Labyrinth of permits for S.F. pot clubs (SF Chronicle, 4/28/08)

This article appeared on page B - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Labyrinth of permits for S.F. pot clubs

After San Francisco passed first-of-their-kind regulations for medical cannabis dispensaries in 2005, Cathy and Steve Smith were at the front of the line to apply for permits that would legitimize their business that previously operated in the shadows.

After meeting seemingly endless requirements and spending more than $100,000 in building upgrades, they are still waiting for that approval.

"I feel like I'm the horse, the permit is the carrot, and they are dangling it in front of me. I'm running like hell, and I still can't catch it," said Cathy Smith, who operates the Hope Net Northern California dispensary on Ninth Street, South of Market.

The Smiths are not alone. So far, the city has issued only one final permit to a dispensary. Today, a Board of Supervisors committee is expected to approve an extension for the businesses, giving them until January 2009 to meet all the requirements. If ultimately approved by the full board, it will be the second extension of the original January 2007 deadline.

There is no one cause for the delay, though there is plenty of finger-pointing all around and most is aimed at some part of the city bureaucracy. Even city leaders who drafted the original legislation three years ago say they are frustrated.

"Frankly, if there is any hiccup in this plan, it is strictly on the city's side," said Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who spearheaded the original legislation when the dispensaries were multiplying rapidly throughout the city with no restraints.

Putting any kind of restraint on the businesses has been difficult, as dispensary operators fear creating a paper trail that could be used in court by the federal government. The regulations have modified, too - for example, a requirement for police background checks of owners was scrapped.

Last year, Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier sponsored another change, mandating the clubs meet the strictest building requirements under the federal Americans With Disabilities Act.

All these changes have created confusion in how the process is supposed to proceed, say dispensary operators and city regulators. Generally, somebody who wants to open a dispensary must start the process by paying a $7,000 fee to the Department of Public Health. The dispensary must then gain approval from the Planning Department, Building Department and the mayor's Office on Disability.

Ultimately, the Public Health Department issues the final stamp of approval. The only dispensary to gain that approval is a delivery service that did not have to meet any building requirements.

"The holdup at this point is simply the mayor's Office on Disability reviewing plans for handicap access," said Larry Kessler, who oversees permitting for the Health Department.

Not so, says the head of the disability office.

"We are the favorite whipping boy," said Susan Mizner, director of the office. "We have been bending over backward to make this easy for folks."

Mizner said the aim of her office is to take 20 days or less to examine plans and return them with any additional accessibility requirements, though she acknowledged that two reviews took slightly longer.

Mizner's office has had to contact dispensaries several times to even get them to submit any plans at all and some of the plans, when they do eventually come in, have to be sent back for revision because they were not drawn up by professionals and simply aren't clear, Mizner said.

An example of the confusion, though, is the fact that Mizner said Hope Net has submitted nothing to her office. Smith said she submitted plans both there and with the Building Inspection Department and believes the dispensary is just waiting for a final OK from that entity.

"We've been waiting for it for about a year," said Smith, who places much of the blame for the slowdown on the Building Inspection Department.

In another case, Mizner said the Building Department approved a dispensary in Bernal Heights, though the plans submitted to her office had not been approved.

Officials from that department did not return requests for comment.

Martin Olive, a director of the Vapor Room Cooperative in the Lower Haight, said he expects final approval in the next six to eight weeks.

"I think because it's a brand new regulatory process, never heard of in the history of the world, there have been a lot of half-steps and miscommunication along the way," said Olive, who estimates spending $80,000 to meet city requirements. "It has been extremely expensive, taken way too long and been more complicated than it needs to be, but we're really proud to have gone through it."

Some San Francisco residents who have watched the process from the beginning are critical of how the situation has developed and of extensions in the deadline.

"The message is if you sell medical marijuana, you can do whatever you want and the Board of Supervisors will look the other way," said Arthur Evans, who lives on Haight Street and has attended recent City Hall hearings on the dispensaries. He said he supports medical marijuana and full legalization of marijuana but thinks the San Francisco model needs revamping.

"I think the supervisors should go back to the drawing board to get a set of workable rules that are practical," Evans said.

E-mail Wyatt Buchanan at wbuchanan@....