Ridgeway Smith is opposed to having a medical cannabis dispensary in his neighborhood in Berkeley. Amy Mostafa/KQED
Ridgeway Smith is opposed to having a medical cannabis dispensary in his neighborhood in Berkeley. (Amy Mostafa/KQED)

Is This Berkeley Neighborhood the Right Place for a Medical Marijuana Dispensary?

Is This Berkeley Neighborhood the Right Place for a Medical Marijuana Dispensary?

Update, 12:45 p.m. Wednesday May 11: The Berkeley City Council approved the fourth permit for iCANN Health Center and are requesting the city manager amend municipal code to allow two additional medical cannabis dispensaries.

Original Post:

The first time I met Ridgeway Smith was at a Berkeley Medical Cannabis Commission meeting on Feb. 4.

The bidding process to run Berkeley’s fourth medical marijuana dispensary was well on its way. The commission was meeting to make its final recommendation about who should get the license, and most members agreed:  Even more than four were needed.

As the Berkeley City Council prepares to vote Tuesday night on which of six applicants will get the license -- or to postpone the vote in favor of approving an additional two licenses if an alternative proposal is adopted -- Smith remains one of the few voices I’ve heard in opposition to a new medical cannabis dispensary in Berkeley.

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Specifically, he doesn’t want it in his neighborhood, where he has lived for almost 29 years.

He lives on Harmon Street, about a block away from Alcatraz and Sacramento streets, where the top contender for the dispensary license, iCANN Health Center, would set up shop.

A view of the abandoned Yemeni American Grocers Association, where the 4th medical marijuana dispensary may be located in Smith's neighborhood.
A view of the abandoned Yemeni American Grocers Association, where a medical marijuana dispensary may locate. (Amy Mostafa/ KQED )

The applicant was a big hit at the meeting, gaining the highest recommendation of the commission by promising ownership by one of Berkeley's very own and with a focus on senior patients. The commission selected three of the six finalists -- down from an original 12 -- for the City Council's consideration. The council, though, can pick any of the six.

Smith, however, is no fan of iCann.

Speaking at the commission meeting, Smith said his neighborhood has had a long history with drugs and violence. He’s concerned a dispensary would bring that back.

“One dispensary on the corner, as opposed to people selling it up and down the street, won’t make a difference," says Smith. "Because it will still draw the same kinds of people that came around that robbed the drug dealers then, and all the people who were buying it would still constitute all those people that would fall prey to crime in the area as a result of it.”

Smith walks me through how his neighborhood used to be throughout the 1990s.

He paints a picture of repeated shootings, fistfights, and car chases. He even tells me about a time when someone threw a revolver over his head as he squatted down painting in his backyard one day. The events ranged from being a danger to being a nuisance.

"People would come, park their cars up and down the street, and their friends would walk over and they would sit around and smoke marijuana all up and down the street here, and they would have all their little food and stuff and they would -- after they eat -- they would throw their trash out on the street,” he says. “Every day we would have to go out two to three times a day and clean the trash up off the street." Smith says this took place on his and neighboring blocks in the area.

Fences and "No Trespassing" signs appear throughout Smith's street today.
Fences and 'No Trespassing' signs can be found on Ridgeway Smith's street today. (Amy Mostafa/ KQED)

He says this was the scene he encountered each morning after working the graveyard shift at Oakland’s Main Post Office on Seventh Street.

“The first time I came home and saw people sitting out there, all up and down the street, I said, ‘What in the world is these people doing?’ ” Smith recalls. “First I thought maybe there was a food program or something going on in there, and they were waiting for somebody to come out and hand out food.”

Smith says despite the violence, he and wife didn't consider moving with their two sons until their home was broken into years ago. They shopped around for a while, but eventually decided against the move.

By 2014, much of the crime had fizzled out. He attributes that in part to property owners doing a better job of screening tenants.

During a walk along the block today, it looks and sounds quiet, with overgrown front yards and many student renters.

A roundabout at the end of Smith's Street. He says it was placed there to block traffic coming off of Alcatraz back when car chases through the neighborhood were more common.
A roundabout at the end of Ridgeway Smith's street. He says it was placed there to block traffic coming from Alcatraz when car chases through the neighborhood were more common.

It's hard to imagine a regulated dispensary bringing back the kind of violent crime that street drugs brought. And Martin O'Brien, owner of the Patient’s Care Collective, says the two don't necessarily correlate.

