Marijuana `du jour' in Oakland

Cafes: Cannabis for medicinal use is dispensed like lattes in the area dubbed `Oaksterdam.'

November 28, 2003|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

OAKLAND, Calif. - Like customers faced with a choice of French roast or Sumatra, venti or grande, those at the 420 Cafe have multiple options: Pure Skunk or Red Dragon, at $16 a gram or $350 an ounce.

Only in "Oaksterdam."

Here, cafes sell marijuana for medicinal use with the studied casualness of a Starbucks offering double-shot, soy milk, no-foam lattes. The model, as the nickname indicates, is free-wheeling Amsterdam, where cafe patrons openly enjoy joints with their espressos or beers. But there is one big difference: Oakland doesn't have Amsterdam's clear-cut laws, which make such sales unquestionably legal.

The Oakland cafes, which number about a dozen, have emerged over the past couple of years to dispense medical marijuana, which was legalized in California by a voters' proposition in 1996. But federal law continues to consider all use and distribution of marijuana a crime, leaving the neighborhood that would be America's Amsterdam in a sort of legal limbo.

"We don't have the Roe v. Wade for our issue," said Jeff Jones, a longtime medical marijuana activist here.

Many of the cafe owners refuse to speak to the media, saying they fear drawing unwanted attention from federal drug agents, who occasionally have targeted medical marijuana users, growers and sellers for prosecution.

"People do media, the wrong politicians and authorities read about it," said Richard Lee, who owns the Bulldog Cafe, which shares its name with a famous group of cannabis clubs in Amsterdam. "It looks like we're rubbing it in their faces."

With many of the cafes operating semicovertly, like speakeasies during Prohibition, a slight air of disrepute hovers over this neighborhood just north of downtown. Bouncers - often huge and with shaved heads - guard many of the entrances, some of which don't have a name on the door.

Others look like typical, pleasant cafes found in any city, with outdoor seating in nice weather, blackboards listing various coffee drinks and twirling cases of fancy desserts - as well as secured rooms in the back or upstairs or downstairs to which only patrons bearing medical marijuana cards are permitted.

From the sweet, smoky scent wafting from those inner sanctums, and the often blissful looks on the faces of those emerging from them, it's a pretty fair guess what's being inhaled in there.

"I'm not hurting," Kerry Gillies said on a recent afternoon, emerging from one of the cafes. "It helps relax my nerves. The pain is relieved."

Gillies, who is 39 and uses a walker, said he was prescribed marijuana for AIDS "and other issues surrounding the virus." He likes going to the Oaksterdam cafes for the marijuana that he uses just about every day because they offer a safe, clean environment.

"Before, we'd get it through friends, or we'd have to go to hippie town, Berkeley," Gillies, a former truck driver, said of the famously tolerant college town just to the north. "It's better quality here. It's comfortable. It's clean."

Though the cafes have largely operated without major problems, they have drawn detractors. A group for gay and lesbian youth has said it was forced to close its offices in the neighborhoood recently because the scent of marijuana drifted into its rooms and the cafes attracted recreational users trying to buy the drug illegally.

The City Council president has raised concerns over the clubs' proliferation and the lack of city enforcement powers over them. The council is considering new zoning or requiring permits for the cafes, which currently need only a general business license to open.

The reason for much of the problem is that medical marijuana was approved by proposition - as many measures have been in this initiative-happy state - so the law is not as painstakingly written as legislation would have been.

"We just have the people's will," said Larry Carroll, Oakland's administrative hearing officer.

Oakland initially licensed one dispensary, the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative, run by Jones, the activist, to sell marijuana to those whose doctors have recommended it. Within months of its opening in 1998, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration shut it down for selling a controlled substance.

The case prompted legal action that went to the Supreme Court, which in 2001 ruled unanimously that there is no "medical necessity exception" to the federal Controlled Substances Act.

Last month, though, the Supreme Court refused to review and, thus, let stand a lower court decision that prohibited federal authorities from revoking the licenses of doctors who advised patients that marijuana might help ease their ailments.

With medical marijuana laws remaining muddled, the Oakland cafes quietly began opening in the area around the co-op, which remains in business to issue medical marijuana identification cards and sell books and paraphernalia, but not the drug itself. The cafes and co-op are in a triangular area bounded by 17th and 19th streets, and Telegraph and Broadway.

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