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California's Pot Limbo

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Despite growing respectability, Oakland's experiment with legal marijuana
and 'pot clubs' is coming under threat, reports Ros Davidson in San

In America's medical marijuana movement one single, rough, 10-block area of
downtown Oakland is ground zero. "Oaksterdam," as it's been dubbed because
of pot-friendly Amsterdam, has more "pot clubs" than any other city in

It is also a place in limbo, caught between sympathetic local officials and
a federal government that would immediately close down its dozen or so

That rift could become even starker this week, when the city council
considers regulating the clubs for ventilation - by requiring business
licenses - and with zoning (regulating the uses for property). Even so, the
area is unlikely to become mainstream any time soon.

Most of the pot clubs in Oakland, a diverse, tolerant working-class city
once famed as the home of the Black Panthers militant group, are more than
low-key. Their phone numbers are usually unlisted and if they have a sign
outside, it is tiny except for one which jokingly calls itself Parking In
The Rear.

Few of their members or employees are willing to talk openly. Ever since
voters in California and six other states started legalising medical
marijuana, federal officials have raided the quasi-legal clinics,
confiscated goods and arresting owners. People who say they use pot for
medicinal uses have also been arrested.

A cop car cruises down Telegraph Avenue in the heart of Oaksterdam, and
abruptly stops to ticket a car parked illegally outside the Lemondrop Coffee
Shop. The cafe's name is odd, given the security guards and dainty tables ,
one with dreadlocks. The rooms downstairs are private, says a guard, a
sullen man with big earrings and a t-shirt emblazoned with the street drug
slang logo, Stanky Danky.

In fact, one of the few pot club people who will go on the record is Ken
Estes, owner of 420 Cafe, a shabby three-storey building which he says will
eventually house an organic food cafe, an acupuncturist and a doctor. There
is already a chiropractor upstairs.

He has expected to see moves towards regulation.

"The clubs are definitely starting to push the boundaries, it's part of
figuring out how we fit in the medical world," says Estes. His cafe serves
about a thousand patients a week. Confined to a wheelchair, Estes has used
marijuana to treat pain ever since a motorbike accident paralysed him 20
years ago.

The clubs sell the medical marijuana by the ounce, for anywhere between ?30
to ?240, as well as variants such as butter, brownies and icicles. At one
club, a smoke-free inhaler costs ?300. Down the street, near City Hall, the
last of the day's shoppers are leaving the Thanks giving sales and
prostitutes are starting to work the streets near the freeway.

Only a whiff of marijuana is discernible outside the Community Acceptance
Clinic. A businesswoman with a mobile phone clamped to her ear shows her
city-approved identi fication and a membership card - which requires a
doctor's recommendation - and is ushered in.

Security guards will accompany patients both in and out, in part because
some have been harassed, says one of the bouncers, who again declines to
give his name.

The density of clubs is especially good for the consumer, some would argue.
"It's great for it to be in one area - it's a community," Curtis Thomas, 32,
told a local newspaper.

"If this continues, it will be a boon for Oakland." He has a doctor's
"recommendation" to use marijuana for a wrist injury.

Whether it continues remains to be seen. The city's proposed zoning rules
will limit the number of clubs in an area. The city's far-reaching
anti-smoking ordinance, which prohibits smoking in any commercial building
unless it has a separate ventilation system, will likely be applied as well,
giving some owners heavy refit costs.

"The industry has expanded quite quickly in our city, and we need to put
some regulations in place," says Oakland city councillor Nancy Nagel. A city
council consid ering restrictions on the clubs is a change for Oakland.

Federal law bans the use or sale of marijuana for any reason, but as of
1997, Cali fornia - and other states - allow it for patients. In 1998,
Oakland passed what many advocates consider to be America's most sweeping
protection of medical marijuana.

Patients are allowed to have 24 times as much marijuana as allowed by state
law. Operators of cannabis collectives are even known as "officers of the
city", which gives them some protection from local police. Medical marijuana
can be used for pain from HIV/Aids, to increase appetite for someone
undergoing chemotherapy or to medicate severe anxiety.

Many local businesses do seem to welcome the clubs, saying they have helped
the economy; the area is gentrifying. Indeed an association named the Uptown
Merchants Association formed recently to boost them, although it has to be
said that some of the members are in the business themselves.

"Until the dispensaries opened, the area was shut down, quiet and dirty,"
says the association's Kenny Mostern. "They are the best thing that could
have happened to the area."

Others are not so sure. The clubs have attracted some crime, not
surprisingly given their business. In one recent incident, a car rammed
through the brick front of a clinic, and the thieves stole the stash.

Armed robbers recently tied up a bouncer outside another club and fled with
pot and cash. It was the last straw for a gay and lesbian youth centre next
door. Its director says he will move the centre to what he hopes will be a
drug-free neighbourhood, although some might say that could be hard to find
in Oakland.

In the youth centre's window is an angry sign: "Temporary closure due to
increasing neighbourhood violence and hostilities against staff and

Adam Lerch, a lifelong Oakland resident who just opened a restaurant called
The Hot Dog Stand , says he is a strong supporter of the clubs. He likes the
commitment to the sick, he said, and thinks they'll be good for business.

Pubdate: Sun, 30 Nov 2003
Source: Sunday Herald, The (UK)
Copyright: 2003 Sunday Herald
Contact: editor@sundayherald.com
Website: http://www.sundayherald.com/