Concerns raised about new medical cannabis collective

The exterior of Perfect Plants Patient’s Group on Sacramento Street. Photos: Frances Dinkelspiel

A new medical cannabis collective has opened up on Sacramento Street near Oregon, bringing to two the number of groups that are operating in a commercial district in apparent violation of Berkeley’s zoning ordinances.

Perfect Plant Patient’s Group, or 3PGs, opened its doors in early September at 2840B Sacramento St., according to Eric Thomas, 35, a former highway construction worker turned cannabis entrepreneur. The non-profit cannabis collective operates in three counties, runs a delivery service, and is planning to open another bricks and mortar operation in Vallejo, he said. The group had to shut down its El Sobrante location in late July because it was located in unincorporated Contra Costa County, which has a ban on cannabis operations.

After getting kicked out of El Sobrante, Thomas called around to various East Bay cities to find out about their medical cannabis laws and selected Berkeley because it “seemed the most organized,” he said. Thomas and his partners also had conversations with City Councilmember Kriss Worthington’s office about relocating here and felt encouraged to do so. (Worthington’s office did not tell the group to locate in a commercial area, said Thomas.)

It is difficult to tell that the Perfect Plant Patients group storefront is a cannabis collective. The windows are covered with black garbage bags so no one can see inside and a “No Trespassing” sign is propped up against the window. The black metal mesh door into the three-room space is almost opaque.

Thomas is aware that the storefront sits in a commercial district and may be violating Berkeley’s zoning laws, which require collectives to operate in residential areas. Only the city’s three licensed dispensaries can operate in a commercial district. Thomas said he will move if he has to, but thinks that it is less disruptive to be located in the strip of small stores on Sacramento Street than among people’s homes.

“As far as operating out of a commercial building, I made that decision based on one thing,” said Thomas. “I didn’t want to be disrupting a residential neighborhood. To bring in 100 people into someone’s neighborhood throughout the day isn’t logical. It puts a strain on the neighborhood.”

Another medical cannabis collective, Forty Acres, operates from a set of rooms over the Albatross pub on San Pablo Avenue near University. That is also a commercial district.

The city of Berkeley is aware of both collectives and has had some meetings to discuss the situation, according to Elizabeth Greene, a city planner who acts as the secretary to the Medical Cannabis Commission.

But the precise nature of the city’s response to the collectives is not clear. Berkeleyside has sent numerous emails and made many phone calls to city officials asking why the cannabis collectives are being permitted to operate in commercial areas, but has not gotten a response. Berkeleyside has also asked why Forty Acres was turned down when it applied for a business license so it could pay taxes to the city.

A sign warning against drug dealing near the location of a new medical cannabis collective

The city’s hands-off attitude may encourage more and more collectives to set up shop in the city, a member of one of Berkeley’s three licensed dispensaries said in September.

“If word gets out you can open a dispensary in Berkeley by not calling it a dispensary, we will have a 100 opening just like in San Jose,” said the man. “When everybody finds out Berkeley is open season, there is going to be mayhem. My worry is we are going to have a Wild Wild West kind of thing.

Neighbors are also worried. Laura Menard, a vocal neighborhood activist, sent an email October 15 to the city manager’s office and copied it to numerous Berkeley officials.

“Over the last few weeks residents have noticed increased drug sales and public use of marijuana by adults and minors in the area of Sacramento and Oregon Streets.”

Menard continued:”Yesterday we watched a group of middle school aged kids smoking pot in front of Spiral Gardens — the smell was strong enough to be noticed a block away.

“We witnessed people knock and gain entrance to 2840B Sacramento Street, a business with no signage just instructions posted on the door explaining how to gain entry. We saw a bike messenger leave the shop heading up Oregon Street. I have seen numerous hand-to-hand sales in the area on my way walking to Berkeley Bowl West. There is a new group of people dealing drugs in the area unfamiliar to local merchants and residents.”

