Nearly five years after Medithrive — a marijuana dispensary located at 1933 Mission St. — switched from a storefront operation to a delivery service to survive a citywide crackdown on cannabis dispensaries by federal authorities, the pot club has reemerged as a storefront retailer and will host a grand opening in mid-April to celebrate its resurgence.
“One of our attorneys equated the risk of reopening to being less than the risk of getting on an airplane, so we felt pretty good about that,” said Medithrive’s manager, Jeff Linden.
Past a security guard posted in front of frosted glass doors, the dispensary on Mission Street offers transparency to patients wanting to sample its products and to the authorities that aim to regulate them.
Shuttered in 2011 after the federal crackdown, the nonprofit dispensary modified its services to deliveries only, in order to keep its permit active. That allowed it to resume its operations last month as many of its green contenders folded under threats of forfeiture and heavy fines.
But that has all changed in the last half-decade, as four states — Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and Colorado — and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana. California has its own ballot measure for full legalization on the November ballot, and the state’s medicinal cannabis industry has grown significantly in the past few years.
Michael Breyburg, Medithrive’s CEO, remembers facing tougher times while trying to run his business five years ago.
“[In 2011] feathers were being ruffled in the Department of Justice and Drug Enforcement Administration,” said Breyburg, whose operation was targeted along with many other successful dispensaries throughout the city. “I think they were scared that exactly what is happening in the industry now would happen. So the government decided to complicate things.”
Medithrive began selling marijuana to certified patients out of 1933 Mission St. in 2009, although the space has been licensed as a dispensary since 1996. Reaching the height of its operation during the recession, Breyburg said that Medithrive was progressive in offering 401K plans and hourly wages upwards of $20 to its 20 or so employees.
“We were doing really well, but we were also good players in the neighborhood,” said Breyburg.
Medithrive boasted some 26,000 members and regularly donated to local charities. “Nobody ever complained,” he said.
But “playing by the rules” did not spare Medithrive from receiving a cease-and-desist letter, signed by former U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag and addressed to the building’s landlord, said Linden, who began managing the dispensary two years ago. The letter demanded that Medithrive discontinue its operation within 45 days under the threat of the building’s seizure.
“Because of the momentum that was building around medical marijuana at the time, the federal government handed out hundreds of these letters,” said Linden. “That was the end of a lot of clubs because the landlords were understandably freaking out.”
Dispensaries that operated close to schools became a particular focus during the crackdown because of a 2005 law regulating the zoning of dispensaries, prohibiting them from operating within 1,000 feet of a school or a recreation building. According to Planning Department spokesperson Gina Simi, that law has not changed, although a state law sets the buffer between schools and dispensaries at 600 feet.
Breyburg said that dispensaries must jump through bureaucratic hoops to become fully licensed, permitted, and regulated. This process includes reviews by various city departments as well as community outreach.
But because Medithrive’s building permit dates back to the 1990s, before the industry was regulated at the local and state levels, it was grandfathered in and effectively exempt from this process, as well as from the school-distance requirement.
Marshall Elementary School Principal Peter Avila said that the dispensary engaged in community outreach when it first moved into the neighborhood as is dictated by the law, and that despite sharing a “back wall” with the school, Avila never gave a second thought to Medithrive’s presence.
“There are a lot bigger issues in our neighborhood than a dispensary, like people milling around 16th and Mission BART station selling who knows what,” said Avila. “We are more concerned with the liquor stores and the bar on our block.”
Regardless, the dispensary shut its retail component following the letter at the behest of the building’s landlord. “I think anybody receiving such a letter would be afraid. That was the federal government throwing some pretty big elbows, threatening landlords,” said Breyburg, who continued to pay rent for the space while waiting for the political winds guiding the industry to change course.
“It was a matter of time and of ‘who is going to wait who out,’ ” he said. Breyburg continued to use the space for deliveries until beginning to remodel Medithrive’s storefront last Spring.
“We wanted to do something fresh, almost like spiritual cleansing,” said Breyburg.
While other dispensaries have a reputation for tight security and often resemble a “murky, underground head shop,” Medithrive is purposely aiming for a sleek, conventional retail feel, said Linden.
Dispelling the clinical or illegal connotation often associated with pot was an important element in the medicinal dispensary’s remodeling, said Linden. Instead, a glass counter showcasing cannabis-infused baked good reminds of a coffee shop.
The dispensary’s previously moss-covered walls have been replaced by four flat-screen TVs hooked to microscope stations that, at 200x magnification, allow customers to inspect marijuana “nuggets” of varying sizes for bugs, pesticides and mold before purchasing.
The high-tech equipment is a novelty at the club that serves a purpose. “Our permits don’t allow us to have a smoking lounge for customers to sample our product, so this is a way customers can see what they are paying for,” said Linden. “We want to ensure that everybody is happy.”