Court orders eviction of Forty Acres cannabis collective

A cannabis grow room in the Forty Acres Medical Marijuana Growers Collective in September 2011. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

The landlord of the San Pablo Avenue building that houses Forty Acres Medical Marijuana Growers’ Collective won a court judgement last week to evict the cannabis business.

An Alameda County jury voted 12-0 on Nov. 2 that the collective was a nuisance and an unlawful use of the property, according to Michael McLaughlin, attorney for Clarence Soe, who owns the building with his two sisters. The sheriff’s department is scheduled to evict Chris Smith, the collective’s top executive, the collective, and other tenants the week of Nov. 26, he said.

But the eviction might be stayed if Smith’s attorney convinces a court that Soe rented the premises to Smith under false pretenses, said Clifford Fried, Smith’s attorney. He has filed for an injunction against the eviction as well as a separate lawsuit charging Soe with fraud and asking for $50,000 in damages.

The eviction is only the latest twist in the saga of Forty Acres, which began operation in 2009 on the second floor of 1820 San Pablo Ave. and soon grew to an organization of 7,000 members.

Founded by Smith and Toya Groves, a Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board official, Forty Acres was owned and operated by African Americans and aimed to break the stranglehold of Berkeley’s three cannabis dispensaries, all operated by whites. Smith and Groves wanted to create a collective that taught African-Americans entrepreneurial skills in the burgeoning cannabis industry. Ultimately, they hoped to apply for the permit for Berkeley’s fourth dispensary, which was authorized by voters with Measure T in November 2010.

Chris Smith, co-founder of the Forty Acres Medical Marijuana Collective. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

But Forty Acres immediately came up against Berkeley’s zoning laws, which require that cannabis collectives only operate in residential districts and that their use be “incidental.” Starting in February 2011, Berkeley officials informed Smith that Forty Acres was out of zoning compliance since it was a collective operating in a commercial rather than residential district. Smith and Groves argued that, since Forty Acres started before the passage of Measure T, it should be grandfathered in.

After Berkeleyside ran stories about Forty Acres and Perfect Plants Patients Group, another collective operating in a commercial area, the city issued cease and desist orders to the two collectives in February 2012, and threatened them with fines of $500 a day. While inspecting the San Pablo property, city officials also discovered that Soe had illegally converted a permitted dance studio into 11 unpermitted living units and ordered them vacated.

Forty Acres closed briefly but then reopened. (Groves left the collective in early 2012.)

Once Soe found out that Berkeley considered Forty Acres to be operating illegally, he asked Smith to shut it down, said McLaughlin. When he didn’t comply, Soe filed an eviction suit in March.

“Chris was operating his club up there and refused to leave,” said McLaughlin. “He left us no choice but to file an eviction notice.”

Soe was not opposed to the cannabis collective, just the fact that Berkeley considered it illegal, said McLaughlin. Smith applied for a business license in February but it was denied.

In October, Smith filed a counter suit against Soe, charging him with fraud and breach of contract, according to court records. Smith contends that Soe converted the space into residential units, rented them out, but never informed the tenants that Berkeley had not issued a permit. That case has not been scheduled for a hearing yet.

The City Council is scheduled to hear an appeal from a ZAB ruling on Tuesday next week that Perfect Plants Patients Group, or 3PGs, at 2840B Sacramento St., is in violation of the city’s zoning laws and is a public nuisance and should be shut down. Neighbors of 3PGs testified to ZAB in September that they had seen an increase in crime and loitering on Sacramento since 3PGs opened its doors, and frequently found discarded plastic cannabis bags around the area. Neighbors have been frustrated by the city’s slow response to shuttering the collective and have collected 112 signatures to date on asking Berkeley to shut it down immediately. Eric Thomas, the operator of 3PGs, has denied that his business is a magnet for crime. Instead, he contends, it is a positive force in the neighborhood.

Berkeley moves to shut down cannabis operation [09.26.12]
Berkeley orders two cannabis collectives to shut down [02.22.12]
Rapid growth of cannabis collective raises concerns [11.29.11]

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  • John Holland

    I wrote:

    Pay attention: I think you maintain two simple facts wrong that should be corrected.

    “The Sharkey” wrote:

     You don’t spend a year hounding and harassing someone you like and respect.

    Pay attention: I think she maintains two simple facts wrong that should be corrected.

    That is all.

  • The Sharkey

    …about which you have been hounding her for over a year.

    If this is the way you treat people you “like and respect” I feel sorry for your wife.

  • John Holland

    The Sharkey – I’ve been trying to keep thinking of a way to explain why I am so persistent about setting the record straight on easily disprovable facts and gross exaggerations in our community. Bear with me…

    Here is an analogy. I’m a big fan of secondary science education, especially the teaching of evolution. Let’s say we were debating the science curriculum at Berkeley High School. If someone posted the following:

    It is well documented that the earth is 6,000 years old. There are plenty of national studies. We need to eliminate biology from the Berkeley High School.

    Now, imagine that person is attempting to set science policy for the school. Every chance I get, I would remind the community that the individual trying to eliminate biology from the school curriculum believes that the earth is 6,000 year old. I would not yield. Year-in, and year-out, I would strive to insure that type of nonsense is purged from the debate, and I would persistently point this error out until it was corrected. 

    We have a similar situation here: we have folks here trying to influence medical cannabis policy in Berkeley who believe that shootings are not uncommon in dispensaries, when, in fact you are more likely to get struck by lightning. 

    Questions for Sharkey:

    1. Does this analogy help you understand?

    2. Could you persuade me otherwise? Why should we let people who can’t even get basic facts straight about medical cannabis influence medical cannabis policy?

