ZAB tells Berkeley cannabis collective to shut down

Code enforcement officer Greg Daniel and Deputy City Attorney Laura McKinney prepare to present report to Zoning Adjustments Board. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

After listening to residents complain how a medical cannabis facility on Sacramento Street had drawn unsavory loiterers, trash, and trouble – as well as testimony that it was a good neighbor – the Zoning Adjustments Board on Thursday voted 7-0, with one abstention, to declare it a public nuisance.

The vote that determined Perfect Plants Patients Group at 2840-B Sacramento Street had violated numerous zoning laws will send the issue to the City Council, which will make the final determination whether the business should shut down.

The decision disappointed Eric Thomas, who founded the medical cannabis collective. He said he has been trying to find a new location for the business, but has not found a landlord willing to rent to him.

“It’s very tough,” said Thomas after ZAB handed down its recommendation.

Eric Thomas, the founder of Perfect Plants Patients Group, testifies in front of ZAB. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Thomas opened Perfect Plants Patients Group in September 2011 in an area that is zoned commercial. Berkeley only allows dispensaries (retail cannabis entities that may sell cannabis) to operate in commercial districts. There are currently three permitted dispensaries in the city, and voters agreed in November 2010 to allow a fourth, although the laws governing that are still being worked on.

Since 3PGs does not have a permit to operate as a dispensary in a commercial district, it is regarded as a collective, which means it can only operate in a residential area and its use must be “incidental,” to the residence. 3PGs has about 3,800 members, said Thomas. That many people coming into a residential neighborhood would have a strong impact, he told ZAB. That is why he opened in a commercial zone. (He told Berkeleyside in Oct. 2011 that he knew he was operating in violation of zoning codes but thought it was the lesser of evils.)

“We are not a nuisance to the neighborhood,” said Thomas, who also operates a cannabis club in Vallejo. “We are an asset. We have seen an improvement in traffic. We have seen an improvement in the neighborhood itself. We service the neighborhood with affordable medicine… The end result of closing Perfect Plants Patients Group would be someone in a local neighborhood with a cell phone and a bunch of medicine. It wouldn’t be good for the city of Berkeley.”

Some of the volunteers at 3PGs testified that the licensed security guards helped protect the block and made it safer for children to walk to nearby Longfellow Middle School. They regularly sweep the block and try to be a positive force for good.

Those descriptions of 3PGs improving the neighborhood contrasted sharply with those of residents, who said the collective had brought trash and loitering, and maybe even shootings, to the area.

“There have been young men standing around,” said Christopher Allen. “My four-year old daughter has found drug bags with their logo on it in my yard. There are also people smoking in their cars.”

Added Don Santos: “We have enough drug trafficking that is illegal in the neighborhood. The establishment does not keep its drugs in its purview. It is spreading out and I don’t like it.”

While the discussion at the meeting was technically about 3PGs’ legality, in many ways it became a forum on the city. Both residents and ZAB commissioners questioned why it had taken Berkeley so long to shut down 3PGs. The city started receiving complaints about the business in October 2011.

“Why has it taken a year to get to this point?” ZAB Commissioner Bob Allen asked Greg Daniel, a code enforcement officer. “Why doesn’t the City Attorney’s office just shut them down? Other cities with which I am familiar with could have shut this down within a month or two.”

Daniel said that the city had to follow a legal process, which took time. He also said his division had spent much of the past two years investigating illegal massage parlors and that had consumed staff time.

“It comes down to priority and resources and at the time the priority was the 15 massage parlors,” said Daniel.

Residents also blamed the city for ignoring this part of town. Sacramento Street around Oregon and the surrounding area has too much crime, violence, and drug dealing, they said. In March, 24-year old Vallejo resident Devin Lee Whitmire was shot and killed outside Bob’s Liquors, located a few doors down from 3PGs. One woman, an apartment house owner, said that the city didn’t even send in street sweepers to the section of Sacramento near Oregon Street, even though it cleaned up nearby areas.

