These are heady times for San Francisco's existing marijuana industry, a loose affiliation of medical dispensaries, cultivators, and consultants who are still tending to their existing clientele of patients with doctors' recommendations while training their eyes toward the new recreational market made possible by the passage of Proposition 64. The state measure legalizing adult recreational cannabis use won't result in related retail permits for cities until a year from now, in January 2018 at the earliest, but the rush, or pre-rush, is already on for popular cannabis businesses to build their brands, and in the wild west landscape of post pot prohibition San Francisco, even established political players are staking their claims, former Supervisor and now retired Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi among them.
With its massive new storefront in the former Mecca space just a block up Market Street in the Castro from its former, more diminutive digs, the Apothecarium is perhaps the readiest symbol for expanding pot business aspirations. There's nothing secretive, save some panes of frosted glass, about the new, larger operation, with its comfortable, high backed chairs in a waiting area and copious counter space. But others are upping their game as well: The formerly demure and perhaps a bit dumpy Bernal Heights dispensary off Mission Street called Bernal Heights Collective ran just fine for 11 years, but the Chronicle noted last week that it's now fully upgraded itself to become "Harvest Off Mission," a new venture with a private, members-only lounge, chandeliers (not unlike Apothecarium's), and floor-to ceiling glass. As with the Apothecarium, far from hiding — behind bars and bulletproof glass as it used to — the new business announces itself proudly to would be-be customers. If Bernal Heights Collective was a speakeasy, Havest Off Mission is a an upscale cocktail lounge with top-notch mixologists.
The push is also on for SPARC, whose SoMa location on Mission Street opened in 2010 with aesthetic comparisons to an Apple Store. SPARC, which stands for San Francisco Patient And Resource Center, grew out of several small medical collectives in 2001, but it's doubled down with a new, second brick-and-mortar location in the Lower Haight. That's poised for potentially booming business as the only medical pot shop on a street long associated with the drug's use.
But opening the business was a tooth-and-nail fight: It was a deeply contentious venture on its Haight Street block despite replacing an existing dispensary space, and it finally won approval for a remodel in August after much back-and-forth. "When we first came in in September of 2015, we did everything we could do to reach out to the neighborhood organizations and merchants," SPARC Public Affairs Manager Joel Freston told SFist, "and at first we ran into a lot of pushback, fear, anxiety, and concern about whether a dispensary was going to increase crime, or what really that would mean for everybody on the block." It wasn't until the end of November, 2016, more than a year after securing the space, that SPARC opened to its doors to customers.
That persistent effort to open despite vociferous opposition says something about the importance of jockeying for a place in the coming new order of the pot world. As Freston explains, a lot of businesses will parley their success in medical marijuana into recreational marijuana. Whether SPARC will change the meaning of the "P" in its name from "Patient" to "People who want to get stoned, whoever they may be" isn't something he can say, but that's not being cagey, Freston claims. "A lot of dispensaries are going to try [to go recreational], and a lot are going to see what the city and county put forth. It's just like any other business, they'll all ask and see if it's worth it."
As the Examiner put it in a recent article about task forces concocting local policy on recreational pot, the situation is still "hazy." As Terrence Alan, the chair of the San Francisco State Cannabis Legalization Task Force, told the Examiner, "All those conversations on the retail side are really sensitive... I can’t predict what’s going to happen in the thousand neighborhoods that we have. I can imagine that San Francisco will encourage neighborhoods to try and figure out a way to do this.” Alan says he expects pot sales to double or triple, but that permitting retail will be tricky. Until they know more, existing businesses like SPARC will hold the ground they've already fought for, and then reinvent themselves from there
Speaking of reinvention, one public figure all but run out of town has come riding back in on a new high horse. Ross Mirkarimi wrote to SFist to fill us in on his work after losing his post as Sheriff to Vicki Hennessy in 2015. Now, he's in the consultancy business, in part assisting cannabis industry players and, relatedly, advocating for criminal justice reform. His clients include BASA, or Bay Area Safe Alternatives, a dispensary located off Divisadero .
"As you may recall, I was the only sheriff out of the 58 counties to support cannabis legalization," Mirkarimi wrote, "and in 2005, I was the first Supervisor in California to author a regulatory framework for medical cannabis dispensaries — I received the 'Hero of the Year' award in 2006 from NORML (National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws). Years later, my policy-making has become a basis for my work today."
So the former Sheriff is in the drug trade now. Welcome to California 2017.