350 Dreamin’

Some dreams actually do take shape in your hands. You get to touch the bits and pieces as they come together, and nurture them through to fruition. Such was the case with 35o Divisadero Street in San Francisco California between August 24, 1999 and February 29, 2008.

Dennis Peron’s Cannabis Healing Center (nee Cannabis Buyers’ Club) was raided and closed for the last time in May of 1998. At that point there had been a few previous raids, the most notable one occurring only a few months before, and resulted in Hazel Rodgers taking over as director. Hazel, a senior cannabis patient, had been friends with Dennis and was responsible for helping to secure the 1444 Market Street location.

Dennis was still in the building, running his gubernatorial campaign. All that came to a crashing end when then-Attorney General Dan Lungren authorized the middle of the light raid. Many questioned the legality of Dennis not being allowed access to his campaign headquarters, but nothing much came of it.

Patients started gathering out front of the Club as the word spread. We staffers got there as soon as we were called (early) and were on hand to help comfort and reassure our patients and to keep an eye on things.

The raid was a big production! They had trucks and sheriff buses, uniformed agents, and even a few dressed in khaki and packing guns. Sheesh! Needless to say, the Center wasn’t going to be reopening.

We’d had raids before, including as I said the one where Hazel took over directorship….but this was different. It felt final. Doors were broken down, rooms tossed, the patients who were living there (kind of a mini- shelter for homeless patients who helped at the Center) were cuffed and made to sit for hours on the floor while the rummaging and insults took place.

As luck would have it, there was still some medicinal cannabis at an off-site storage location. Jane and several of us “inside” helpers met with Dennis and figured out what to do to make sure patients could still be helped. Jane took over distributing, forming Compassion On Wheels (C.O.W.) as a delivery service so that patients wouldn’t be without their medicine. As the months passed, Jane, Gary, Jim, Wayne, and yours truly met and began talking about finding another place to continue Dennis’ work.

Wayne knew a minister who worked at the local jail who was also interested in the cause of medical cannabis. So, with an actual non-profit on board we began our search for a new location in earnest. We figured having a nonprofit involved would help with not only securing a place, but getting services and activities started quickly.

We came up with a name long before the site was found…The San Francisco Patients Resource Center or SFPRC. By the time July 1999 rolled around, we weren’t sure if anything would happen. Lots of people were interested in what we presented and couldn’t wait for us to get established. But for a while there, nothing solidified. Then just as we were about to give up, Gary spotted a great storefront on Divisadero Street that seemed perfect.

It was.

We met with the property manager who arranged a meeting with the landlord, their lawyer and interpreter. We brought our lawyer and our hearts on our sleeves. We made it a point to be honest with what we were planning on doing with the space. Usually the second the idea of medical cannabis was raised, the potential landlords were either heading for or pointing us to the door. But this was different. This property owner listened because they understood the medical use of cannabis from a cultural standpoint.

It took a few meetings to iron everything out, but the deal was worked out and the contract signed. Our opening day was August 24, 1999. We had some chairs brought from various peoples’ houses, a couple of tables and an old desk which served as our service counter. There was an upstairs office with a metal cabinet that housed my home computer, a couple of desk chairs and another table. A neighbor called the city and the press, thinking to harass us but it backfired. The press coverage was very positive, portraying us as just starting out (we were) and that we were patients helping patients (also true).

The floors were cement and cracked, the bathroom was in need of a major overhaul, and there wasn’t even really a place for the prep room. One of the neighbor’s calls to the city included the Planning Department. Again, maybe they thought it was a way to hassle us, but in the long run it turned out in our favor.

So much work had to be done, and all of it required city permits! There were the usual neighborhood meetings, city hall public use and land use meetings, and meetings on top of meetings…..which in the end was great because we were officially granted land use permit for a medical cannabis facility….I don’t think that anybody else, prior to that, ever had a permit for such a thing! Hey, when life hands you lemons…..!

From the very first day, we celebrated 420 (medicating together as a group) with announcements and positive focus thoughts, and I remember that first 420 in the new place as being very special as we thanked whatever for the miracle of our new space.

Anyway….through good graces, good friends and lots of support from a community that believed in us, the place was transformed! We were scheduled to hold the final debate for the city’s District Attorney election that year and called in every favor to make sure that things were done on time. Believe it or not, it was done with moments to spare-from new paint on the walls to carpets. We rented the chairs and podium for the night, but otherwise the whole thing was done with elbow grease and miracles. We even had a wheelchair ramp for the bathroom-which was also rebuilt-! Talk about a quick fixer-upper!

Throughout its existence, miracles were a major part of the Center’s life. We went through a few changes-first known as the SFPRC, then in 2001 we became St. Martin de Porres Chapel and several of us (including me) were, after going through training, anointed into the newly formed Third Order Disciples of St. Martin de Porres.

Due to a combination of management problems and the need for the Center to play a more active political role, the Chapel’s name was changed to the more secular San Francisco Patients’ Cooperative and became its own, separate nonprofit, filed on 9/11/2002. Those who were ordained still remained so, and served as spiritual counselors and tended other nonsecular needs as the patients made them known. This included marriages (including same sex domestic partnership ceremonies), funerals and so on.

From the onset, the SFPC (as was the SFPRC and St. Martin’s) was a place for patients to not only get their medicine, but a place for them to relax or participate in activities and groups if they wanted.

And we had quite a roster!
Social Services Navigation Help, Patients’ Rights Group, Kung Fu, Massage, Women’s Group, Men’s Group, Harm Reduction Group and private counseling, Writer’s Group, a quarterly newspaper (Community News & Views-only lasted one year, but boy what a year that was!) Guitar Workshop, Weekly Open Mic, Freebie Bingo, Arts and Crafts, Quilting and Crochet, Gardening, Patient Day Trips and Volunteer Opportunities. I may have misses a few, sorry about that! Patients always had something to do, even if it was just talking with one another….it was a safe, clean place for them to be where they could medicate without bothering anyone.

The Co-Op became one of the community’s main places for holding meetings. We had political debates, educational seminars, book signings and meet-and-greets, along with memorial services and pep rallies. The press came to us on a regular basis not only to cover our forums, but for commentary on local and national cannabis issues too.

In all these areas, the Co-Op was incredible.

Where it wasn’t so incredible was in trying to keep it all going, with the constant federal threat looming over our heads, several management changes and trying to keep up with paying for everything it was stressful to say the least.

To make a long story short, 350 Divisadero closed its doors for good on February 29, 2008 after 8 1/2 years of trying to serve our patients in the very best ways we could.

There’s a lot more I could say about the Co-Op, and perhaps in future I will, but for now I think I”ll stick to how Fifty Five feels like the new 350 to me today. Why?

Simple. Because it is proof to me that dreams can come true-you can hold them in your hand like clay and actually make something out of them…all you gotta do is try.

So for today Fifty Five is the New 350-because dreams do come true and this one ain’t over yet! Places like the Co-Op are alive and trying to thrive. They are not the dens of iniquity touted by failed policies. My prayer is that they sprout up all over the place as safe havens for people in need of not only the medicine they need but the human contact and compassionate care they need too.

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