Ken Estes, owner of 420 Cafe, a medical marijuana dispensary in Oakland,
says his co-op has "brought in 20,000 people into this neighborhood that
might have not visited downtown Oakland because of its stigmatization of
being a dangerous place."

Neighbors Leery Of Shops Meant To Assist The Ailing

OAKLAND -- If you didn't know what they really were, you might figure the
two cafes a short walk from City Hall here were just that -- small,
unassuming, eclectically decorated shops offering cups of java, muffins,
juices and fruit.

But if you were in the know and flashed the right identification card, you
could walk into private back rooms and buy marijuana for medicinal
purposes, and perhaps even smoke it.

Externally innocuous as they may be, the two cafes are a part of a
proliferating industry in a section of downtown informally dubbed
"Oaksterdam" -- a blending of this city's name with that of Amsterdam, the
capital of the Netherlands, where cannabis cafes are legal and common.

Nearby are at least five other outlets that sell medicinal marijuana
without the pretense of a cafe exterior -- but only, insist the owners of
the facilities, to patients with city-sanctioned ID cards.

But the businesses are generating anger and concern among neighbors and
also at City Hall down the street, where Mayor Jerry Brown and City Council
members are debating how to restrict their number and operations.

The marijuana shops, however, are crying foul, citing capitalistic
principles more often heard among conservative economists than distributors
of what the federal government still considers an illegal drug.

"We are against the city making limits on (the number of) dispensaries when
the market isn't," said Kenny Mostern, a spokesman with the Uptown
Merchants Association, an informal group of cafe and dispensary owners. "We
have people engaged in legal commerce."

The first dispensary to appear was the Oakland Cannabis Buyers'
Cooperative, established shortly after voters in 1996 approved Proposition
215, which legalized the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes statewide.

The co-op remains the sole facility approved by the city to verify doctors'
recommendations that their patients use marijuana to relieve symptoms of
illnesses, and to dispense it. The co-op also issued identification cards
for use there or at other dispensaries.

However, federal law bars the use, possession or distribution of marijuana.
The U.S. Justice Department sued and briefly closed the co-op in 1998,
though it later reopened sans the dispensary.

While the co-op awaits a ruling on its appeals of a judge's order closing
the dispensary, it continues to issue ID cards. Executive director Jeff
Jones said the co-op has issued 20,000 cards since opening, of which about
half are still valid.

Not long after the co-op stopped selling cannabis, new dispensaries began
popping up nearby, though they have no express city endorsement. Seven
operate now, mostly on Telegraph Avenue and Broadway. Two of them, the Bull
Dog and Lemon Drop cafes, offer coffee, snacks and a bohemian decor.

The others, such as Compassionate Caregivers, SR71, Oakland Patients and
the 420 Cafe, offer little or nothing but medicinal weed, and employ
bouncers at the front door to fend off anyone without an ID card.

Ken Estes, the owner of 420 Cafe who is building an organic snack shop in
the front of his dispensary, sees a positive side to the concentration of
medicinal marijuana businesses in an area that had long been depressed.

"At a time when the economy is hurting, Oakland, with all its ills, has an
area that is vibrant," said Estes, 45, who was left a quadriplegic 27 years
ago following a motorcycle accident. "Let's continue in that direction."

Jones said his co-op has "brought in 20,000 people into this neighborhood
that might have not visited downtown Oakland because of its stigmatization
of being a dangerous place."

Though some dispensary owners and staff are wary and even hostile to
visitors, Estes, now partially recovered but still using a wheelchair,
happily escorted two guests to his back room where ID cards are checked and
clerks sitting behind Plexiglas shields sell weed in plastic bags.

A sign announced available varieties of cannabis, such as Purple Skunk,
Sour Diesel and Silver Haze. Different strains offer different therapeutic
qualities, explained Estes, who uses cannabis to lessen pain.

Estes, who once operated a dispensary in Berkeley, dislikes the moniker
"Oaksterdam," saying it connotes recreational use. Nancy Nadel, whose City
Council district includes the dispensaries, won't even utter the term for
the same reason. Mostern said some owners are sympathetic.

"No one, no one, no one is being allowed to purchase cannabis or into the
smoking rooms unless they are medical cannabis users," Mostern said.

But clearly, other owners see "Oaksterdam" as an advertising tool. The Bull
Dog cafe uses it prominently on its flier.

Some of the most vocal critics of the dispensaries are their neighbors,
such as the Sexual Minority Alliance of Alameda County, which has offered
support programs for young gay men and lesbians since 1998.

Roosevelt Mosby Jr., the group's executive director, said he and clients
have been solicited to buy weed from patrons of the dispensaries, two of
which operate on either side of the alliance's offices. His teenage
clients, he added, are particularly vulnerable to addictive behavior.

"We're going to have to move," said an angry Mosby, who contended that city
officials had until recently failed to heed his complaints dating back a
year. "This is a dangerous place for young people to be."

Mosby cited an invasion-style robbery at a next-door dispensary a week ago
in which four men, one of them armed, tied up a bouncer and fled with
marijuana and cash.

A U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration official said agents are aware of
"Oaksterdam" but insisted they are not condoning the dispensaries even if
no public action has been taken against them.

"We have priorities. Methamphetamines are our No. 1 issue," said Richard
Meyer, a DEA spokesman. But the cannabis shops, he added, "should not be
surprised one day if we knock on their door with a search warrant."

Meanwhile, City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente and a handful of
colleagues are considering a proposal set for debate next month that would
allow only three dispensaries in the city. De La Fuente has been strongly
critical of the clubs, saying some are selling marijuana to people with no
medical need.

Nadel and others are waiting to review options for restricting the current
dispensaries, such as requiring that IDs be closely checked and that
smoking rooms use strong air filtering systems.

"I absolutely can't tolerate smoke going to people who don't want or need
medical cannabis," said Nadel, whose late husband bought marijuana
illegally a decade ago to deal with pancreatic cancer. "There are some that
are real dispensaries and there are some that are really bad actors."

Even Jones acknowledged that some dispensaries are operating
inappropriately. "I'm constantly concerned that somebody, a bad actor in
our neighborhood, is going to cause the whole bunch ... to get marred," he
said.

But the possibility of a city effort to curtail the businesses, or even a
knock on the door by federal agents, generates few strong worries from Estes.

"I'm a patient above everything else in this world now," he said. "And so I
have peace of mind that I am doing the right thing."


Pubdate: Sun, 16 Nov 2003
Source: Sacramento Bee (CA)
Copyright: 2003 The Sacramento Bee
Contact: opinion@sacbee.com
Website: http://www.sacbee.com/