Later in the email Menard wrote: “Sacramento Street residents and merchants have worked long and hard to rid the area of drug sales, public consumption, and the crime associated with illegal drug sales. Considerable city resources have been spent in abatement proceedings and police enforcement operations for decades. The building is tagged in a few places with gang graffiti: BB, for Borders Brothers.”

3PGs got its start in 2009 in Monterey County. Thomas and his family had been operating a highway construction company and working with major contractors like Thomas & Pratt and Ghilloti Brothers. The recession hit hard and left their company with $800,000 in accounts receivable, he said. Thomas sunk into a depression that doctors tried to treat with a variety of anti-depressants, he said. The drugs only made things worse so he tried medical cannabis. It lifted his mood.

Eric Thomas, who runs Perfect Plants Patient’s Group, with his binder full of legal and tax documents

Thomas joined the Monterey County Collective and then took over a leadership position, expanding its operations to 2,000 members across three counties — Solano, Contra Costa and Alameda. Each member pays a $30 annual membership fee, he said, and then “contributes” to the collective for their share of medical cannabis. He runs the Sacramento Street store with his nephew, Andrew Thomas, 20.

Thomas said he is legal and transparent. He brought a thick white binder stuffed with tax and licensing documents to a meeting with this reporter and was willing to share everything. The state Board of Equalization has granted 3PGs licenses to operate in three counties. Thomas even disclosed that he had paid $12,480 in taxes to California since April 2011.

“We are a legitimate business,” he said. “We have nothing to hide. We are a 501c3 (a non-profit) and shouldn’t even be paying taxes. But we want the community to benefit. We are here to better our surrounding citizens and cities.”

Related:
Rapid growth of cannabis collective raises concern [09.29.11]
Does new cannabis body provide more accountability? [07.20.11]
Berkeley loses money as cannabis commission idles [05.25.11] 

Berkeleyside publishes many articles every day. To see all our stories in one place, in chronological order, and read ones you may have missed, check out our recently launched All the News grid.

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  • laura

    Thanks Francis, as you know I asked you for help on this problem, since I had already recommended such to John. His hyperfocus and demands that I continue to justify casual comments are questionable. Why not blog about SF Chronicle editor Bronstein contention that dispensaries serve as access for recreational use.

    I avoided engaging, but he continued to demand a response.

    This is yet another example of why people do not volunteer to organize their neighborhoods.

    BL writes a long explanation about this neighborhood and yet has never been to a single meeting we had for over a decade.

    I make the obvious statement that a lucrative drug market attract violent crime and that recreational pot users are increasing using med pot cards for access and I am subjected to this kind of scrutiny.

    Lastly, I was a legitmate caregiver of a seriously disabled family member and spoke at the medical cannabis commission about the problems low income disabled encounter obtaining their medications. My comments were taken seriously and one compassionate commissioner spent time drafting some recommendations to remedy the problems, which i understand have not been implemented yet.

  • laura

    Readers should know that John declined claiming I am fair game because I wrote the letter to city council which Francis quoted in her article.

    I am sick of bullies.

  • Ryan Kerian

    This comment string has become so long that I scarcely know where to reply to.

    In response to Bruce Love:

    I have a few points I want to touch on.

    “First, evidently this place has been operating for a short while with
    the knowledge of many people in the neighborhood.  It is only after it
    came to the attention of a subset of nearby businesses and neighbors
    that it became such a hot political issue. ”

    I can’t speak for others as I only became aware of the business recently. It is important to me because it is around the corner from me and therefore affects me much more directly than those who live in, say, North Berkeley. That, and drugs are being sold near a middle school at which folks in our neighborhood ostensibly have children attending.

    “If I’m correct that the hyper-local sentiment towards this place is
    slightly more ambivalent than discussions here might suggest, then it’s
    not especially sinister if the City is a bit slow and cautious in
    responding.”

    That’s a big assumption. All either of us can point to is anecdotal evidence on this one, and neither you nor I can win a debate on anecdotal evidence. All I can say is that I’m nearby, I’m concerned and some other people I’ve talked to are as well.