“We have enough liquor stores,” said Mahmoud Mahmoud, a local resident. “We have enough prostitutes. This area is full of drug dealers. Move those drug dealers to the hills where the nice people live. Don’t dump anymore drug dealers in our neighborhood.”

Toya Groves, a ZAB Commissioner who used to be closely involved with Forty Acres Medical Marijuana Growers Collective, which has also been served with a cease and desist order because of violating zoning laws, suggested to the neighbors that 3PGs was not the sole cause of trouble in the neighborhood.

“Medical marijuana already has a stigma attached to it and I want to urge the neighborhood to consider the outside influences,” said Groves. She abstained in the vote.

“This has been a really troubled area for along time in great part because the city has not down its part on the drug issues,” said Allen, the ZAB commissioner.

Berkeley moves to shut down cannabis collective [09.26.12]
Berkeley orders two cannabis collectives to shut down [02.22.12]
Councilmember: Look at unauthorized cannabis collectives [12.06.11]
Rapid growth of cannabis collective raises concerns [9.20.11]
Concerns raised about new medical cannabis collective [10.27.11]
Commission ponders growth of unlicensed pot clubs [11.4.11]
Southside residents contend with a spate of shootings [03.30.12]
Sacramento Street shooting victim dies, arrest made [03.30.12]
Shooting on Sacramento and Oregon, victim wounded [03.29.12]
No known injuries in Monday shooting on Russell [03.18.12]
Dec. 23 shooting involved five men with guns [03.07.12]

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  • bgal4

    Mahmoud is well known to code enforcement, police, tenants and neighbors for his illegal activity. Having a quote from him is absurd, he attacked residents for fighting to shut down the infamous drug house on Oregon St, he was a regular visitor to another drug house 1519 Oregon.

    Just as absurd is the asst city attorney ruling saying  commissioner Groves did not have to recuse herself. Thomas and Groves are competing for the 4th operating permit.

    But the biggest problem is the ordinances themselves, thanks the to the entire city council, but especially Max Anderson and Kris Worthington,  the drug dealers control the public process and result.

    Berkeley’s approach does not protect legitimate patients or neighborhoods from the harm caused by this multimillion dollar business.

  • Anonymous

    I can’t imagine someone saying in this context “We service the neighborhood with affordable medicine” with a straight face.

  • Irisandjules

    Cannabis is probably used as medicine 10% and 90% as a recreational drug. We all know that for it to be “legal” the medicinal aspect has to be emphasized. As BPG is moving into our neighborhood, I can only hope that we will see the positive side people testified about and not the negative one. At least now we know, if there are problems, it will take the city forever to do something about it. Well, as long as taxes are coming and the citizens get their medicine. What was the saying “give them bread….”

  • RK

     Bad 3Pgs! You shut down your business right now or we’re going to tell our City Council! That’ll learn you!

    Good job Berkeley. Now how many more months (years?) will the illegal drug dealing take place at our school’s doorstep before the City Council acts? This is the same City Council that people have been complaining to for over a year, by the way. I won’t hold my breath, except when I’m walking home past 3Pgs.

  • guest

    The article mentioned 40 Acres Collective, “which has also been served with a cease and desist order because of violating zoning laws”. Is this correct? Looks like they were closed for few months, then opened again.

  • “I want to urge the neighborhood to consider the outside influences..”

    This is rich.  She wants residents to consider they already live in a drug-infested, crime-ridden, liquor store haven for prostitues.  So a legal pot dealership should be viewed as an agent of positive change?  

    The mind.  It reels.

  • Completely_Serious

    Please remember that Thomas decided to locate, illegally, based on “conversations” with Kriss Worthington.

    And now Kriss wants to be mayor?  No way.

  • “Why has it taken a year to get to this point?” ZAB Commissioner Bob
    Allen asked Greg Daniel, a code enforcement officer. “Why doesn’t the
    City Attorney’s office just shut them down? Other cities with which I am
    familiar with could have shut this down within a month or two.”

    Sounds like the City of Berkeley has a HR problem. This type of negligence wouldn’t fly in the private sector. The city really needs to clean house.

