Zoning hampers plans for Castro pot sales
by Matthew S. Bajko
A plan to sell medical marijuana among the products offered at a proposed organic wellness center in the Castro is being hampered by stringent zoning rules that forbid cannabis sales within 1,000 feet of a school or youth recreation center.
Two entrepreneurs well known among LGBT circles and the Castro business community want to open the WIN Wellness Center – it stands for "Wellness is Now" – in the city's gayborhood. Modeled after the Farmacy, a successful chain in the Los Angeles area, the center would be a patient-owned cooperative offering herbal medicines, acupuncture, massage and chiropractic services.
It would also serve as a medical cannabis dispensary, though marijuana would account for only 10 percent of the center's products for sale, according to the project's proponents. The other 90 percent would be organic herbal medicines.
Yet due to the Castro's proximity to several schools and city-run recreation centers, there are few retail spaces in the neighborhood where sales of medicinal pot would be allowed.
The zoning is proving to be a significant hurdle for the project's backers, Cafe Flore owner J.D. Petras and Edward Huser, better known as Sister Barbi Mitzvah, a member of the city's Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence drag nun charitable group. The wellness center project is separate from the men's volunteer work with the Sisters.
The men remain undaunted by the zoning issues and hope to find a solution where they could be open for business by January.
"The project we are creating is a win/win solution for the neighborhood," Huser told the Bay Area Reporter .
Huser said many Castro residents, whether they are HIV-positive or living with AIDS or battling other life-threatening diseases such as cancer, currently use medical marijuana. But the closest dispensaries are in the Haight or located near the LGBT Community Center on Market Street at Octavia.
"This would provide them somewhere close by where they could walk or take Muni," said Huser, who uses herbal medicines and medical cannabis due to allergies to painkillers and other synthetic medications. "We are always open to another location but we feel the Castro has the highest need. We have the best intentions to make this a community-based model."
Not a 'pot club'
During the interview with the B.A.R. and at community meetings with Castro neighborhood groups, Huser has stressed that the wellness center would bear little resemblance to the city's pot clubs.
"This is not going to be some closed-up, seedy place with a guard and you have to be buzzed in," said Huser.
The wellness center's signage, said Huser, would give little indication that there was cannabis for sale on-site. He said they are purposely not using the pot club term to differentiate their project.
"I don't like that term, personally," he said. "The perception is anything dealing with cannabis is referred to as a pot club. We wanted to open an organic pharmacy and extend it to also include medical marijuana."
Anyone wanting to purchase medical cannabis at the wellness center would need a state-issued card or a doctor's prescription that could be verified. Each customer would have to go through an intake procedure with a certified specialist.
The cannabis products would not be visible to customers, nor would smoking be allowed on the premises, according to Huser. He said they do plan to seek permission to have smoking at private events at the center and be allowed to grow a marijuana plant on site that could be used as a raffle prize for fundraising.
They also plan to test their marijuana products to ensure they are organic, and free of molds and pesticides.
"We will be testing everything," said Huser.
He said the medical cannabis sales would help to subsidize other treatments and services for the center's patients. It is expected to create 30 new jobs, which could be used to hire HIV-positive people on a part-time basis so they do not lose their medical benefits.
"There is no profit to be made. Any proceeds we would take and turn around to put back into patient services," said Huser, who said a volunteer board including medical doctors would oversee the center's operations.
The plan also calls for the wellness center to partner with established Castro organizations, such as the gay men's health center Magnet, the Stop AIDS Project, and the Immune Enhancement Project, to jointly offer services and programs.
This month the Merchants of Upper Market and Castro voted overwhelmingly to endorse the project as proposed regardless of its location.
"I think it looks nice and is inviting to the neighborhood. It doesn't look like a sketchy pot club," said Steve Adams, president of the merchant group. "If any pot club does want to come in to the neighborhood and meets the guidelines, I want it to look nice and not to look like a jail. When I see other ones around the city, they all have bars on the windows."
District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty has also voiced support for seeing a medical cannabis dispensary open in the Castro.
"I have expressed that I think it is realistic to believe there will be another medical cannabis dispensary in District 8. Certainly, there are a lot of patients that rely on medical cannabis that live in the Castro," said Dufty. "To me this is something that should be openly talked about. The attitude in the community is very open to medical cannabis. We all know people who rely on it and whose lives have been improved."
But he has stopped short of endorsing the wellness center plan outright.
"I am not being coy. I am going to be supportive of a facility but I would like for the neighborhood to have some consensus and ideas about what they like and what they don't like and that will help me," said Dufty.
Yet not everyone wants to see a location for pot sales in or near the heart of the Castro. At the MUMC meeting the owners of La Mediterranee, an eatery on Noe Street, voted against the wellness center proposal.
During last week's Castro Community Benefit District monthly meeting, board member Pauline Scholten questioned whether the Castro needs another place to buy medical cannabis when there are three dispensaries within walking distance of the LGBT Community Center.
"Is it really necessary to bring in another one?" she asked. "There are already three within three blocks in a well traveled corridor with plenty of transportation."
Tim Patriarca, who stepped down as executive director of Maitri Hospice this year, however, expressed his support for the proposal.
"I am in support of a dispensary coming in. People should be able to walk to a place," said Patriarca, who also serves on the CBD board. "It is just a matter of time. I hope it is you. The positive about you is you know the community and you have given back."
Plans on hold
As of this week, however, Huser's and Petras's proposal was in limbo as they continue to seek an appropriate retail space in the Castro where they could open the wellness center while abiding by the city's zoning rules. Huser said several landlords have refused to enter into lease negotiations due to the cannabis sales.
They had applied to open at 258 Noe Street in a building owned by Petras, but the space is 800 feet from Everett Middle School on Church Street and 867 feet from McKinley Elementary School on 14th Street.
Other vacant retail spaces they have inquired about on Market or Castro Street also fall within 1,000 feet of a school or youth recreational facility.
"We are asking for a letter of determination to try to fit this in," said Huser. "We are asking for some guidance from planning on finding the best way to fit this into the Castro. So we are homeless right now."
Sharon Lai, a city planner who has been assigned with reviewing the wellness center project, told the Bay Area Reporter this week that the application has yet to be officially submitted to the Planning Department due to the zoning issues.
"They haven't submitted anything," Lai said, adding that because the Noe Street location is within 1,000 feet of two schools, "it is not an eligible location unless you change the code. There is really nothing the Planning Department can do within our current rules."
And until the project sponsors submit an official application for a specific address, Lai said there is nothing for the department to approve or reject as a location for a medical cannabis dispensary. With the department all but certain to reject the wellness center due to the marijuana component, the next step would be for Petras and Huser to file an appeal with the city's Board of Permit Appeals.
"Technically, what we should do is cancel the permit and refund them their money under Edward Huser's request," said Lai. "We are holding off on the cancellation until they figure out what they want to do."
Another option is for the business partners to seek a zoning change. They could seek an exemption from the 1,000-foot rule for a specific parcel, change the guidelines for just the Castro or rewrite the zoning rules citywide.
"It is possible they can pursue a zoning change. But changing legislation is not something that happens within a month or two," said Lai. "It is not something we are suggesting."
Dennis Richards, president of the Duboce Triangle Neighborhood Association, said he personally likes what Huser and Petras have proposed. But he said he doesn't see how they will be able to win city approval to open their doors.
"When I saw photos of the Farmacy, I thought it looked interesting. But going from a photograph to actual reality is a long way to get there," said Richards, whose organization has yet to vote on the project.