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San Francisco Bans Cannabis Dispensaries in Chinatown

After hearing arguments in favor of the ban by other supervisors and Chinatown residents, the board voted 8-3 to change the city code.

Adam Drury

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San Francisco Bans Cannabis Dispensaries in Chinatown
Thomas Hawk/ Flickr

On Tuesday, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors voted 8-3 to ban dispensaries in the city’s historic Chinatown district. The vote changes the city’s planning code to prohibit both medical and recreational dispensaries from doing business in the neighborhood. San Francisco Supervisors say they made the move in an effort to protect Chinatown’s long-time residents and businesses from displacement. But critics of the change contend that the threat of gentrification, concerns over which led to the vote, is overstated.

SF Bans Weed Shops To Stop Gentrification in Chinatown

Centered on Grant Avenue and Stockton Street and spanning just fifteen city blocks, San Francisco’s Chinatown District is the oldest Chinatown in North America. It’s also the largest Chinese enclave outside Asia. The neighborhood has an abiding sense of cultural tradition and identity, retaining languages, religious and social customs from the diaspora.

More than just a tourist attraction, of course, Chinatown in San Francisco is home to multi-generation Chinese immigrant families and many Chinese-owned and operated businesses. And amid rapid increases in housing prices in San Francisco, already America’s priciest city to live in, Chinatown has managed to keep rents low.

But while municipalities across California are going all in on the state’s latest greenrush—San Francisco included—Chinatown has so far opted out. There are more than a dozen dispensary permit applications pending in Chinatown’s neighboring districts. Yet there have been exactly zero applications for cannabis retail operations in Chinatown itself.

And before there could be any, some members of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors took the lead on keeping weed dispensaries out of Chinatown. They argued that allowing cannabis retail companies to set up shop would rapidly drive up rents and price out existing businesses.

Comparing small merchants who’ve been in the district for years paying a low rent to “someone else who can come in and exorbitantly raise the rent,” Supervisor Ahsha Safai said it was easy to see how they’re “no longer able to compete.”

San Francisco Board of Supervisors Debates Dispensary Ban

California’s Proposition 64 gives individual municipalities the right to ban cannabis operations in their jurisdiction. Few municipalities have so far chosen to do so, but there have been some high profile examples. Take, for example, Victorville, in San Bernardino County, where this year’s Chalice Festival was canceled after resistance from city officials who had implemented a ban on weed businesses.

For the city supervisors who opposed banning dispensaries in Chinatown, the issue was a question of access. Malia Cohen, the President of the Board, was initially totally against the ban. She called it a “geographic carve-out” that gave one district special treatment.

But by the end of the debate on Tuesday, after hearing residents’ and supervisors’ concerns, Cohen had changed her mind. “I’m comfortable that it’s within a 14-block, tight jurisdiction and also I think the argument is sound,” she said.

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