By Wyatt Buchanan
Medical marijuana in San Francisco may be going up in smoke.
In late December, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration sent letters to landlords of buildings that housed medical cannabis dispensaries in the city, telling them they face the loss of their property and possibly prison if the businesses stay open.
Now, less than two months later, seven of the city's 28 dispensaries have closed or are on the verge of closing, according to medical marijuana supporters and activists. They fear more will follow.
"It's like a dagger in the heart," said Wayne Justmann, a medical marijuana advocate. "We're barely holding on right now."
Dispensary owners are being guarded about the closures, as they are fearful that speaking publicly will draw attention to their individual businesses and put them at greater risk.
So far, the Mason Street Dispensary in the Tenderloin district has closed completely. One of the city's older dispensaries, 194 Church St. - which last year city supervisors tried to name as a historic site - no longer sells marijuana but is still open for people to use the space to get high.
One of the best known dispensaries, the San Francisco Patients' Cooperative on Divisadero Street, will shut its doors at the end of the month after nearly 20 years, according to the Rev. Randi Webster, one of the cooperative's founders.
The owner of the building was "severely frightened" by the DEA letter, and the cooperative founders and the landlord had agreed years ago to part ways in the event of a situation like this, Webster said.
Activists will not disclose the locations of other dispensaries that have or may soon shut their doors.
San Francisco is the birthplace of the medical marijuana movement. The first major club opened in the city in 1994 and the number peaked at 43 in 2005, just before the city passed first-of-their kind regulations for the dispensaries.
All are supposed to possess city permits by March 1, though so far only one - a delivery service - has complied, according to the city's Department of Public Health.
The DEA sent letters to about 50 landlords in 14 Northern California counties, said Casey McEnry, spokeswoman for the agency.
In the letter sent to San Francisco dispensaries, DEA Special Agent in Charge Javier Pena wrote that the agency "has determined there is a marijuana dispensary operating on the property. This is a violation of federal law." Pena goes on to threaten landlords with the seizure of the property and other assets and up to 20 years in prison.
The notices are the first step in this new effort to shut down dispensaries, said McEnry, who described them as "courtesy letters" to landlords who might not know such a business exists on their property. Federal agents have for years been raiding dispensaries but had yet to go after landlords.
She said the agency has not determined its next step. "We're still evaluating the impact to see what kind of response we get," McEnry said.
The DEA sent similar letters to dispensaries in Southern California last summer and about 50 shut down, according to Kris Hermes, legal campaign director for Americans for Safe Access, an Oakland marijuana advocacy organization.
While that number is significant, Hermes said, "In no way is the DEA completely eliminating medical marijuana access in California."
Action by the DEA would be followed through in the courts by the U.S. attorney's office. In an interview with reporters last week, new U.S. Attorney Joseph Russoniello said he thought most people who claimed to be patients did not need marijuana. But he also said a lifetime of trying to close dispensaries would "be terribly unproductive and probably not an efficient use of precious federal resources."
Still, activists are putting pressure on officials to take a strong stand. The San Francisco Democratic Party approved a motion last month condemning the letters and calling on local and federal leaders to denounce the action.
Mayor Gavin Newsom has been the target of some of that pressure. On Wednesday, his spokesman Nathan Ballard said, "The mayor is concerned that the DEA's actions will leave patients without their physician-recommended medical marijuana."
But Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who wrote the city regulations, said he has not seen enough leadership from the mayor to protect the dispensaries.
"It's an expensive proposition for medical cannabis dispensaries to pay for a permit then get shut down by the DEA," Mirkarimi said, adding later that he has heard "nothing from the mayor" on the topic.
He said the city may need to consider dispensing marijuana itself at public hospitals and medical clinics. On Tuesday, Supervisor Chris Daly introduced a resolution condemning the DEA letters.
Whatever happens, all eyes will be watching San Francisco for clues to the future of the movement.
"If it goes down in San Francisco," said Webster, the activist at the Divisadero dispensary, "there's no holding them back in the 11 other states with medical cannabis."