First local cannabis dispensary permit approved (SF Examiner, 6/13/08)

"Pot clinic to become a legitimate business"
2008-06-13 10:00:00.0

SAN FRANCISCO - Michael Welch will soon have the distinct honor of acquiring
the very first permit to legally operate a medical marijuana dispensary in
San Francisco.

His store, Sanctuary, at 600 O'Farrell St., is across the street from an
electronics repair shop and near a Subaru auto shop and a hair salon.

The medical marijuana clinic has been in operation for three and half years
— it opened in the wake of Proposition 215, a state ballot initiative passed
in 1996 legalizing the use and sale of marijuana to those suffering illness,
infirmity and chronic pain. Until 2005, there were no city rules governing
pot clubs and their proliferation prompted public outcry.

State medical marijuana laws do not prevent federal law enforcement of the
nation's laws, however, and The City's issuance of its first permit comes as
club owners and their landlords are under the threat of being shutdown by
the federal Drug Enforcement Agency.

Despite risk of federal prosecution, Welch and others say they are not
staying in the underground.

"When you can see the look in somebody's face of a 78-year-old man who has
glaucoma and is blind … and then watch him medicate and to see him relax and
laugh and tell jokes and be alive again — that's why I do it," said Welch,

DEA Special Agent Javier Pena said medical marijuana dispensaries in the Bay
Area "are all illegal."

"Anyone who owns one of the clubs is at risk of being arrested and charged,"
Pena said.

Not only does Welch have to brave the federal threat, he also had to deal
with an "arduous" city permit process. Welch paid the $10,000 application
fee and sunk about $23,000 into his leased 270-square-foot ground-floor
space to bring it up to muster under the regulations, such as lowering the
counter height and widening the entryway door.

Welch is waiting for his permit bill to arrive in the mail, which will cost
about $3,000, and once he pays, he will receive the permit.

City legislators adopted rules governing the marijuana dispensaries in
November 2005 in response to complaints that there were too many pot
sellers, and that the businesses were often clustered together, in some
cases near schools, attracting drug dealers and crime.

The law required clubs to obtain city permits by June 2006, but the deadline
was extended twice, after city departments were slow to act on the

There are 25 pending pot club permits. On Thursday, the Public Health
Department approved a permit for the Re-leaf Center to move into a new
location at 1284 Mission St., according to Larry Kessler, medical marijuana
club inspector for the health department.