Medical Marijuana Dispensary Owners Facing Criminal Charges for Operating a "Flower Shop"
The owners, Ruben Salvatierra of South City and Timothy Wong of San Francisco, applied for a business license in July to operate "a flower/floral shop" on Palmetto Avenue in Pacifica, according to police. It opened earlier last month, where they sold medical marijuana to "between 300 and 400 patients" until Aug. 19, when the city's mayor, city manager, and police chief realized this was no flower shop while they were on a recent merchant walk.
Police reportedly issued a cease and desist order, and on Monday the City Council revoked the business license. That's not all: Both men will be charged with misdemeanors, according to Pacifica Police Captain Dave Bertini.
"We're looking at criminal prosecution," he told SF Weekly. "[They] signed an application under penalty of perjury that they were operating a flower shop -- and they admitted that they ran a medical marijuana dispensary instead."
Operating a business and applying for a business license under false pretenses are both misdemeanors, Bertini said. "Nobody's going to come into this city and try to go around the laws and illegally open up a marijuana dispensary," he said. It's worth noting that the dispensary had no criminal or other complaints during its two-week stint.
Salvatierra, who also runs a dispensary in Vallejo, did not respond to a telephone message left at a listing for the dispensary, nor could he be reached at the Vallejo location. The dispensary's website was still live as of Tuesday, and its hours of business were listed as "by appointment only."
Salvatierra told both police and other reporters that he knowingly applied for a business license for a flower shop for two reasons: What is known as "dope" also happens to be dried flowers of the cannabis plant, so technically he was running a flower shop. And he says he had no other choice, because the city's zoning law does not address medical marijuana dispensaries.
"If I had gone in and asked for a permit for a dispensary, I would have been denied before I was even given an application," Salvatierra told the San Jose Mercury News.
That's because Pacifica's zoning laws are a "permissive" ordinance system, which means any business use that is not specifically mentioned in the zoning code and permitted with a specific license is not allowed. Ergo, if city zoning code does not allow for a hookah bar or a medical cannabis dispensary, then no hookahs are permitted, according to Bertini.
That's a familiar story to marijuana advocates, who have long "heard that excuse used when public officials want to ban local distribution," said Kris Hermes, communications director for Americans for Safe Acces.
"San Mateo County has a long history of intolerance to medical marijuana and has rebuked, often with the help of the federal government, several efforts to bring safe and legal access to patients in the region," said Hermes.
He pointed out that forcing a medical marijuana dispensary to shut down is only encouraging black market or other illicit marijuana activity.
Nobody is defending Salvatierra's "chicanery" as Bertini calls it. Still, Bertini had some more choice words for those who say shutting down a legal storefront encourages crime. "Of course it was popular -- they sell dope," Bertini told SF Weekly. "It's like saying if you close down a brothel, will there be more streetwalkers? It's a circular argument."
So then we asked him if legal storefronts are preferred to illegal sales, Bertini replied, "I'd rather they not do it at all.... It is a farce to begin with."
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