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To find the Alameda County Resource Center, one must locate the door with the locking steel crossbar and the peephole, wedged between the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet and the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting room.
There are no signs announcing the center's presence in a strip mall near San Leandro, no psychedelic posters, no symbols of the five-pronged leaf with the serrated edges.
The center, one of seven medical marijuana dispensaries that have taken root in gritty pockets of unincorporated Alameda County, prides itself as a friendly refuge for patients who know where to look -- and a place off the map for the rest of the public.
"We operate strictly by word of mouth," said one of the dispensary's managers, who gave his name only as Burnell. "And the patients don't seem to have trouble finding us."
But thanks to a new wave of government regulation, the center is being forced to come out from the shadows. Its managers are making an official pitch to join the nearby manicure shops, liquor stores and car-repair joints as license-toting members of the East Bay business community. It's a reluctant shift in strategy, but one necessary for survival.
That's because Alameda County will soon require permits that will dictate where and how dispensaries operate, a move that is likely to force the closure of at least two dispensary operations and that could radically alter the business methods of those that survive.
It's all part of a mad scramble statewide as local governments seek some oversight of the dispensaries that have sprouted like hardy weeds in big-city business districts and suburban strip malls.
"We've got to do something," said Alameda County Sheriff Charles Plummer. "These places have no oversight. We have absolutely no way to know what it is they're selling."
The wave of local regulation was unleashed last year, when Oakland cracked down on dispensaries flourishing in a section near its downtown, dubbed "Oaksterdam" to invoke the marijuana-friendly reputation of Amsterdam, by limiting the number of such operations in the city to four.
The move provoked some criticism for forcing eight other dispensaries out of town or out of business. But since then, at least 15 communities statewide have adopted similar laws, while dozens more have banned new dispensaries while they craft regulations.
In the nine years since California voters passed Proposition 215, the landmark law that legalized the medical use of marijuana, dispensaries reflecting a broad range of approaches and philosophies have opened.
Weighing in on politics
"We don't all see things eye to eye," said Sparky Rose, executive director of Compassionate Caregivers, which serves an estimated 9,000 patients at seven dispensaries around the state, including in Oakland, San Francisco and San Leandro.
Differences emerge, for instance, over just how politically active the dispensaries should be. The question of whether to lobby for full legalization of the drug in California and the nation is one that divides dispensary operators.
Rose says he prefers that medical marijuana advocates stay out of the legalization fight, so they don't feed opponents' arguments that their movement is really an end run around existing marijuana laws.
Down the street, Richard Lee, proprietor of SR71, a drop-in dispensary located inside a full-service coffee shop, has taken on a two-pronged fight for medical marijuana and legalization of adult use of the drug.
"As people come to see medical marijuana being distributed to patients without any major disruptions, they will begin to realize that it can be distributed for adult use in a peaceful way that does not significantly harm society," he said.
Lee said his activism was ignited one night in Houston 10 years ago, when he and a friend were carjacked at gunpoint. Left without a car, the two men called police -- and waited for 90 minutes for officers to arrive.
"To me it was outrageous that the same law enforcement system that sends people to prison for possessing marijuana was so nonresponsive to an incident of extreme and random violence," he said.
For Adele Morgan and Tony Cassini, co-owners of We Are Hemp near Hayward, proximity to chronic pain led them to open nearly five years ago a business they describe as a "mom and pop" dispensary.
Morgan, 65, worked as a registered nurse for 28 years and said she wishes she had been able to provide medical marijuana to those under her care.
Cassini, 40, lost his left thumb and part of his index finger in a circular-saw accident in 1990.
"Try living with chronic pain on a daily basis," said Cassini, a burly man with heavily tattooed arms.
Doctors prescribed traditional painkillers like Vicodin, Cassini said, but in his view those drugs did much more harm than good. He uses marijuana as medicine to help him cope with the pain that remains, all these years later.
Morgan and Cassini said they aren't afraid of the regulations pending in Alameda County, because they do many of the things outlined in the pending law anyway. We Are Hemp has its county business license posted inside the club. The owners pay taxes.
Inside the clubs
No smoking of any kind is allowed in the club. There is also a rule prohibiting hanging around outside the premises.
Inside, patients enter a front room where cannabis-related lotions, lip balms and soaps are for sale, and sign their first name and card number, issued for Alameda County users by the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative, on a sign-in sheet. The club gets 20 to 30 patients per day. The dispensary is located in a back room of a small building that once housed a computer store.
On a recent day, the dispensary listed three top grades of marijuana for sale, as well as lower-quality, cheaper "specials."
Among the high grades for sale: Sensi Star, Silver Haze, God Bud, Will's Wonder. They go for $20 a gram, $50 for an eighth of an ounce, $100 for a quarter-ounce. Patients are usually limited to buying no more than one ounce at a time.
The dispensary also listed "edibles" for sale, including nut brittle, "kronik krispies," and caramel corn.
Consumption of marijuana -- smoking or eating it -- is prohibited at dispensaries throughout the East Bay. But that hasn't stopped the businesses from adopting a wide range of approaches to doing business.
At SR71, for instance, marijuana is distributed from a closet-size room in the back of a coffee shop. If you want to hang out, you better buy a frothy cappuccino or a piece of pie.
But other East Bay dispensaries encourage patrons to linger.
At Oakland's California Advocate Relief Exchange, or CARE, patients can receive massages to ease their pain and even a free meal.
Occasional yoga classes are offered at one of Berkeley's three dispensaries, the Berkeley Patients Group, which operates a Web site inviting patients to enjoy its "warm and friendly atmosphere."
The opportunity to meet and to network is very important to some patients," said Kris Hermes, legal coordinator for Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group.
At a May 24 hearing in Oakland, patients with such life-threatening diseases as cancer told the Alameda County Board of Supervisors that the local dispensaries were helping them survive.
Muscular dystrophy patient Nick Sottero, of Tracy, said A Natural Source on Foothill Boulevard near Hayward was the only place he felt safe obtaining the cannabis that provides him refuge from agonizing joint pain.
Yet toward the end of the hearing, some supervisors heard their worst fears conveyed in vivid clarity by the operator of one of the county's largest dispensaries, who admitted he will sell up to eight ounces of marijuana a week to any card-carrying member who comes calling.
"Eight ounces is more than any person can consume in a week," Supervisor Scott Haggerty said. "That's an abuse of the system -- and it's screwing things up for people who really need medical marijuana."