He mentions a few studies, including a 2011 report by  Americans for Safe Access, suggesting that when dispensaries use measures like security guards and cameras, they actually act as crime deterrents for the area. O'Brien says this has been the case at the dispensary's current location, on Telegraph Avenue near Parker Street.

He suggests the real culprit is the continued stigmatization of medical marijuana.

"Even though medical marijuana is legal, people are very nervous about it," he says. "If [one of our partners] posts something about his dogs running around, he'll get 90 hits, or something about his cute son, he'll get 80 hits. But if he shares a post that we put on Facebook about Oakland extracts or about anything at all that we have on our shelf, hardly any of his friends will tap on it."

But Bridget Freisthler, a social welfare professor at UCLA and the principal investigator on its medical marijuana research team, says it's more than just stigma.

Two of the team's recent studies, conducted in Long Beach and Sacramento, showed a correlation between dispensaries and both property crime and violent crime.

“What we’re finding is that medical marijuana dispensaries are related to crime in adjacent areas,” says Freisthler, “So it almost has sort of a doughnut shape, with the hole in the middle being where the dispensaries are located, and sort of around it is where you see higher levels of crime.”

That doughnut is an approximately 200-foot parameter around dispensaries, with adjacent areas defined as those within half a mile outside that parameter.

In the Long Beach study, Freisthler's team measured a roughly 3.5 percent decline in violent crime and less than a 2 percent decline in property crime with the closure of 32 dispensaries.

Freisthler says that's a higher percentage of association with crime than shown by a similar decrease in alcohol outlets.

Her team isn't sure why dispensaries are associated with these two types of crime, but they think crimes of convenience may have something to do with it

Freisthler says three conditions are necessary for a crime to occur: a likely offender, a suitable target and the absence of a capable guardian. 

"Dispensaries are usually suitable targets because they have generally a lot of cash on hand since they’re shut out of the banking industry, and they also have a lot of product that’s attractive on the street market: marijuana," says Freisthler. She believes dispensaries' guards and cameras act as the "capable guardian," explaining the absence of crime directly around them.   

To explain rising crime in adjacent areas, she adds:

“If I'm someone who normally doesn't go through a particular neighborhood, but all of a sudden a dispensary opens up and I know I use the dispensary and I start going through this neighborhood, I'll be more familiar with the neighborhood -- when people are around, when they're not. And if there's an opportunity where it looks like nobody's around and,  oh look, I can steal this bike ... maybe I'll steal that opportunity.”

Freisthler says there's still much to learn when it comes to dispensaries and crime, like who are the perpetrators  and who are the victims.

But speaking to Smith's neighbors, I found mixed sentiments about a new dispensary there.

A few neighbors expressed concern, especially with a transitional home for foster youth across the street from the dispensary's proposed location. Others -- medical marijuana users themselves or relatives of users -- say they look forward to easier access to medicine.

And medicine was the word Sue Taylor, the applicant behind iCann, emphasized.

Taylor, a former Catholic school principal who is on the board of the Alameda County Advisory Commission on Aging, spoke to the stigma she held before learning more about marijuana's medicinal purposes.

"They just see it as drugs, and drugs coming into their community," says Taylor,  "So it's our job to let them see and let them know who we are and what we're bringing."

But Smith doesn't buy it.

Medicinal or not, Smith says he's watched families in his community gradually "spiral out of control" because of it.

"The people that I know who use marijuana as a supposed medication ran into the same problem that people who take opioids as a medication," says Smith."Their family members get involved in it, not to help with it but use it. Ultimately the youngsters in the family get addicted to the same thing. And eventually, marijuana will lead to opioids, will lead to harder stuff out on the street. I have watched them spiral out of control."

There's no evidence that these events necessarily follow medicinal marijuana use. But a recent international study conducted by UC Davis suggests regular marijuana use may be associated with social and economic setbacks for adults.

Regardless of the science, one thing that remains firm is Smith's opinion: He doesn't like it.

"I'm no saint," laughs Smith, "When I was in the military, I tried it. I thought it was something stupid."

I asked Smith what he'd do if the dispensary does end up in his neighborhood, especially in light of the transitional home across the street, the area's violent history and the fact that many of the neighborhood residents are renters today - according to Smith - with presumably less investment in cleaning it up if past issues return.

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He says he'll just keep fighting.

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