Remembering The Sunset's First, Ill-Fated Medical Marijuana Dispensary

Last month, we reported on plans to establish a cannabis dispensary at 2161 - 2165 Irving St., a location formerly occupied by a day spa and a produce market. If approved, the project will be the western neighborhoods' only storefront dispensary, but it won't be the first; that distinction is held by the Sunset Medicinal Resource Center, which closed after a raid by the Drug Enforcement Agency in 2005.

DEA agents entered the dispensary at 445 Judah, now the site of martial arts studio World Muay Thai Team USAon June 22, coordinating with teams around town who simultaneously raided Herbal Relief Center at 1545 Ocean Ave. and Medicinal Herbal Remedy at 1939 Ocean. At the time, the City had approximately 35 dispensaries, compared to 28 today.

Sunset Medicinal Resource Center opened in early 2004, according to this Examiner report, which notes that Sunset neighbors were unconcerned with the new addition. A records search indicates that dispensary owner Vince Ming Wan incorporated in Nevada in 2001. Other records show that the storefront dispensary grossed approximately $410,000/year and had a staff of five before its closure.

According to AsianWeek, Wan also owned the Herbal Relief Center, the Private Patient Group in Oakland, and the Medical Cannabis Center on 722 Columbus Ave.

2161-2165 Irving, site of proposed  dispensary. (Photo: Walter Thompson/Hoodline)

Federal drug officials worked with the San Francisco Police Department to investigate the dispensaries and their owners, but SFPD claimed no officers joined in the raids. According to CANORML, a pro-legalization group, 11 out of 19 defendants arrested in the raids had previously been booked for cultivation in the previous two years, but "had avoided prosecution on grounds of Proposition 215," which created a legal framework for medical marijuana in 1996.

During the operation, officials seized more than 9,000 plants worth as much as $5 million and located 10 indoor grow sites. The DEA also seized multiple guns, vehicles, computers, and "an unknown amount of cash."

At the time, the government's policy towards the state's growing medical marijuana industry was not one of tolerance. Earlier that month, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that Prop 215 didn't protect Californians from federal prosecution. Two weeks before the raid, the Board of Supervisors had passed a resolution asking SF Planning to close the Ocean Avenue dispensaries for violating zoning guidelines.

SF Planning's map of potential medical cannabis dispensary locations.

The Oakland Tribune reported that "Operation Urban Harvest" had been underway for two years, during which time agents purchased large quantities of Ecstasy and said suspects had confided that the dispensaries were merely a screen for illicit drug sales and money laundering. Officials alleged that, in addition to East Bay warehouses, the defendants were also converting homes into grow houses, which led to a series of house fires around the Sunset.

Although dispensary owner Wan wasn't charged in the indictment, a warrant was issued for his arrest. Eventually, Wan was tried in federal court with 20 other defendants, where he was convicted in 2010. According to a federal prison lookup tool, Wan was released in March 2014.

Today, SF Planning maintains a map identifying spots where medical marijuana dispensaries may be situated. In the Inner and Outer Sunset, locations include Noriega Street between 23rd and 33rd avenues, a block of Irving near UCSF Parnassus, a few blocks on Judah near 32nd, and a 10-block stretch of Taraval. Last April, District 4 Supervisor Katy Tang fast-tracked legislation that requires dispensaries to obtain conditional use permits, which can be a lengthy process.

Outer Sunset Merchants Association President Bill Barnickel said his group wasn't ready to take a stand against the proposed new dispensary, noting that Tang appeared at their last meeting to brief them on the issue. "They need to go through the permits, so we're a long way from that being finalized," he said.

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