" for several years, following repeated incidents where members of the group publicly demonized the LGBT community.
Agreeing with Lee were two longtime neighborhood activists, both former Democratic candidates for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Marlene Tran and Teresa Duque.
Tran, spokeswoman for the Visitacion Valley Asian Alliance, said in a follow-up interview with the B.A.R. that dispensaries are likely to "bring additional crime to a neighborhood."
When asked about evidence, Tran pointed to a recent attempted kidnapping of a child in Bernal Heights. "The news story said the kidnapper was high on alcohol and marijuana," she said.
In addition, Tran said she is acquainted with police officers who are opposed to new dispensaries. "If dispensaries were safe, why would police be opposed?" she asked.
Tran said she became acquainted with Lee when they jointly opposed an open-air urinal at Mission Dolores Park. PJI was unsuccessful in its lawsuit to remove it.
When asked if she was aware of PJI's long-standing opposition to many LGBT issues, Tran said, "I don't agree with them on everything."
Supe's nuanced stance
Other politicians have taken a more nuanced approach to proposals to open dispensaries in their districts.
District 4 Supervisor Katy Tang, who represents the Sunset where the Apothecarium is trying to open a dispensary at 2505 Noriega Street, has gone on record as believing that her constituents are "strongly opposed" to the new business.
In an interview with the B.A.R. last week, Tang emphasized that she has personally not taken a position on the issue, because if she did she would have to recuse herself if it came before the Board of Supervisors.
Tang insisted that her office's relationship with PJI has been "mischaracterized," pointing out that nobody from her office attended its March 15 news conference, where representatives announced marijuana overdose deaths and claimed that dispensaries were a danger to children.
But when pressed, Tang acknowledged that she had met with PJI's Lee, although she said the meeting was arranged by other neighborhood activists and that she was not told that Lee would be attending.
Tang said that the calls and letters to her office are running "seven to one" in opposition to the dispensary, although she said they are not keeping count on how many total communications have been received. Those that are in favor of the dispensary "all sound alike," she said, "leading me to believe they may be based on a form letter."
The Apothecarium's community outreach director, Eliot Dobris, a gay man, noted that the dispensary has over 700 letters of support from members, half of whom live in District 4. Dobris also questioned Tang's math.
"If they're not counting the number of calls and letters coming in, how do they know it is seven to one against?" he asked.
When told that some 3,500 residents of her district were members of the Apothecarium in the Castro, Tang said she was unaware of that. Her legislative aide, Ray Law, who joined the interview, said he had learned that fact at a meeting just the night before and had not had a chance to share that information with the supervisor. Tang said she "of course would take that information into consideration" in deciding how a dispensary might affect her constituents.
Other facts seem to illustrate support for medical cannabis among Sunset residents, said Dobris. He pointed out that the majority of voters in the Sunset supported both Proposition 215 in 1996, legalizing medical marijuana, as well as last year's Proposition 64, legalizing adult recreational use.
"Those are two separate issues," said Tang. "People may be in favor of cannabis but not want it sold in their neighborhood."
Daniel Bergerac, a gay man who's president of the Castro Merchants, wrote in an email to the B.A.R., "Katy Tang should be very concerned about being manipulated by this anti-LGBT hate group. The Pacific Justice Institute is telling lies to her constituents and those lies are getting repeated back to her.
"It's hard to overstate the positive impact the Apothecarium has had on the Castro neighborhood," Bergerac added. "They have improved the quality of life on their block and have never had a single police incident. They've also given more than $300,000 in donations, primarily to neighborhood nonprofits. I have never heard a single complaint about the Apothecarium. I would welcome more businesses like them."
The Apothecarium's executive director and co-founder, Ryan Hudson, said they will fight for the project.
In an email to the B.A.R., Hudson wrote, "We're disappointed to see the same old false fears about medical cannabis dispensaries being used today in the Sunset. The Apothecarium has never had problems in the Castro – so there's no reason to think we would in the Sunset."
Hudson said the dispensary has had to reduce its charitable giving due to the costs of fighting "this outside hate group."
"We're looking forward to getting past this fight and resuming our regular, quarterly donations to nonprofits in the Castro. We also hope to begin a similar program of giving in the Sunset," he wrote.
With the passage of Prop 64 in November, it's likely that dozens more dispensaries will be selling to adults over the counter beginning in January. Additional controversies with neighborhood activists and medical marijuana dispensaries are likely, officials said.
Dennis Richards, a gay man who's a member of the San Francisco Planning Commission, which approves dispensary applications, put the situation in perspective. In a phone interview with the B.A.R., Richards said, it is common for "busloads" of several hundred people to testify against dispensaries at Planning Commission hearings, leading to a "lot of theatrics."
With the legalization of recreational adult use of cannabis coming in January, Richards pointed out that there will likely be a "tidal wave" of new dispensaries applying to open their doors.
When that happens, the lengthy debates that are taking place now "will look like mouse nuts in comparison to what we're going to be dealing with beginning next year," he said.