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Closing Time for Cannabis Clubs

Dispensaries shut down on eve of Justice Department deadline

Divinity Tree

On Friday morning, Mel Rosmon, a talkative 58-year-old veteran, paid a visit to his neighborhood medical marijuana dispensary, Divinity Tree, as it prepared to shut its doors for good.

As part of a federal crackdown on the state's medical marijuana industry, U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag ordered the club and dozens of others to close, because they are near schools and parks where children play. Divinity Tree -- a small storefront dispensary with a gated door and security guard -- is located in the Tenderloin, around the block from Sgt. John Macaulay Park.

Rosmon, a longtime resident of the neighborhood, scoffed at the notion that the club was a threat to kids who might use the swings and slides at the playground.

“There’s more dope fiends and junkies in the park smokin’ crack and shootin’ dope then there’ll ever be in front of this place,” said Rosmon, standing outside Divinity Tree. “They got this bathroom in front of that park that’s a junkie paradise, and they’re coming and obstructing something that’s good for the community!”

Apart from what Rosmon termed “an open-air market for crack, heroin and meth,” the block in between the playground and Divinity Tree is occupied by establishments that are not particularly child-friendly. 

Directly across the street from the playground is a strip club, the New Century Theater, which features large posters of semi-nude women on its exterior walls. On Friday morning, two young boys playing on the parks' swings could see the New Century marquee advertising a performance by the “World’s Hottest MILF Lisa Ann” on Thanksgiving weekend.

There are also a number of liquor stores and bars nearby. And there is the massage parlor called “Susu Spa,” which advertises "oriental massage," private hot baths and an ATM for the convenience of customers.

Divinity Tree 01Haag declined to comment on Divinity Tree, but reiterated that she has received numerous letters from concerned parents about pot clubs near schools and parks.

“We made a decision about how we were going to use our resources,” said Haag.  “Most of the complaints and concerns from citizens are about the dispensaries being too close schools and parks where children play.”

The crackdown has heightened tensions between the state, which legalized the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes in 1996, and the federal government, which prohibits pot use. 

Two other dispensaries in San Francisco -- Medithrive and Mr. Nice Guy -- closed over the weekend after receiving letters from Haag. There are still more than 20 pot clubs in San Francisco. In Oakland, Richard Lee, the leader of the state's marijuana legalization movement, shut down his dispensary last week only to reopen it three doors down at an address not cited in Haag's letter.

Divinity Tree 03Charlie Pappas, 64, a Berkeley poet and pot activist, runs Divinity Tree, which, until Friday, had 5,000 members and 15 employees. He said he uses marijuana to calm his muscle spasms so he can sleep. Pappas became a quadriplegic when he was 26, after he was shot during a robbery. 

He said he chose to close up shop rather than fight the federal government, which threatened his landlord with criminal prosecution and forfeiture of the property.

“Probably somebody has to be the dispensary that gets smashed by the DEA and stuff taken,” said Pappas. “We don’t want our workers to go through it.”

Pappas joined a lawsuit aiming to stop the crackdown. He said he will shut down his dispensary for a few months and "hope there's enough backlash and that the lawsuits get something done."

On Friday evening, Pappas watched as the employees removed the plastic containers of marijuana buds from the dispensary's glass case. Pappas said he will return the buds to growers. His staff erased the specials from a white board and wiped down the glass case, removing the remaining green scraps. 

The employees, mostly young men, were emotional; some even cried. Throughout the day, Luchan Baker, a former security guard, had customers sign his white Divinity Tree shirt with a green marker. One man gave Baker a hug, saying, “Well, at least the Raiders won last night.” 

“Yup,” said Baker. “It looks like the Raiders and feds won.”

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