    And, I’m afraid that I have to be a bit binary here on the city’s response. The city should definitely proceed through proper channels, but I don’t understand the need for extraordinary patience here. The establishment is violating at least one city law, which I will assume was validly enacted with a legal motive. The owner of the establishment located to the area with the full knowledge that doing so was illegal. I cannot countenance this behavior and don’t think we can selectively choose not to enforce city laws because we should give violators a chance to prove it shouldn’t apply to them, or whatever you might be suggesting here.

    I take issue with selective enforcement. I would like to know the history of how the city has treated similar establishments in other areas. In other words, is this business being treated differently, with respect to adherence to city laws, than other similarly situated businesses in different neighborhoods within Berkeley? I’d particularly be curious to see the contrast with economically prosperous neighborhoods, if any data is in fact available.

    “Here, in contrast, we have a sleepy, low-rent, low-traffic, economically
    depressed retail corridor so those non-official checks and balances are
    correspondingly much lower.”

    This seems to argue my point for me. If there are less official checks and balances by nature of the neighborhood’s economic position, it may very well be incumbent upon citizens like myself to ensure the city does its duty as it would in a high-rent, high-traffic, economically prosperous neighborhood. Citizens of poor and sleepy areas deserve equal protection under the law. We must sometimes serve as the checks and balances.

    “I sure hope the city is taking a deliberate, deliberative, and cautious
    approach to making sure they understand what is actually going on
    rather than reflexively asking “how high” when Laura says “jump”.  
    Let’s see where we are in a few weeks or 3 months.”

    I can see how you want to scapegoat Laura here, but she is not the issue. Are you implying that the rest of us are not capable or intelligent enough to form our own conclusions and are all falling in line behind Laura like lemmings? Laura’s voice is not the only voice here. I have formed my own independent view on this situation, which yes, happens to coincide Largely with Laura’s, but which was formed independently of Laura. As for timing, I’m willing to let the city take some time to hash this out, so long as it is a reasonable amount of time and they are in fact evaluating the situation and not turning a blind eye.

  • Ryan Kerian

    Frances… I just posted my recent comment before I saw this note from you. I’m happy to stop engaging on here as well if you think it’s inappropriate. It does seem like comments to this article (nice job on the article, by the way) have gotten a little out of hand. Please do let me know. Thanks!

  • EBGuy

    For the record, Cheeseboard is a worker-owned and operated cooperative.

  • Bruce Love

    Ryan,

    Re: “It is important to me because it is around the corner from me [....]“.  Then we probably live within 2-4 blocks of one another.  That intersection is a very short walk from where I am, to give you some sense.

    On a civics matter: 

    I cannot countenance this behavior and don’t think we can selectively choose not to enforce city laws because we should give violators a chance to prove it shouldn’t apply to them, or whatever you might be suggesting here.

    You can’t say the city is “selectively [choosing] not to enforce city
    laws” just because they haven’t rushed to file suit in a legally
    complex situation. Shutting them down involuntarily will normally involve a civil court action in which the owners will have the right to defend themselves and negotiate remedies with the court. You can not assume that the city will even be able to shut them down if the collective is able to operate without being a “de facto dispensary”.

  • http://radar.oreilly.com/2007/09/local-recycle-reuse-hits-a-bur.html The Sharkey

    Ryan, don’t get involved in a “discussion” with Thomas Lord (aka “Bruce Love”).
    All he’ll do is ring-around-the-issue with scads of mostly-irrelevant information so that he can be as contrarian as possible. It’s not worth the aggravation.

  • John Holland

    Laura wrote:

    Readers should know that John declined, claiming I am fair game because I wrote the letter to city council which Francis quoted in her article.

    This is a lie. A bold-faced lie and an utter fabrication.

    I have NEVER, EVER claimed that Laura is “fair game”. That’s horrible to say.

    Please take it back.

    Thanks!

  • http://berkeleyside.com Tracey Taylor

    We are closing comments on this story because we feel the thread has run its course. Two commenters in particular have agreed to move their exchange off Berkeleyside.  

  • laura

    B-Side fails to moderate until I demand they stop John Holland and this is how they frame my request that they stop Holland from placing me in danger.