Daly, Mirkarimi Pot Club Battle Raises Larger Issues

by Randy Shaw on October 31, 2005

While the rift between supervisors Chris Daly and Ross Mirkarimi had been building, Daly’s public criticism of Mirkarimi’s pot club legislation brought the conflict to a head. Some have criticized Daly for going public, believing his concerns could have been resolved privately. Others believe Daly had no choice but to raise public alarm over a flawed measure that most progressives oppose. The tiff over the pot club legislation raises important questions about the accountability of politicians to their base, the role of the San Francisco Green Party, and how progressives can avoid personalizing their differences on issues.

Last spring, Mayor Newsom expressed outrage upon learning that a pot club had leased space in an SRO that was part of the city’s Care not Cash program. Although the lease was immediately revoked and the club never opened, the San Francisco Chronicle and other media used the brief controversy to highlight what it described as widespread abuse of the medical marijuana law.

After Newsom called for a moratorium on new pot clubs and the need for greater city regulation, Supervisor Mirkarimi, who was strongly backed by pot clubs in his District 5 race, jumped into the frey. The feeling was that if Mirkarimi gained control of the issue, it would prevent the Mayor from controlling the terms of the debate.

The drafting of new pot club regulations proved more complex than many originally anticipated. As befits what has become a financially lucrative industry, the legislative process quickly aroused suspicions on all sides.

For example, consider the concern raised by the Mayor and others about the relative ease of opening pot clubs. When early drafts of the legislation sought to limit new clubs, current pot club owners were accused of using the legislation to maintain a monopoly on the marketplace.

Despite the early signals that the pot club issue would prove more divisive and time-consuming than was originally thought, Mirkarimi persisted in seeking to maintain control of the legislation. He devoted considerable amount of time to drafting pot club legislation even though passing new medical marijuana regulations had not been an issue in the District 5 Supervisors race, and it was certainly not a priority for Mirkarimi’s Green Party (the Greens have long backed the decriminalization of marijuana).

In hindsight, Mirkarimi made the classic mistake of responding to his opposition’s agenda rather than pushing his own. Mirkarimi’s progressive and Green District 5 base did not see pot club regulation as a critical issue, yet Mirkarimi was spending considerable time and political capital trying to hammer a consensus proposal.

The specifics of Mirkarimi’s proposed ordinance were tied up in the drafting process for months, and when pot club owners learned in September what Mirkarimi was proposing, they were not happy. The problem in their view was that Mirkarimi was paying too much attention to the anti-pot club homeowners in District 5 and seemed unconcerned that those who worked hard to elect him did not support the ordinance.

At a committee hearing on the measure, Mirkarimi sought to discredit his former boss, former Supervisor and District Attorney Terrence Hallinan, on the grounds that Hallinan sometimes represents pot club owners. But most progressives view Terrence Hallinan as being devoted to medical marijuana advocacy, and if he had a problem with Mirkarimi’s measure it should not be easily dismissed.

Hallinan and Wayne Justman are probably the two people in San Francisco most identified with medical marijuana advocacy. And both strongly opposed Mirkarimi’s legislation.

On the eve of a Board vote on Mirkarimi’s legislation, many activists were shocked to learn that it would impose a mandatory discretionary review for both new and existing dispensaries. The measure would also cut in half the amount of marijuana a patient could purchase from a single club.

In addition, Mirkarimi’s legislation would close 15 current pot clubs, and result in concentrating pot clubs in the South of Market. This understandably aroused Chris Daly’s ire, for while Daly opposes the new restrictions included in Mirkarimi’s measure, he was not about to transform a District 6 neighborhood into little Amsterdam.

With Mirkarimi committed to going forward despite the objections of Daly and medical marijuana activists, opponents had no choice but to derail the now fast moving train. Bill Barnes accomplished this by appealing the Planning Commission’s determination that pot club regulations are exempt from environmental review under CEQA. This appeal stayed the Board proceedings.

(Although the Chronicle described Barnes as a “political operative” and implied he was working at Daly’s behest in filing his appeal, Barnes has received no compensation for his work in crafting a progressive medical cannabis law. Nor did Daly ask him to file an appeal. Rather, Barnes’ efforts were consistent with his experience working for the Mayor’s Office in 1998-99 in charge of HIV-AIDS services, and with his ongoing advocacy on behalf people with AIDS).

In this same Chronicle article, Mirkarimi states that he’s been hit with opposition “from the left and the right” on the regulations. This should lead one to ask why a leader in the California Green Party, whose endorsement by fellow Green Matt Gonzalez was critical to his victory, would apparently treat criticism from the right and left equally.

I spoke confidentially with some of the city’s Green Party stalwarts, and none supported the Mirkarimi legislation. If Mirkarimi feels unaccountable to the local Green Party, and if they are not concerned about holding Green elected officials accountable, then what does the Party stand for?

And what do progressives stand for if they sit silent while misguided legislation affecting people with AIDS is about to be passed by the Board? Daly may have acted heavy-handedly when he used his blog to criticize Mirkarimi, but this was better then quietly allowing a fellow progressive to act in opposition to his core constituency (while Mirkarimi won the support of moderate homeowners around quality of life issues, it was his progressive stands and the Gonzalez endorsement that brought him victory).

That’s why Daly’s approach offers a better example for activists than the San Francisco Bay Guardian, which defended Mirkarimi’s “middle-ground” approach and concluded that “while the bill isn’t perfect, but the supervisors ought to pass it and go back and fix any problems that occur after its implemented.”

Right. After fifteen pot clubs are forced to close, and after the Board and Mayor have already spent months working on legislation, the Guardian believes that the Supervisors will restart the entire process in order to “fix” the problems. A “middle ground” approach has never satisfied the Guardian regarding PG&E, and it does no favor for progressives by providing Mirkarimi with political cover on the pot club law.

Since taking office, Ross Mirkarimi has voted progressively on every major issue. He has not compromised on principle, and he is driven by what he truly believes is best for the city.

But the job of Supervisor involves a learning curve. In his inexperience, Mirkarimi lost control of the pot club legislation and then became too invested in its passage to recognize that it deviated too far from its original goal.

Mirkarimi’s pot law push has brought him cheers from District 5 conservatives, but many progressives who worked hard to elect him wish he would instead focus on the economic and social justice platforms central to the Green Party. Mirkarimi is also said to have taken criticism from the left on this issue quite personally, and there are already progressives who feel they cannot be honest with him for fear of being deemed disloyal.

It is the job of activists to hold their political allies accountable. I expect Mirkarimi will come to appreciate those who tell him the truth, rather than what he may want to hear, as his political career unfolds.









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