Berkeley dispensary to move locations, sparks public debate

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Berkeley’s oldest medical cannabis dispensary, Berkeley Patients Group, or BPG, is moving to a new location on University Avenue.

Throughout its 20-year history, BPG has faced multiple threats of asset forfeiture from the federal government that ultimately drove the dispensary from its original location. After deciding to relocate once again, BPG has faced criticism from some Berkeley residents who are concerned about the implications of having a cannabis shop in their neighborhood.

According to Etienne Fontan, BPG’s vice president and co-owner, a timeline for this relocation has not yet been confirmed.

“When the feds kicked us out of our home … back in 2012, we were forced to relocate,” Fontan said in an email. “This was always intended to be a temporary fix until we could find a space that was similar in size to our original home.”

In 2011, Melinda Haag, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California at the time, began sending letters to the landlords of cannabis dispensaries, threatening to forfeit their properties if landlords did not evict their tenants. This ultimately led to BPG’s first relocation and culminated in a court battle that lasted until Congress renewed a prohibition on federal interference with state cannabis laws in 2017.

Now, with the prospect of a larger space, BPG plans to resume offering services including support groups, education and events, as well as an on-site consumption lounge for their patrons following this week’s City Council decision to permit them.

“BPG hopes to offer a safe, welcoming environment for residents and visitors to consume their legally purchased cannabis without the fear of eviction or prosecution,” Fontan said in the email. “Approving consumption lounges was a critical piece in ensuring cannabis is truly legal for everyone, not just privileged home-owners.”

Following BPG’s announcement, Berkeley residents from the neighborhood near the new location spoke out against the move, citing concerns over the new building’s proximity to the west branch of the Berkeley Public Library as well as the public health effects of an on-site consumption lounge.

During Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Berkeley resident Carol Denney expressed her disappointment in the city’s consideration of consumption lounges in light of its smoke-free health policy, which bans the use of tobacco products in multi-unit housing structures.

Many other residents, however, have come out in support of BPG’s move, citing the dispensary’s long-standing place in the community.

“Having a 20-year history here, we had a large outpouring of support from letters on our behalf, to people showing up on Tuesday night to testify before the city,” Fontan said in the email. “We love our Berkeley community deeply and they showed up for us, their voices loud and proud.”

BPG is holding a community meeting Friday to address public questions related to its move.

Contact Jake Souza at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @jsouza_dailycal.