  • “… determined Perfect Plants Patients Group at 2840-B Sacramento Street had violated numerous zoning laws ”
    Nah.  Did and done and year ago, by Code “Enforcer” Mr. Gregory Daniel. 
    Yet here we are a year later — “This IS that process”, quoth Daniel. 
    Still, gotta give Code Enforcement Unit credit for making his prounouncement faster it takes to say either “bingo” or “massage parlor”.  As for “15 massage parlors” somehow occupying the CEU’s every moment for a full year, far fewer than 15 were eventually shuttered.  Oh well.

    “Medical marijuana already has a stigma attached…”
    Nah.  Just a stink — the stink of uppity operators posing as caregivers, the stink of young men chasing the fast money as they have done so for so many years at this location.  As one 3PG “employee” or “volunteer” testified at the hearing, the declaration of nuisance smears this establishment and lumps it together with any fool “with a cell phone and a bag of drugs”.  Yep.  The lipstick is off’n the pig. 

  • I’d like to see Berkeleyside take a closer look at why dispensaries are located in parts of town with a history of drug and gang activity.

    If there is a need throughout the city for dispensaries, open the next one in the Gourmet Ghetto in N. Berkeley or in the Elmwood Neighborhood. It’s unacceptable that all of the poop in this city is regularly swept into West and South Berkeley where it festers and is forgotten about until the next general election.

    Also, a closer look at how the city decides who will be the next millionaire dispensary owner should be investigated. I don’t see the city dividing up the city to allow only 3-4 liquor stores and I don’t see that happening with pharmacies either.

  • bgal4

    State law allows for city to determine use permit for alcohol sales
    based on a quota per population. This is how the use permit was removed
    for Ashby Market. We residents working in BAPAC accomplished this task.
    (not our council member Max Anderson)

    Tom Ammiano’s latest marijuana legislation AB 390 and AB
    2254 which was recently dropped did include a quota formula determining
    the # of dispensary per population. Under his recommendation Berkeley
    would have been permitted to have 3. The biggest problem with Berkeley ordinances is the de-linking of enforcement  from the imposing of operating standards. Council MUST amend this error.

  • Berkeleyfarm

    Classic “not in my backyard”. 

  • Berkeleyfarm

    And it takes a year or so to close known houses of prostitution down.  What the hay?  Why is this process political? 

  • Berkeleyfarm

    I, too, find the ruling that Toya Groves would not need to recuse herself rather absurd.   I will spot her credit for abstaining. 

  • Thank you for the good info. Not surprising regarding your council member. I’ve never perceived him to be someone that has the best interest of his district in mind.

  • Suffice it to say that when I was active with neighborhood watch I had the displeasure to speak with code enforcement about a slum on my block.

    The codes enforced by the city seem to be based on the whim of the code enforcement officer. My interactions with code enforcement and trying to get them to enforce code left me with the distinct impression that some in that department get things done…others are dead weight.

  • Che Joubert

    Thanks for your thoughtful and intelligent response to this issue. I can’t believe liquor stores are clearly and indubitably ruining neighborhoods as we speak, such as the blocks along Sacramento from Dwight to Alcatraz on both sides, while people freak out over these dispensaries. And yes – bring them into the rich ghettos if necessary to make them get reasonable and prompt attention. But first deal with the liquor stores/prostitution/pharmacies.

    I also agree with your perception of the whimsy of code inspectors as well, based on my own neighborhood watch days regarding the Acton/University area creepiness that resurges whenever neglected by citizens.

  • Chris

    I’ve seen better results by mailing in complaint forms, but I will say that when I submitted several legitimate complaints that were in obvious violation of city code I got a call from Mr. Daniels berating me for submitting too many complaints. Speaks volumes about the office.

  • Think twis

    Yol fuckin stuped.if they shut down d club.we gonna have drug dealers on every corner

  • bgal4

    Some nutty ZAB members argue against the nuisance finding.

  • Couragusgeorge

    You already have a drug problem, why not have it legal and safe?

  • 3rdGenBerkeleyan

    so what happened last night?

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