Oakland’s Weed Speakeasies Draw Heat

Measure Z designates Oakland pot crime as the police department's "lowest enforcement priority" — yet raids and arrests persist.

Oakland’s marijuana speakeasies — dispensaries that do not have a license to operate from the city — are facing renewed heat despite the fact that we’re in the waning days of the war on pot. The Oakland Police Department has raided at least three unlicensed cannabis shops since December. Police rousted so-called “Measure Z” clubs in North Oakland and Uptown in December and January. And last week, authorities raided “Herbal Wellness Center” at 1921 Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

Despite the crackdown, OPD has been using a light touch when it comes to charging crimes, sources said. One club owner caught with nearly thirty pounds was charged with simple possession of marijuana. “It’s like they moved Holland to Oakland,” said longtime Uptown canna-businessman and activist Jeff Jones, “because nobody’s getting [put in jail].”

OPD’s actions are emblematic of the city’s hazy policy regarding weed. Oakland helped carry Proposition 215 in 1996, and passed the nation’s first dispensary regulations in 2001. In 2004, Oakland voters resoundingly passed Measure Z, a citywide initiative that endorsed full-scale legalization and designated pot crime the official “lowest enforcement priority” for OPD.

According to the minutes of the city’s Measure Z committee from November 2013, OPD’s Sergeant Fred Shavies said that, in his experience, arrests he observes “are made very infrequently” for pot. “The District Attorney won’t charge marijuana cases anyway,” Shavies also told the committee.

Oakland has eight licensed medical cannabis dispensaries. The city’s permit process emerged because an unlicensed pot shop free-for-all erupted in the city’s Uptown district in the early 2000s. The “Oaksterdam District” was tamed, but Measure Z clubs, so-named because they are not part of the city’s permitting process, still exist and typically sell weed to any adult. “They’ve been operating for a while,” said Measure Z committee member Dale Gieringer said. “Most people don’t know where they are.”

Longtime cannabis attorney and Oakland resident Robert Raich said about ten Z clubs are open at any given time. Finding them is easy enough in Uptown — look for foot traffic, a security guard fronting a grimy retail storefront, and a dimly lit interior. A doctor’s recommendation to enter is sometimes required, other times not. Measure Z clubs have a basic selection of cheaply priced pot and hash. “They are like speakeasies,” Gieringer said. “They are really out there beyond the pale, some less so.”

To get a visit from the police, Z clubs usually have to generate complaints. OPD can arrest operators on felony distribution, Gieringer noted. “But they don’t do that …. From time to time, one gets busted, but police have been very civil,” he continued. “The city administrator has been handling these complaints …. Usually they just request them to close.”

According to Measure Z committee minutes, OPD visited a North Oakland Measure Z club in December after it “sold to a non-medical individual” and generated a complaint. OPD raided Uptown’s Sunny Spot Cafe on 17th Street after a buy/bust investigation in Bushrod Park yielded a tip, according to a police search warrant.

And Greg Minor, assistant to the city administrator, said OPD shut down Herbal Wellness Center at 1921 Martin Luther King Jr. Way near Uptown last week after a neighbor filed a complaint.

Measure Z clubs may be under new federal pressure, Jones said. “This came from an inside person at City Hall that the federal government has cracked down on Measure Z clubs and has asked the city police department to do their dirty work and go out and find [clubs] for them,” he said. “If [the clubs] won’t shut down, [the feds] will come and shut them down, but if [OPD] can shut them down, they’d rather have them shut down.

“[The Feds] are trying to say, ‘If you are unregulated, if you’re not paying your taxes, you’re not going to be operating under the auspices of the city, you have no state law protection.’ … Oakland has done its best to try not to draw a light onto them, but when things come to their desk, and complaints are lodged — and it can take just one — the place will get raided,” Jones said.

Minor said he had not heard of a federal request. Representatives from OPD did not respond to calls for comment for this report.

“If that’s what happening, then that’s really a problem,” said Raich of the reported federal pressure and OPD’s alleged response to it. “That’s just infuriating …. This is a complete violation of the spirit of Measure Z.” It’s also a waste of police time and money, especially considering the fact that “a jury in Alameda County is not going to convict somebody for marijuana offenses and the DA knows [it],” Raich added.

As such, OPD files minor charges in hopes of a plea, Raich said. The cops seized 29 pounds of pot from The Sunny Spot Cafe and charged the operator with simple possession. “The biggest problem they had was the security guard had a gun,” Jones said. “He got charged and then the charge was dropped the next day by the DA, because [the DA was] like, ‘He’s a bonded security guard — you can’t charge the guy.'”

OPD still arrests hundreds of people for marijuana every year, the vast majority of whom are young black males, Raich said. Measure Z should be followed to the letter. “OPD shouldn’t be referring marijuana offenses of any sort to the DA for prosecutions in the first place,” he said. “To me, ‘lowest law enforcement priority’ means if there is any unsolved crime, if somebody is spitting on the sidewalk or jaywalking, the police need to do that instead of enforcing a cannabis offense … We’ve got real serious crime in Oakland,” Raich continued, “and we should not be diverting resources to marijuana enforcement at all.”

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