Berkeley’s Post-Modern Speakeasy

Investigating the controversial East Bay collective Forty Acres.

In May, federal enforcers shut down the storefront of Berkeley Patients Group, a longtime dispensary that had proper permits from the city. But in a sign of how arbitrary and capricious the crackdown has been, Berkeley’s unpermitted dispensary scene is still thriving.

Told to close by Berkeley officials in January, Forty Acres Medical Marijuana Grower’s Collective, for example, was operating at 1820 San Pablo Avenue as of earlier this week with no evidence of impending closure. The place is a post-modern speakeasy, right down to the unmarked front door, copious security, and grungy, urban vibe.

In a way, it’s also the future of fully legalized weed: The club requires ID for entry. It’s safe. It’s the dive bar of ganja.

Forty Acres is part of an open secret in Berkeley’s medical cannabis scene that includes about a dozen unpermitted clubs and delivery services. The collective started in December 2009 when its founders converted several apartments above The Albatross pub on San Pablo into a clubhouse.

Their goal: an African-American owned, African-American-run collective of growers, distributing herb to locals who need it, with a safe, clean place for them to hang out and use it. Forty Acres caters to low-income, African-American, at-risk, and elderly populations in West Berkeley. The club is also keenly aware of the national problem of blacks doing disproportionately more time in prison for marijuana crimes even though they use pot less often than whites. At the same time, medical weed and pot decriminalization efforts have long been charged as being too Caucasian and male-dominated.

According to some published reports, Forty Acres’ operators said they were convincing blacks who had used pot their whole lives to do it medically and legally. They took two hundred locals to physicians to see if they qualified for marijuana under Prop 215, and began teaching young adults in Berkeley how to make a career in medical cannabis.

However, Berkeley law restricts small Tupperware Party-style pot “collectives” to residential zones, and pharmacy-esque “dispensaries,” like Berkeley Patients Group, to commercial zones. Dispensaries also need a local business permit. Berkeley has awarded business permits to Berkeley Patient’s Care Collective, Berkeley Patients Group, and Cannabis Buyers’ Club of Berkeley. A fourth dispensary permit authorized by the city council has not been assigned.

With a reported 7,000 members, Forty Acres has been criticized for being too big to be a private collective, and shouldn’t be running a dispensary out of a residential space. Forty Acres officials responded that the club should be grandfathered in, and that it was an answer to the lack of diversity in club ownership. In February, the news website Berkeleyside reported that the city had shut down Forty Acres, but we’ve seen Forty Acres manning booths at cannabis events. The club also maintains a web page, an Internet radio station, a Twitter feed, and a menu listing. Last Saturday, the club gave away twenty skateboards to kids as part of the Grind It Out! music event at Berkeley Skate Park.

On bustling San Pablo, Forty Acres is mostly invisible; its entryway is an unmarked door on the far right side of The Albatross that swings open occasionally. Security is copious but polite. Upstairs, a converted residential space is painted bright purple and green and smells of burned herb. Hip-hop bumped out of a hazy lounge. Joining is free, but Forty Acres is fundamentally different than a public, professional dispensary; it’s more like a private cigar club.

Club staffers check ID repeatedly, and verify doctor recommendations before allowing new members to join. Once the registration process was complete, we were taken to the main, smoke-free lounge where Forty Acres has one of the most surly, unhelpful budtenders we’ve ever met. The lounge is clean and the menu is organized on a flatscreen above the sales counter, but the buds are in jars shoved into a plastic case. Presented with a coupon for a free gift, the female clerk snapped “caramel candy!” at a staffer behind her. In the back, a dude weighed out bags and touched the buds with his bare hands. Forty Acres’ weed also appeared to be uneven. You’ll pay top dollar for high-quality Cookies, OG Kush, Blue Dream, and Ken’s GDP, but the club’s $25 eighth smelled like it had a contamination problem. We settled on God’s Gift, a great looking and smelling mix of OG Kush and GDP. All medicine is tested for potency by SC Labs, the club states.

Back in the smoking lounge, new members get introduced by name and the bar area erupts in cheers. Tony, the bar operator, also proved to be affable. Lupe Fiasco’s “Hurt Me Soul” and Immortal Technique’s “Harlem Streets” bumped from the club’s speakers. Posters featuring Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sammy Davis, Jr. adorned the walls. Sunshine streamed in through a few open curtains, cutting golden bars out of the haze of hash smoke and airborne dust.

We saw jocks, polo-shirted engineer types, plaid-clad hipsters, and hippies filter through the club. Eventually, after our fear of an altercation or a DEA raid slowly subsided, we lost ourselves in a discussion of crackdown conspiracy theories and the merits of Hi-Chew Taiwanese taffy. The crowd was more colorful, eccentric, and diverse than any club we’d been to — honestly — and we wonder just how many strange, alternative realities must exist behind other unmarked doors on San Pablo.

After our mood improved, we eventually said our good-byes and got a hearty send-off. Walking down the creaking stairs to the street, we were of two minds about Forty Acres. The place felt like it could be shut down at any time. Or it could stubbornly persist for years until the day that weed is legal and the word “dispensary” joins “speakeasy” and “bathtub gin” in the dustbin of history.


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