    I feel sorry for your wife.

    No need to get personal.

  • John Holland

    Hi, Ryan-

    I thought of a few examples that illustrate my concern. 

    In the city council agenda item for tomorrow night, there are a few things that don’t add up. For example, in the “Background Description”, it references a quote from a 3PG opponent found in a Berkeleyside article from October 27, 2011:

    ”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.”

    Personally, I don’t believe this. The city blocks in this neighborhood are 100 yards long the short way, and 200 yards the long way. I don’t believe that: 1. the smell would travel that far, 2. from 100 yards, you would be able to tell exactly who was involved and what is going on. 

    In essence, I call B.S. If pot smoke ~really~ traveled a hundred yards, don’t you think there would be many more complaints about pot smoking in general from all over, all the time?! One of my neighbors smokes cigarettes, and the smell drives us crazy. But neighbors ~100 yards away~ aren’t complaining about it.

    There are a few other quotes from the report that I don’t believe:

    <blockquote“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.”


    I have seen numerous hand-to-hand sales in the area on my way walking to Berkeley Bowl West.

    Really? Were the police called? If so, what happened? If not, why not, especially if this problem is so serious? How do we know the cannabis in these sales came from 3PG? It’s unfortunate that only goes back to May 2012, because that data would be helpful. Instead of using data, we are forced to rely on solely on testimony.

    So, what do we do in this situation? One thing we can do is consider the source of the testimony, and their track record with basic facts about medical cannabis. Cool, let’s do it! 

    In the comments section of the same Berkeleyside story, the same individual writes:

    “It is well documented that the majority of customers are recreation users. Shootings are not uncommon at grow sites, during transport, and at low security dispensaries and collectives.”

    Of course, both these statements are dead wrong. In fact, they are the ~opposite~ of the truth. If someone is wrong about these simple facts, couldn’t they also be wrong about being able to smell pot smoke from 100 yards a way?

    The fact that, in this case, folks tried to scrub their name from these embarrassingly wrong posts makes me even more suspicious about other facts being presented to the council might need to be called into question, also.

    Personally, I don’t trust this testimony. In fact, it sounds fantastical to me. But here’s my point: who cares if it’s bogus? Questionable testimony weakens the case. So why not remove it?

    For example:

    The agenda packet also cites “23E.16.070.A.2 which prohibits a dispensary within 600 feet of a school,” and states the following:

    According to the City’s GIS database, 3PG is within 546 feet of Longfellow Middle School. Therefore, if 3PG is operating as a dispensary, it is in violation of this provision of the Zoning Ordinance.

    Maybe so, but according to Google Earth, 3PG is 601.75 feet from Longfellow Middle School as the crow flies. I don’t know the standards for legal proof, but I’ll bet Google Earth is more accurate than the City’s GIS database. This can’t be that hard to resolve. I’ll bet $100 donated to Berkeley schools that as the crow flies, 3PG is beyond the 600 foot limit. Any one care to take me up on it? Of course not. So let’s just kill that point right now. No blood, no foul.

    In my mind, these are mistakes that threaten the credibility of those of us that want 3PG closed if it is out of code and a bad neighbor. I also personally believe that these mistakes threaten safe and legal access to medical patients, which is their legal right under Prop 215. Not that it matters much to some people who oppose 3PG who have been honest that their real goal is to “shut down” medical cannabis in spite of it being a legal right in California:

    I want the system that pretends to be about “medical” care to be shut down

    I’ve maintained that this effort is really about preventing shutting down medical cannabis, so, I really appreciate this honesty.

    As I understand it, the case against 3PG is solid. For example, if 23E.16.070.A.2 is not relevant to the case, why not throw out the bad or questionable data? Why even expose ourselves to being wrong about 3PG being less than 600 ft. away especially if it doesn’t matter? If some testimony comes from folks who get some of the most basic facts wrong, why include it? If some of the claims in the stretch credulity, why not remove them? It sounds to me like you might still have a solid case. Let’s keep it solid.

  • John Holland

    Laura and Fellow Berkeleyside Commenters:
    I have spoken with Frances about this ongoing conversation we have been having regarding gun violence and characteristics of medical cannabis users. For the sake of community harmony, I have agree to the following:

    1. I will stop commenting on this these two points immediately.
    2. I will refrain from addressing Laura directly on Berkeleyside, online, via email, or offline. (Note: I have never emailed Laura).
    3. I will refrain from mentioning Laura on Berkeleyside, online, or offline.
    4. I will refrain from quoting Laura’s posts on Berkeleyside, online, or offline.
    5. I will refrain from commenting on Laura’s posts on Berkeleyside, online, or offline.
    6. I will refrain from replying to Laura’s posts on Berkeleyside, online, or offline.
    7. I have deleted my tumblr posts about this issue.

    That said, this is unilateral. I have no problem with Laura doing all of the above with regards to me. I value her comments and free speech, and I appreciate having my facts and ideas critically examined.

    I’d like to be clear that I have never made any threats towards, nor disparaging statements about Laura. I’ve only maintained one thing. But I’m not going to talk about that any more. Never. Ever. Again.

  • bgal4

    Good, I hope the tumblr pages are really gone, singling me out was unfair and put me at risk for retaliation. Clearly you know little if anything about life in a neighborhood with open air drug markets.

  •  I have seen a screen shot of John’s Tumblr account and he has removed any mention of Laura.

  • Concerned Citizen

    One of Chris Smith’s employees is a five time felon and recently murdered a young woman from Berkeley. Sorry Mr. Smith but you have no place in our town