Trailblazing Medical Marijuana Cooperative Confronts Uncertain Future

This is part three of a three-part series:

Part one: US Attorneys Turn to Intimidation in a War on Medical Marijuana

Part two: Feds and Local Cops Conspire to Put Medical Marijuana Sales Out on the Streets


 

In its heyday, the Vapor Room Cooperative was the envy of San Francisco’s medical marijuana community. Located on the ground floor of a majestic Victorian mansion in Lower Haight, the Vapor Room was one of the few dispensaries in the city that allowed patients to medicate on-site.

It was a complete departure from the hole-in-the-wall dispensaries that have been under attack across California. While some medical marijuana patients must walk toward a flashing neon pot leaf and wait to be buzzed in through a door covered in bars, members of the Vapor Room Cooperative could peer through the front door’s beveled glass window to see a warm living room of patients making friends, playing games and sharing cannabis.

But for all the attributes that made the Vapor Room an inspiration for medical marijuana caregivers, there was one that proved to be its downfall: the cooperative’s proximity to a dog park.

Since October 2011, California’s four U.S. Attorneys have cracked down on medical marijuana dispensaries by intimidating their landlords with threats of asset forfeiture and arrest. U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag included the Vapor Room among numerous dispensaries she targeted for being within 1,000 feet of a park, playground or school.

“There is a playground at Duboce Park, however we’re outside of 1,000 feet from the playground,” said Martin Olive, Executive Director of the Vapor Room Cooperative. “We’re within 1,000 feet of the entrance to what is most commonly used as a dog run. Most of the park is actually a dog park.”

“Because there was a playground in the park, despite it being more than 1,000 feet away, [Haag] highlighted that as the reason we were apparently a detriment to the community, in her eyes.”

 

Landlords in Federal Crosshairs

Olive says that Haag has never communicated with the cooperative and would only speak directly with the building’s owner.

“Our landlord was very upset,” he said. “She is basically an elderly widow, and she bought that building with money she received from her husband’s life insurance policy. It was her retirement nestegg, essentially.”

“The tone of the letters that were sent to her was extremely threatening. So here you have this elderly widow who is not from this country who receives a letter saying she’s going to be put in jail for 40 years and they’re going to take all of her assets and property. She really didn’t feel like she had much of a choice.”

The elegant Vapor Room Cooperative closed its doors for the last time on July 31.

“The building where our dispensary was located is still for lease,” Olive said. “I don’t know if she’s going to find new tenants anytime soon.”

 

Search for Space

For now, the cooperative continues to serve its members as a delivery-only service. Olive hopes to reopen the dispensary in a new space, but recognizes that his options are almost impossibly limited.

“In San Francisco we have a solid regulatory process for dispensaries,” he said. “There are lots of areas where you’re locked out and can’t even apply for a city permit.”

“The federal government has been pursuing dispensaries selectively based on 1,000-foot zones that include playgrounds and ice skating rinks and anywhere a child may hypothetically be at any given time. I’ve had my own maps made that include both the city restrictions and the sort of ‘no fly zones’ the federal government has created. When you factor those in, you literally have left about 2% of the city that is eligible.”

“I’ve had landlords hang up on me. As soon as they see you’re a medical cannabis dispensary, they say ‘no thanks,’ and they hang up.”

 

Part of the Community

Olive and others associated with the cooperative were actively involved in shaping San Francisco’s medical marijuana regulations, and have sought the community’s trust through efforts to improve Lower Haight and the city at large. As part of its nonprofit mission, the Vapor Room has donated funds to local hospices, the San Francisco Food Bank and programs run by the city’s police and fire departments.

“We’ve had only positive interactions with the local police,” Olive said. “They’re actually big fans of ours. The neighborhood we’re in, Lower Haight, has not been known for years as a safe neighborhood. We were very strict and conservative about how we started operating, and part of that commitment meant that we weren’t going to have any tolerance in our area for street dealing or any diversion of our medicine from members to non-members.”

“We got rid of a lot of street dealing that was going on in our neighborhood by calling the police. They knew it was us calling and they knew what we were doing. I would like to think that we were a point of pride for the local police.”

 

‘More Than Just Cannabis’

While California’s four federal prosecutors have maintained that their enforcement actions are aimed only at large-scale providers of marijuana and not individual patients, the effects quickly trickle down.

“We found that what we offered was a strong benefit for our members — the ability to congregate together, socialize, share in their illnesses, share in their relief — all these things were really beneficial for our members,” Olive said. “It was about so much more than just cannabis.”

“When you take that away from them, you’re not just displacing the operators of the dispensaries and their employees, but you’re displacing an entire social network — a real life social network — of people who really don’t have any other alternative. They can’t go gather in a park to medicate and share in their pain and share their stories. They can’t do it in their hotels because they’re in federally funded Section 8 housing. They’ll get evicted, and it’s not easy to find another place when you’ve been evicted for using cannabis.”

Despite some not having a safe space in which to medicate, the cooperative’s members can still get access to medical marijuana through the Vapor Room’s delivery service. But dispensaries have been completely eradicated in some other California communities, forcing patients to choose between buying marijuana on the street or doing without it entirely.

“When you’re using a therapeutic substance, and you come to rely on your access to it, you need consistency: of quality, of price and of the person you get it from,” Olive said.

“Now you have people, many of whom have trouble getting around, who need to get from their suburbs to downtown areas to try to find somebody who they don’t know who’s standing out on a corner or in an alley just to get cannabis of sub-standard quality. It’s overpriced, because these are street sales, and there’s no compassion with it, no sense of education. You don’t know what you’re getting.”

 

A Question of Priorities

When asked if he has a message for the U.S. Attorneys enforcing the crackdown in California, Olive releases an exasperated laugh.

“I wish there was some magic combination of words that would make them understand, but I worry that we’re just tiny little ants in their worldview,” he said. “For whatever reason, they’ve decided to selectively enforce the law on the wrong organizations. We’ve had nothing but an amazing and positive experience providing beneficial services to our members and our neighborhood. I walk through the neighborhood we moved from and I can already see it turning back into a worse neighborhood.”

“Cannabis is an amazing and beneficial plant and it should be given a chance, especially in California and in San Francisco. Because we have such good regulations and good operators, we should be given the opportunity to set a good example. I really believe that for the past eight years, we’ve set one of the best examples that you’ll find in this movement. Unfortunately, that may have put us more squarely in the federal government’s sights, as it seems they’ve singled us out for being good players. I just wish they would reevaluate their priorities.”

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